JEFFERSON CITY — Rock Bridge catcher Tanner Cooper thought he knew what to expect just before the knees of Hickman’s Johnathan Jones flung into his chest protector Monday afternoon.
He had been in collisions before. Play catcher for long enough, and eventually you'll find yourself involved in hard contact at home plate. Being prepared for it is right up there with shinguards as a tool of the trade.
“Everything slows down when it happens," Cooper said. "Then you find yourself on the ground.”
That is exactly where Cooper found himself, right where he knew he would. Except this time he found it difficult to get up.
Trying to score from second on a Jake Cowan single, Jones collided with Cooper at almost the exact moment the relay throw hit his mitt. The collision mixed with the surprise that it even happened resulted in a booming thud that filled the stadium air.
“Then I felt something sharp hit my stomach,” Cooper said.
The ball fell out of Cooper’s glove, and Jones skipped right up and into the dugout safely. It was the player on the receiving end, the one strapped in all that catching gear, that got the brunt of it. He kneeled on the ground for several minutes, holding his side while being examined by a trainer. When he tried to stand, he went back down again.
“I stood up and my head started spinning,” Cooper said. “I felt woozy, kind of a dizziness.”
Runners coming home are required to slide in high school baseball, and soon they might be in the pros as well, the result of injuries to high-profile catchers such as the Giants' Buster Posey. Jones technically did slide, but it was high and late, the kind that can literally sneak up and punch you in the gut.
“You have to slide,” Bruins coach Justin Towe said. “But it’s kind of a gray area. If the throw leads the catcher up the line, you can't expect someone to slide seven or eight feet before he gets to home either.”
Cooper walked off the field under his own power. He will be re-examined Tuesday and expects to play Wednesday in the Class 5, District 9 final, which Rock Bridge advanced to by beating Hickman 7-3 Wednesday in the semifinal.
Losing its starting catcher in the first inning wasn’t the only obstacle Rock Bridge had to overcome to reach the final. Cleanup hitter Jansen Smith left the game in the second inning because of overheating, and the Bruins were already without ace Kyle Teter, who would have started Wednesday had an MRI not found a ligament strain in his elbow.
But the Bruins' reserves stepped up. Brady Pfeifer replaced Smith and had a hit in his only at bat. Eric Kuse took over behind the plate and added an RBI sacrifice fly in the Bruins' seven-run first inning.
"We have never had a year like this," Towe said of all the injuries, before adding how impressed he was with his reserves for producing well. "Early in the year, there were three weeks in a row we sent someone to the hospital.
The one week we didn't, we were like 'woah!'"
Rock Bridge will face Camdenton in the district final at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Vivion Field in Jefferson City.