Joe Walsh produced an unforgettable baseball season for Oakton College.
But the former Palatine High School star has no recollection of how it ended May 12.
The NJCAA Region IV Player of the Year had put together impressive numbers at the plate and on the mound. And Walsh needed just six more outs to preserve a 1-run lead in Region IV Division II Sectional Tournament title game at Black Hawk College in Moline.
Walsh would not find himself mobbed by teammates and coaches celebrating a big victory, however. Instead, Walsh would be surrounded by a group of people genuinely concerned for his health and welfare.
"The last thing I remember is getting off the bench to walk out to the mound for that inning," Walsh said. "The next thing I remember is waking up with everyone (on the field) around me."
A player from Black Hawk hit a line drive up the middle. Walsh tried but had no time to get out of the way and the ball hit him in the side of the head just above the temple.
Walsh wound up suffering a fractured skull and a concussion and eventually had to be airlifted from a hospital in Moline to a Trauma I center in Peoria, where he stayed for three days. Fortunately, he's on the road to recovery and playing baseball again.
"It was the scariest thing I've ever seen," said Walsh's dad Jeff, who was an assistant coach at Palatine and also coaches a summer collegiate team.
"I'm 53 years old and I've been playing baseball for a long time and I've never seen a line drive hit a person like that," said Oakton head coach Bill Fratto. "It was so fast it was unbelievable. He hit the ground and the medical attention was pretty quick on Black Hawk's part. It was a scary moment."
Joe Walsh said he still has some headaches but they are subsiding and "every day I feel a little better." He's started to play some catch with his dad but is still at least another week away from any strenuous activity since he is not supposed to elevate his heart rate after suffering the concussion.
Before the injury, Walsh appeared to be on his way to another memorable moment in a season filled with them at Oakton. Ironically, he played at Black Hawk as a freshman and saw a lot of action in the field and as the team's closer.
But Walsh said he was told his playing role would diminish as a sophomore, so he started to explore other options. He found one close to home at Oakton as he hit .412 with 7 homers, 26 doubles and 51 RBI and went 7-3 with a 3.34 ERA on the mound.
"I liked the team a lot and I liked everything about it," said Walsh, who also played right field for Oakton. "It was one of my favorite seasons. My teammates were great and pretty much everything about the whole situation was as good as can be."
Fratto couldn't have asked for a better addition to his perennial NJCAA Division II power.
"He had a phenomenal year," said Fratto, who is currently coaching first base for the Schaumburg Boomers. "He was a gamer and he's one of those kids you don't get that often. His work habits were phenomenal."
So, it's no surprise Fratto said Walsh "was battling" as he tried to deliver a sectional title to Oakton. But the battle changed significantly for Walsh in the time -- less than a second -- it takes a a line drive to travel the short 60-feet, 6-inch distance from home plate to the pitcher's mound.
"He tried to get his head out of the way, but obviously it happened so fast and he had no time to react and he was knocked out cold," Jeff Walsh said. "Luckily he fell forward and didn't fall back and hit his head again. I was on him in no more than 10 seconds and he was already alert and had been knocked out for only a few seconds."
Still, it was a harrowing 45-minute delay for current and former teammates and coaches and family as Joe Walsh received medical attention on the field.
"When I woke up on the field everyone was around me and it's not like I wasn't given a lot of love," Walsh said of the support from both teams.
"It was pretty tough," Fratto said of a game where Black Hawk came back and then held on for a 5-4 win. "Everyone was all in a huddle praying and it was a situation I've never been involved with emotion-wise."
Fortunately, everyone's prayers were answered and Walsh was OK. Walsh spent the first week-and-a-half out of the hospital basically in bed but started the recovery process by getting outside to walk around.
Walsh is supposed to see his doctor again next week and hopes he'll be cleared to start more strenuous activity. That would include coming back to play for his dad's summer collegiate team in a few weeks.
And after this incident, Walsh wouldn't be opposed to seeing some type of protection for the head for pitchers. It's a discussion that has increased at the big-league level after scary incidents involving Toronto's JA Happ this season and former White Sox pitcher Brandon McCarthy late last season when he was with Oakland.
The Walshes and Fratto don't know if an actual helmet is the answer but they wouldn't be opposed to pitchers wearing some type of protective liner underneath their hats. Fratto wonders if going to wood bats might be the ultimate safety answer.
"I think it would be great for a pitcher," Joe Walsh said of a protective shell under the baseball hat.
The good news for Walsh is he still has a bright baseball future. He has Division II scholarship offers from Tampa and Lincoln Memorial (Tenn.) as a two-way player and Fratto said Division I schools such as Butler and Bradley have expressed interest.
Walsh, who hits around 87 mph with his fastball, said he plans to wait until after next week's Major League Baseball draft to determine his best options. And they include getting back up on the mound.
"The good thing is I don't remember the ball coming at me because you can get post traumatic stress syndrome," Walsh said. "It's a good thing I don't remember because it won't be too scary for me to go out there.
"I'm very encouraged to get back on the field and keep working on my game. I'll get back on the mound and be back out there in the future."
Marty Maciaszek is a freelance columnist for the Daily Herald who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org