SARASOTA, Fla. — Travis Ishikawa doesn't remember getting hit square in the right cheek, only the glance of a fastball speeding at his head, then waking up on the ground thinking his jaw was shattered.
"I have to say it was the best hit by pitch of my life," Ishikawa said. "It changed my life. It went from the worst thing in the world to the best thing in the world."
Ishikawa, a 29-year-old first baseman whom the Orioles signed to a minor league contract this offseason, was a San Francisco Giants farmhand back then. The night before, he learned he was being promoted from the low Class-A Hagerstown Suns across the country to play in high Class-A San Jose.
He arrived in California in time to play that night. His baseball bag made the flight, his personal bag didn't.
Ishikawa wanted to make an impression. He was working on keeping his front shoulder in against inside pitching. In an eighth-inning at-bat, he stayed in the box too long and took the fastball to his face.
He didn't know then that it would lead to him meeting his future wife, Rochelle.
The next morning, the team trainer suggested Ishikawa see a dentist to make sure nothing was structurally wrong. He went and immediately took notice of the dental assistant, but he was too shy to strike up conversation.
"She wasn't even supposed to be in that day," Ishikawa said. "She has come in to help out. I saw her and saw how beautiful she was. I couldn't eve make eye contact with her. I was too scared to talk to her. I didn't say anything to her that day. My bag still wasn't there, so I was wearing the same clothes I flew in with, so I smelled. Two weeks later they wanted me to come in for a check-up, that's when I started talking to her a bit and it went from there."
The couple married in 2007 and has three children. So Ishikawa knows first hand about the value of being in the right place at the right time. And now he believes he's in an ideal spot in the Orioles' spring training camp.
The Orioles have anointed Chris Davis to take over at first base for the departed Mark Reynolds, but executive vice president Dan Duquette likes Ishikawa's defense at first, making him a candidate for a bench role. Duquette has said that he tried to sign Ishikawa last offseason before he instead signed with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Ishikawa owns a career .995 fielding percentage as a first baseman, but his chances of making the team this spring will hinge on his ability to play the outfield. He played just 3 2/3 innings in the outfield last year, but he played 34 games there in 2011 in Triple-A.
"That would be an added feather in his hat," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He's had a little experience out there, but I want him to get his feet on the ground and get started. I don't want to categorize somebody as a 'What if?' but he provides some depth and he's a guy who have some experience on some pretty good teams. He was coveted in the offseason."
Ishikawa is eager to show the Orioles that he can be versatile.
"I know I can do it," he said. "I just need a little bit of time to get work out there, get a feel for balls off the bat and things like that. I'm not going to win any Gold Gloves out there but I think I can make the couple plays I need to make."
Ishikawa played 116 games for the San Francisco Giants team that won the World Series in 2010, so he knows what it's like to play in the postseason. But he's had a difficult time sticking because he hasn't produced the usual offensive production for a first baseman. He's only hit 19 homers in 375 career big league games. Last year, he batted .257 with four homers and 30 RBIs in 152 at-bats for Milwaukee.
But in building the Orioles into a contender, Duquette has emphasized the importance of defense. And for a team that will have a difficult time repeating its 16 extra-inning wins and 29 one-run victories from 2012, improving the defense — a key factor to the Orioles' second-half success — will continue to be important.
"Defensive is something I've taken pride in," Ishikawa said. "My mentality has been if I fail to hit that three-run homer, hopefully I can make a nice play that that'll [help]. Maybe [there's] a bad throw that I can save out of the dirt and save two runs and that can be just as important as a three-run homer.
"This club has a lot of guys who can hit three-run homers too, so defense is definitely something that is going to be beneficial. They've reiterated that pitching and defense wins championships, and if you're solid in those areas, this team is going to have a chance of going a long way this year."
"I try to lead by example," Ishikawa said, sweating from doing a pre-workout cardio circuit. "I try to get my work in. But I'm a quiet guy. I'm always welcome to share, but I'm never going to be the one calling team meetings and I don't think I have a vocal motivational bone in my body. But maybe I can lead by the way I play the game."