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Darin Downs overcomes fractured skull to make the MLB at last

Darin Downs survived a line drive in 2009 and overcame the odds to achieve a major league dream.
Darin Downs survived a line drive in 2009 and overcame the odds to achieve a major league dream.

Bad luck for Max Scherzer, the TIgers and a minor-league player on the 40-man roster could mean a dream come true for 27-year-old left-hander Darin Downs today.

When Scherzer's barking left hamstring forced him to bow out of starting tonight against the Twins, a chain reaction began. The Tigers needed a starter -- Duane Below fit the bill. They needed some fresh bullpen arms, as Below will not likely be able to pitch deep into the game. So they needed to make room for the bullpen arms. A tumble of moves later, infielder Danny Worth is headed back to Toledo as is right-handed reliever Luis Marte. In their stead will be right-hander Jose Ortega, who made his MLB debut earlier this year, and Downs, who'll make his MLB debut when he steps on the mound.

MLB debuts are always a nice story, albeit a bit disconcerting when the Tigers seem to be calling up fresh-faced players on a weekly basis due to injuries and ineffectiveness. Downs' debut might be the best story of the year.

On Aug. 17, 2009, Downs was hit by a line drive in the head while pitching for the Montgomery (Ala.) Biscuits, the Rays' Double-A affiliate. He was rushed to a nearby hospital in Birmingham and spent nine days there after suffering a fractured skull and internal bleeding.

The Tampa Bay Times reported later in the year that the ball hit Downs above his left ear and caromed all the way into a camera well on the third-base side of the field. When he first arrived at the hospital, Downs was vomiting blood and half his face was paralyzed. It also affected the part of Downs' brain that controlled speech; he could understand what others were saying to him but could not respond in kind. Doctors could not guarantee he'd survive the night.

But Downs is a fighter. He held on to his life that night, and soon turned sounds into words again. A month after the incident, he attended a game at Tropicana Field, where he spoke to reporters. He told the Times:

"When I was leaving the hospital, one of the ER (nurses) told me I shouldn't have survived," Downs said. "They never said anything like that before because they didn't want to scare me. But they said the way I was recovering was not normal. I was recovering faster than I should have.

"I look back, and I think I was really lucky. It was a fluke accident, but I think I'm blessed to be here today."

But, this is a baseball blog, and this is a baseball story. If Downs had decided to hang up the cleats, we wouldn't be reliving his story today. Instead he stuck with the game, returning the following year to post a 12-4 record with a 2.95 ERA across two levels of the minor leagues, although he struggled in Triple-A during his first taste of the level. He continued to struggle in 2011, this time as a member of the Marlins organization, posting a 4.29 ERA. But there were good signs too: a high strikeout rate combined with a low walk rate gave him a career-best 4.88 K/BB ratio.

This season, he signed a minor-league deal with what is in some minor way his home town organization. At the time, it was barely a blip on the radar for most fans, little more than a name on a press release. Born in Southfield, Downs actually grew up and attended school in Florida. He rebounded with the Mud Hens, continuing to strike out a lot of batters (10.1 K/9) and walking only a few (2.5 BB/9). He allowed fewer hits, too, and had a 2.19 ERA to show for it when Detroit gave him the news that he would at last step into a big-league park as a major leaguer.

The Toledo Blade's John Wagner spoke to him Monday night.

"I'm very excited, to say the least. There's a lot of stuff going through my head -- the whole road here to this point. I'm back-tracking, thinking about memories, and it's all good."

Ultimately, the roster shuffle in the past 12 hours might not mean much for the Tigers. The players who were sent to the minors will inevitably make their return at some point this season, too. But for Darin Downs and his family, this is much more than a name on a transaction entry. This is a wonderful story of a man fighting back to achieve his dream, one that all of us can get behind and enjoy a little bit more.