MESA, Ariz. -- It's every player's nightmare. The ball approaches the plate in a microsecond, giving little time to duck. Then there's the ugly thud of sphere striking helmet. It happened to Oakland outfielder and designated hitter Jack Cust this past Saturday, leading off the fourth inning when Cubs left-hander Sean Marshall threw a breaking pitch that tailed in on the left-handed hitter. "I kept backing up and just couldn't get away from it," Cust said on Wednesday hours before the A's played the Diamondbacks in a Cactus League game at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. "For about an hour afterwards everything was a little fuzzy. I didn't know where I was."
Cust was one of the lucky ones. The pitch split his helmet and cut the right side of his head. But X-rays revealed only a bruise and there was no sign of a concussion. After missing a game, Cust went right back out there and continued his Spring Training rake. He homered on Tuesday against the Cubs in Mesa, his third of the spring and his 10th RBI, both club highs. His .400 batting average (8-for-20) is also right up there among the team leaders along with Mike Sweeney (.400) and Brooks Conrad (.444). It was the second time this spring that Cust was knocked out of game by a thrown pitch. He was nailed in the right elbow at Tempe on March 3 by Angels left-hander Darren Oliver and had to miss a couple of games, leading him to say after the beaning, "I guess I've got to practice getting out of the way." At 29, though, nothing is going to stop him because belatedly in his career he realizes that it's his time. He was a first-round Diamondbacks pick in the 1997 First-Year Player Draft and has bounced around ever since from baseball garden spots like South Bend, El Paso, High Desert, Tucson to Ottawa, Canada. At the Major League level he's been to Arizona, Colorado, Baltimore and San Diego before the Padres sent him to the A's for cash considerations this past May 3. Cust came to Oakland as a .186 hitter with a homer and eight RBIs in 42 big league games. In addition, his name was mentioned in the Mitchell Report as one of the players in the Orioles organization accused by then teammate Larry Bigbie of having used steroids, an assertion that he denies.
Suddenly then he blossomed."It could've happened much earlier in my career if someone had given me a chance to play," said Cust, who hit 26 homers and drove in 82 runs in 124 games for the A's last season. "But it was good timing for me. I've had so many false starts and disappointments that I know how to handle those kinds of things now. I'm more mature. It's much easier." Cust was the all-purpose man last year, starting 56 games at DH, 48 in right field and 14 in left. He never felt comfortable in the outfield, he said, which was one good reason why manager Bob Geren has played Cust so much in left field this spring, anticipating the fact that Sweeney could make the team as a combined DH/first baseman. How much Cust will play in the outfield this season is still an open question. "We'll see," Geren said. "It's easier to send him to DH sometimes if he's used to playing the outfield, than it is to have him play the outfield if he's used to being the DH." Cust can use all the outfield practice he can get, considering that he made four errors last year, although Geren said he's not such a defensive liability. "He needs all the work he can get out there and we're giving it him," Geren said. "I think he's OK. He made a few bad plays, but overall he's pretty solid out there." Cust said he's been hit in the head before -- part of the trade as a hitter who digs in there and tries to own the inside of the plate. Each time the bell rings a little louder. "It didn't make me think any better than I already was thinking," he said. But hitting, now that's a different story.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.