The pitch that ended Jarrod Flax’s freshman season was a fastball, high and tight, that hit him about an inch below his left eye last April 21 in Odessa, Texas.
The impact shattered his orbital bone, cheek bone and nose, while also leaving a good-sized tear in his retina.
The Newman shortstop was hit so hard that he only remembers stepping in the batter’s box at Texas-Permian Basin, then waking up in the visitor’s dugout.
“It was like I blinked, then woke up in the dugout with the other team’s trainer above me and getting ready to take me to the hospital,” Flax said. “It came so close that it could’ve easily destroyed my eyeball ... I could only see out of my right eye because my other eye was swollen shut, so I was just hoping to be able to see again.”
He needed two surgeries to fix all the damage, but was back for summer baseball and has turned into a star for the Jets this season, leading the team in hits (40), runs (27) and stolen bases (11). He’s tied for the team lead in doubles (7) and second in batting average (.328) behind Ricky Sanchez.
Newman (16-17, 12-14 Heartland) is in fifth place in the Heartland Conference headed into a key three-game series Friday and Saturday with third-place Texas A&M-International (22-15, 17-10) in Wichita. Only the top four teams in the Heartland make the conference tournament.
“Flax was definitely a little gun-shy in the fall, you could tell there was a little hesitancy on his part,” Newman coach Zane Ehling said. “But the advantage he had is in how his preparation has been the whole time he’s been here. He shows up early and stays late to take extra grounders. There’s no doubt he’s already a leader just in the way he plays. Not vocally, but his approach to the game.”
Ehling saw Flax for the first time at a summer tournament in Topeka before Flax’s senior year at Fort Collins (Colo.) High.
“He was a good fit for us academically, and we feel like he fell through the cracks with some of the bigger schools,” Ehling said. “And he’s been great since he got here.”
Flax started the first 40 games at shortstop last season before his injury and batted. 292 with 38 hits, 19 runs and 19 RBIs. His injury came one game after the Jets clinched the final playoff spot in the Heartland. It also came one week after his older brother, Landon was hit in the face with a pitch playing for Ouachita (Ark.) Baptist and had to miss two games.
Their parents were at that game, but they were home for the game Jarrod got hit and following along with live online stats.
“We could see he got hit by a pitch, then we could see that they brought another player in for him so it was like ‘uh-oh, something happened,’ ” said Jarrod’s mom, Janet. “And everyone we knew that was at the game had no way to get to their cell phone, so we had to wait until he finally called me and said ‘Mom, my face is broken but I’m fine.’
“Their whole life flashes before your eyes, but all they want to do is get back on the field. I flew down the next week for the first surgery, on his nose, and thank goodness the swelling had gone down a little bit by then.”
Flax says he still thinks about what happened, but not often. The first pitch of his first at-bat after he came back to summer ball, he took a pitch square between the shoulder blades.
“I’ve had a lot of fun this year, while last year I was new and just trying not to screw up,” Flax said. “We just need to get wins now, and we’ve had some different guys stepping up lately. We’ve just been a couple of hits away in some key situations this year. We just need to keep coming together.”