Kentucky pitcher Kelsey Nunley had little to no time to get out of the way.
A hard-hit line drive off the bat of a DePaul player in the NCAA Regional Tournament hit her on the left side of her face, but it did not even seem to bother her.
That’s because she was wearing a facemask, offering the best possible protection on her face in the situation.
“I’ve never gotten hit in the mask, ever,” Nunley said. “So that was kind of a shock. I was glad I had it.”
Now on the national stage at the Women’s College World Series, Nunley is the perfect example of the movement to protect pitchers in both softball and baseball.
And she hopes she can jumpstart the movement.
“I think it’s important, especially playing college ball because these girls are strong,” the sophomore said. “If they hit the ball just right, it can kill you. If it hits you in the chest, it can really injure you. I think it should become a big thing.”
At a time when head safety is at the forefront of athletic concerns, teams are looking for any way possible to protect players.
Though the Amateur Softball Association and the United States Specialty Sports Association do not have an official rule requiring fielders to wear protective head gear, some coaches are beginning to ask all infielders to wear protective masks.
“We encourage all of infielders to wear facemasks,” York (Neb.) High School coach and town youth sports director Danyel Seevers said. “We’ve seen too many accidents happen and it’s not worth it, so we ask all of our infielders — especially our corners — and pitcher to wear a facemask.”
Some are simply leaving it to the preference of the player and her family, and that’s what many of the coaches at the WCWS rely on.
“I think right now we’re at a place of personal preference,” Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson said. “I would be not surprised if more and more kids starting to come through that have had it their whole life continue.”
Nunley has worn her mask since she started pitching at age 9. She broke her nose playing shortstop the year before, and her father bought her a mask when the decision was made to move to the circle.
She had already been wearing a protective mask during gym class in school, so adjusting to it was relatively easy. Now, she hardly notices the mask while playing, which is one of the chief concerns among coaches and players.
“I think with my windup, if I wear a visor I’d hit it, so I’m sure I’d hit a mask,” Baylor pitcher Whitney Canion said.
But comfort or not, there are fewer options to protect a player.
“If you’re safer, you can keep playing,” said John Aragon, coach of a 14-under team from Carlsbad, N.M. “You get hurt one time, and you’re probably going to shy away from it.”
There’s also a simpler solution for pitchers: Throw it where a batter can’t hit it back.
“My first thing as a pitcher was throw it where they can’t hit it,” Oregon coach Mike White said.
Of course, that might not always go as planned. When that happens, a mask could be the best solution, and Nunley is quite aware of that.
“You hope to throw it at the plate where they won’t hit it back at you, but sometimes it just happens,” she said. “Luckily, I wear the mask and it protects me.”