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About-Face

Fullerton's Turner has shrugged off last year's scare

June 23, 2004|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

OMAHA — Cal State Fullerton's Justin Turner is back at the College World Series, where a year ago he was hit in the face by a pitch but escaped serious injury.

ESPN reminded viewers of that harrowing moment during the Titans' 6-3 victory over Miami on Monday night, showing a replay of a fastball thrown by Stanford pitcher Matt Manship careening toward the head of an exposed Turner, who had squared around to bunt.

In a moment that silenced the Rosenblatt Stadium crowd, the ball caught Turner on the left side of his face. Besides suffering heavy facial bruising and swelling, Turner also sprained an ankle trying to escape the pitch.

ESPN may replay the scene, but Turner, a sophomore second baseman, doesn't dwell on it.

"I try not to think about it," he said. "I'm just hoping to leave this Series in better condition than last year. Hopefully, I'll be able to walk off the field on my own this time, and we'll go home with a championship."

Turner is the Titans' leadoff hitter with modest statistics -- a .308 batting average with 42 runs scored. More important, he is a strong fielder and a classic overachiever with an innate knowledge of the game. A team favorite, he is known mostly as Red, because of his hair.

Being a Titan has been a lifelong goal.

"I've known him since he was in tee ball," batting coach Rick Vanderhook said. "All of his teams growing up were called the Titans. He was a batboy for us. He was born and bred to be one."

That made the scary moment last year all the more emotional. It was the third inning, and Turner was looking to move Ronnie Prettyman into scoring position, as he had done countless times. On a one-strike count, Manship's fastball bore inside and Turner had no time to get out of the way.

"Shock went through our whole team," Coach George Horton said. "Red is a popular guy. We felt like we got knocked on our butt in the heat of battle.

"For me, it was more about the kid and his opportunity to play in the College World Series being taken away."

Turner was helped off the field and taken to a nearby hospital, then, in a dramatic moment, returned to the game -- on crutches and sporting a nasty bruise the size of, well, a baseball.

His return heartened the Titans, but it ultimately couldn't carry them past Stanford in a 10-inning thriller that sent the Cardinal into the championship series against Rice.

Vanderhook said that when Turner returned to the dugout, it "got us really, really emotional, almost more than it probably should have."

This season, Horton was concerned that the beaning would have lingering effects on Turner.

"I was very curious about that," the coach said. "Is he going to be afraid of the baseball? Is he going to be able to stand in there?

"The very first time a guy threw a ball toward him, he didn't react any differently. That's the good thing. Psychological injuries are tougher to mend than something physical."

Said Vanderhook: "It's part of the game, and I know that he's probably one of the few I know can handle that."

Turner said he knew he was OK when he got buzzed inside early in the season and thought nothing of it.

"I've gotten past it," he said. "I just try to play baseball. I'll get hit or I'll let the ball hit me. Just not in the face."

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