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Thursday, August 31, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"Lucky" Soriano leaves hospital

Seattle Times staff reporter

The day after a baseball traveling in excess of 100 mph sent him from the pitching mound to the hospital, doctors pronounced Rafael Soriano both fortunate and lucky — or as lucky and fortunate as possible for a guy who took a line drive off his skull.

The Mariners reliever spent Tuesday night at Harborview Medical Center in the intensive-care unit, and remained there Wednesday morning and afternoon for tests. Satisfied with the results, doctors released Soriano later in the afternoon. It is unclear how soon he will return to pitching, a secondary concern to his overall health the past two days.

"Overall, Rafael was lucky," said team physician Dr. Edward Khalfayan. "It could have been a lot worse."

That was the theme of separate Soriano news conferences held Wednesday afternoon at both the UW Medical Center and Safeco Field. The injury that silenced Safeco Field and sent concerned teammates, coaches and executives to the hospital, looked worse than the actual damage Soriano suffered.

Doctors offered several reasons why that happened. For one, Soriano absorbed the impact of the line drive on one of the thickest parts of his skull. Had it hit him in the orbit, eyeball, nose or any other soft bone, the damage would likely have been much worse.

Being big, strong and athletic also helped. Along with Soriano moving his head and shoulder on instinct just before the ball hit, so it landed behind his right ear and not in any of those softer places.

"Reflexively, that's what happened," said Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, the neurosurgeon who tested Soriano and approved his hospital release. "Pretty miraculous that he was able to absorb that kind of impact and look as great as he's looking now."

That impact occurred in the eighth inning Tuesday night, when Vladimir Guerrero lined a fastball as only a hitter as freakishly talented as Guerrero could — at fast speed and straight back at Soriano. Making his 53rd appearance this season, the Mariners reliever didn't have a chance to react and knock it down. He suffered a "closed head injury" and what doctors later diagnosed as a mild concussion.

Pitching coach Rafael Chaves went straight from the game to the hospital Tuesday night, where Soriano already seemed alert, lucid and ready to go home. He complained only of a headache.

"Very close to normal," Chaves said.

Soriano had a second CT scan in the morning, along with a physical-therapy evaluation (walking, balance, etc.) in the afternoon, and after both tests, doctors were convinced he suffered only the mild concussion and no further brain injury.

Doctors also found Soriano articulate in both Spanish and English, and in good spirits. Family members who gathered at Harborview Medical Center told doctors that Soriano seemed normal.

The swelling on his head occurred outside, not internally, and Soriano still had what doctors called a "goose egg" behind his ear Wednesday that continued to cause him pain. He was taking medication for his headaches, but even those appeared to be improving.

"It hurts where the ball hit," Ellenbogen deadpanned when asked if Soriano had any complaints. "But he's pretty stoic. He's pretty bright and alert and cooperative and doing much better than anybody would have predicted if they watched that TV replay."

The Mariners have not set a timetable on Soriano's recovery, although Ellenbogen will re-evaluate him in two weeks, while the Mariners training staff keeps tabs on Soriano's progress in the interim. Chaves, for one, said he doesn't care when Soriano comes back, his health being the most important factor for how soon.

Ellenbogen said that recovery changes based on each individual, adding, "some people, even with mild concussions, take a long time, and some people with severe concussions get up and go."

Team doctor Stan Herring said that most mild concussions do not leave "significant structural damage to the brain."

"There is a defined recovery pattern that depends on what happens over the next few days," Herring said. "You look for cognitive symptoms, confusion, orientation issues, symptoms like headache, nausea, vomiting, or sometimes emotional symptoms like change in mood or sadness. And time is your ally."

Asked if there was any reason to believe Soriano won't return to 100 percent health, Herring quipped that he is "too old to make promises, and you're too old to believe them."

But almost all indications, at least one day after the incident, are that Soriano will be fine. Which is the best possible news for the Mariners after they went through what manager Mike Hargrove called "everyone's worst nightmare."

The nightmare even became the subject of ESPN's "Outside the Lines" Wednesday. Replay after replay showed pitchers getting smacked by line drives over the years. Some careers were derailed by similar line drives. Most were injured worse than Soriano. When prompted, Ellenbogen addressed just that.

"Have people been killed by baseballs? You bet," he said. "People have had significant injuries. He was quite fortunate despite how bad it looked."

As fortunate as possible for a guy who took a line drive off his skull Tuesday night.

Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or gbishop@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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