Zach Battoglia of the Cyclones is back to stir things up again.
By Rich Bevensee
It was an ordinary Friday evening, but Zach Battoglia couldn’t wait to set foot on the turf baseball field at Diamond Nation in Flemington. That simple act will probably serve as the most difficult task he’ll accomplish this season.
The 12-year-old Hillsborough resident is a smiling and resilient comeback story because 349 days earlier, he was struck in the forehead with a batted ball while pitching for the Out Of The Park Cyclones Prospects 11U team, a club based in Green Brook, N.J. The blow caused structural damage to his skull and knocked him out for the entire 2022 baseball season.
Fast forward to March 17, when Battoglia said that scary moment was still fresh in his memory, so much so that he was having a major case of butterflies going into his first game since the accident.
But he also knew how important his first game back was to his family and his team.
“It feels awesome to be back, to be around my team,” Battoglia said. “Really, all the stuff about being back is so great, but I would say being back on the field playing is the best part. It’s so much fun playing baseball. Sitting out last season felt like forever. I had nothing to do for weeks, which turned into months, and it turned into a year.”
Battoglia went 0-for-3 in his spring debut while the Cyclones’ finished 1-2 in the Nation’s season-opening Spring Invitational. But his appearance on the field was a triumph for the team.
“When we got the news that he was cleared to play (for the Spring Invitational), we had a conversation with the parents and we said if you’re fine with it, he’s playing!” Cyclones coach Mike Pudlak said. “This kid wants to get back on the field. Let him go back to playing baseball and having fun.”
Battoglia was not the least bit deterred after going hitless in three at-bats and seeing limited playing time, as his coaches were not only erring on the side of safety, they wanted to ease Battoglia back into the game.
“(Playing in the Spring Invitational) was a game day decision for me,” Battoglia said. “I was nervous but I went in there thinking I’m gonna do my best. I played the field for a couple innings and had a ground out and two sac flies
“It was really fun to be back in uniform.” And even more fun to see for his coaches, teammates and family. And the two RBI were sweet as well.
Last weekend at ‘The Nation,’ Battoglia actually opposed the same player whose batted ball hit him while helping the Cyclones capture the 12U bracket championship at the Battle At The Turf tournament.
In a pool play game against Mount Olive, facing a pitcher who inadvertently hit the liner which struck him last spring, Battoglia beat out an up-the-middle infield single in the Cyclones’ 10-5 victory.
The Cyclones went on to finish 4-0 and outscore the competition 51-10 to claim the 12U championship.
Battoglia doesn’t flinch or mince words or skip any parts of the day he was struck by that Mount Olive batter’s line drive.
The Cyclones were in New Brunswick playing Mount Olive and Battoglia was pitching. One batter before he was hit, a sizzling ground ball whizzed by his feet.
The next swing changed everything.
“When the ball came at me, there was a play right before where it was a hard ground ball up the middle, so I thought it might be the same thing or right above my head,” Battoglia recalled. “So when I threw the pitch my body was turned a little and I couldn’t get my glove up in time.
“I just completely fell to the ground. I was in pain and in shock.”
The ball struck Battoglia on his forehead, just above the right eye. Amazingly there was no blood loss.
“Basically my head was dented, but I was conscious through the whole thing,” Battoglia said. “Someone helped me walk off the field. I got in a golf cart and I went to JFK Hospital.”
There, doctors informed the family he had suffered a fractured skull and a minor brain bleed. He spent six days in the hospital.
“After surgery, I ended up with a protective plate in my head – there was an incision they made which went down to both sides of my ears,” Battoglia said. “I got 80 stitches, 25 screws and a biodegradable plate in my head, which is supposed to dissolve in the next 6 to 12 months.”
Then came the really bad news, from Zach’s perspective. Battoglia’s father, Mike, had to deliver it like a late-inning reliever with a nasty slider.
“Giving him that news was absolutely brutal,” Mike Battoglia said. “The first thing he asked me when they wheeled him in is, ‘How long am I out for’? I said, quite awhile. He said, ‘How long? A year?’ I said probably, and now it’s been almost a year to that day.
“The amazing thing about all this is Zach never complained, ever, even when we told him baseball would have to wait awhile. He went to as many games as he possibly could.”
Asked to reflect on his season-long frustration with riding the bench, Battoglia gives the impression that not playing baseball for an entire season was a harder shot than the blow to the head.
“I was really bummed because I just made this team and they were such great teammates and very talented and fun to be around,” Battoglia said. “I came to a lot of games, I dressed for some, but it was really hard just sitting there watching.”
The adults in his life were bowled over by Battoglia’s resiliency and how he kept moving forward without outwardly showing negative feelings.
“What I felt was most remarkable was he never complained,” Pudlak said. “He never once said, ‘Why me?’ or, ‘I can’t believe this.’”
After a year of being shut out from the game he loves, Battoglia was given clearance to play. And during that time he said he never suffered from headaches or blurred vision due to the accident. Remarkable. And remarkably fortunate.
“I practiced at home a little bit to get used to it,” Battoglia said. “I played with my older brother (Matthew) and my dad in our backyard. We have a cage there, and on bad days we have something in the basement so I could keep working.
“There was no chance of me coming back last season, so I wanted to be sure I would be ready for this year.”
Pudlak said that last spring the team was prepared to rely on Battoglia for his pitching and his talent in the middle infield. Nothing has changed in that regard, Pudlak said. His only concern is bringing Battoglia back slowly while he regains his confidence.
“The focus was on him and his family the whole time,” Pudlak said. “It’s baby steps right now – we’re inching him back – and as he gets comfortable we’ll continue to progress him on the field.
“But the most important thing is he’s healthy and back playing baseball again. That’s what it’s about. Seeing him smile again is awesome.”