Yankees’ Anthony Rizzo lived through post-concussion syndrome for 2-plus months

NEW YORK — Anthony Rizzo’s concern grew recently when he walked back to the dugout in a frenzy after striking out on a pitch he’d normally hit. Rizzo said he would swing at a pitch he thought appeared to be down the middle when it was actually three feet from the plate.

Rizzo is known for having elite strike zone awareness. Until this season’s 23 percent strikeout rate, Rizzo hasn’t struck out in more than 20 percent of his at-bats since his rookie year in 2011. But Rizzo finally has an answer to what has been ailing him.

The Yankees placed Rizzo on the 10-day disabled list Thursday with post-concussion syndrome, dating back to May 28 when San Diego Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. collided with him in a pickoff attempt at first base. Rizzo left that game early with what the team called a “neck injury” and missed the following three games. He underwent MLB-mandated concussion testing but passed those tests. But since the collision, Rizzo has been the worst hitter in the sport. His 44 wRC+, .172 batting average, .225 slugging and .496 OPS since May 28 all rank dead last out of 168 qualified hitters.

Last weekend against Baltimore, Rizzo began complaining of “fog,” according to Yankees manager Aaron Boone. The Yankees sent him for tests by a neurologist, who determined he had “cognitive impairment,” the team said.

“I remember talking to somebody and they said, ‘Do you feel like you’re going to get out of this soon?'” Rizzo told reporters Thursday. “I honestly said no I don’t because I couldn’t feel what you’re trying to feel as a hitter. Now I guess we can put two and two together. Over the last few weeks you just start going to various checklists of mechanics, timing, consistently being late. Why am I consistently late? I’ve made these adjustments many times in my career. I just didn’t forget how to do this all of a sudden.

“Everything (the doctors and I) talked about and everything they came back with basically came back on a silver lining. I’m not crazy about going back to the dugout and constantly thinking about how I missed that pitch because I usually don’t miss it. pitch.”

The Yankees have said for over two months now that Rizzo has been physically fine. When asked about Rizzo’s struggles that began around the time of the collision, Boone kept saying it was just a bad stretch of baseball for Rizzo, who has only had one home run since May 28.

Even with Rizzo struggling like never before in his career, the team did not conduct any further testing after the league-mandated concussion test came back negative because he had not complained of any symptoms until this past weekend. Even after Rizzo mentioned fog, he was in the lineup Sunday in Baltimore and struck out five times; On Monday, he was 1-for-4 with two strikeouts; and on Tuesday he went 1-for-4. Boone kept him out of the lineup Wednesday, describing it as a predetermined day off; Rizzo said he met with a neurologist on Wednesday.

But even with Rizzo’s performance tanking for more than two months, he said it never occurred to him to get tested, though he described some days as “waking up feeling hungover and you didn’t drink at all.” Rizzo thought he was just extra tired from traveling and the drudgery of a baseball season. He said the neurologist told him it’s not uncommon not to know about a previous concussion because it can have a cascading effect over time, which is what has been described to him as what he experienced.

“As competitors, you don’t want excuses,” Rizzo said. “So when people come up and (are) like, ‘You haven’t been the same since the collision,’ I want to tell people that because that’s not who we are as competitors. Still, I feel like getting injured or going through a back injury or ankle injury in the past, you just adapt. Your body adapts. Obviously I did everything I could and it’s unfortunate. The hardest part is not having time because I want to be out there. I want to play, but also at the level I know I’m capable of playing at.”

Rizzo said the plan going forward is to undergo frequent testing and be evaluated on a week-to-week basis. He also takes a supplement to treat concussions. During his test Wednesday with the neurologist, Rizzo said his reaction time “was moving much slower than the normal person’s reaction time would be, and that’s certainly alarming.” The neurologist told Rizzo that once he is completely cleared, he should return to normal. But that timeline is currently unclear.

With Rizzo now out of the lineup, the Yankees plan to split Jake Bauers and DJ LeMahieu at first base. The expectation is that LeMahieu will play first base against left-handed pitchers and Bauers against righties. On days when LeMahieu is first, Isiah Kiner-Falefa or Oswaldo Cabrera, who was called up to replace Rizzo, will play third base. Former Yankees first baseman Luke Voit, who was with the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, opted out of his contract Thursday. Voit has been one of the hottest hitters in the minors. Boone was asked about a potential reunion and — through a broad smile on his face that he said he shouldn’t read into it at all — said they haven’t gotten that far in discussing the possibility.

Rizzo is just the latest Yankee to play through a serious injury. Catcher Jose Trevino was shut down last month after he revealed he was playing through a wrist ligament injury suffered in spring training; LeMahieu went through a toe injury in the final two months of last season; third baseman Josh Donaldson is taking batting practice even though he was diagnosed with a grade 2-plus calf strain two weeks ago; and Aaron Judge has said he will play through discomfort for the rest of the season with his torn ankle ligament.

But the Yankees first baseman dealing with a head injury is the most serious of them all.

“From what I love to do, is there a little bit of concern? Yeah,” Rizzo said. “But just the rest of the treatment with success, where people overcome this — not only overcome this, but the concussion resolves and is completely back to normal. They say when you’re back to normal, you’re back to normal , and you’re not really at risk.”

(Top photo: G Fiume/Getty Images)

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