TORONTO — Kevin Pillar had just one thought as he watched a fastball sail toward his head at 97 miles per hour — get out of the way.
Luckily for him, he was able to do that.
The Blue Jays centre-fielder took a pitch from Boston Red Sox starter Joe Kelly on the brim of his batting helmet in the fourth inning of Friday's game. The force knocked the helmet straight off his head and spun him backwards before sending him face first into the dirt.
As a hush fell over the sell-out crowd of 48,871, Pillar immediately jumped to his feet and took his base, pushing Russell Martin across home plate and loading them up before a Josh Donaldson grand slam.
"I caught a break there," Pillar said after the 8-7 home-opening loss. "It just caught me underneath the bill of the helmet and it just popped right off. I heard it but I didn't really feel much, so I got pretty lucky."
"I think my helmet's OK," he added with a laugh.
Kelly's very next pitch, a slider to the reigning American League MVP, went deep into the left-field stands to give the Blue Jays a then 7-2 lead.
"The fact that (Donaldson) went up there and swung at the first pitch and got a slider, it talks about more than just talent," Pillar said.
Donaldson said he knew Pillar would be all right the moment the pitch hit him.
"I didn't see any panic or anything in his face," Donaldson said. "But that's obviously fortunate for us that he wasn't injured on that play. ... When a guy is throwing as hard as Kelly's throwing, sometimes it's hard to get out of the way."
Pillar, the Blue Jays newly minted lead-off hitter, opened the game with a triple, then scored the first run on an Edwin Encarnacion sacrifice fly. He fouled out and grounded out in his next at-bats after being hit.
Pillar said the scary incident didn't effect his next trips to the batter's box, though.
"If that ball is right at your face and it misses you and you gotta dust yourself off and get back in the box it makes it a little more challenging, but there was so much time between at-bats," he said. "If you ask any hitter that's probably their biggest fear being hit in the face, but at this level guys have such good command.
"When I got to first base it was classy of (Kelly) to tell me he was sorry. I've gotten to know him too and he's a good guy. There was no ill intent there."
Pillar made a name for himself last season as an elite defender with spectacular diving catches in the outfield. Despite often landing hard on the Rogers Centre turf, the durable 27-year-old appeared in 159 games in 2015, the most on the team.
Earlier this week during the Blue Jays' second game of the season, Pillar landed face-first into the centre-field wall in Tampa Bay while making a catch.
"He's hard-headed, that's for sure," manager John Gibbons said. "Luckily (the hit by pitch) was a glancing blow because that's scary, especially nowadays with all the tests they have to do, worried about concussions. But it just glanced.
"He said he didn't really feel it hit him. He knew it hit him, but he's a tough kid."
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Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press
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