About 15 seconds after blacking out, Brady Zuniga opened his right eye. He was unsure if he still had a left one.
"When I woke up, I felt my eye pulsing really hard," he said. "At first, I thought my eye popped out."
The UNLV pitcher, after taking a line drive off his face, dropped to the ground. As he regained consciousness, he noticed his uniform "covered in blood."
It was April 12, in the fifth inning of a game at UC Riverside, when Zuniga feared his baseball career had ended.
From the dugout, Rebels coach Tim Chambers feared something worse.
"I didn't want to run out there and look at it. We all knew right away it was bad," Chambers said. "It's the worst I've seen in 22 years of coaching. I've never seen anything like that. It could have killed him."
Zuniga's mom, Sally, saw his legs were still as she ran onto the field.
"I thought my son was dead," she said. "I said, 'Is my son dead?' "
Five weeks later, on Tuesday night at Wilson Stadium, UNLV's 6-foot-3-inch sophomore right-hander was back on the mound. Coincidentally, the opponent was again UC Riverside.
Zuniga never backed down. In his first start of the season, he allowed one run in four innings. He left because of a blister on his middle finger, and the Rebels blew a five-run lead in a 10-9 loss to the Highlanders.
"He said the nerves weren't there," Chambers said. "That's a really hard thing to come back from. I was proud of him. He threw six strikes in a row out of the gate, and I said, 'That guy's not even scared.' "
Zuniga struck out the first batter he faced. His only mistake was allowing Justin Shults' leadoff homer in the fourth inning.
"No hesitation," Zuniga said. "I'm confident in myself."
The pitch Zuniga regrets most is the hanging sinker he threw last month. The Highlanders' David Andriese hit a liner that ricocheted off the bill of Zuniga's hat and smashed his left eye, breaking three orbital bones and lacerating his eyebrow.
"I remember trying to go for the ball, and I just went down," he said. "I was just scared. I didn't know if I was ever going to pitch again."
Zuniga spent about five hours in a hospital and stayed the night in Monterey Park, Calif., with his parents.
His eye was swollen shut for more than a week, but Zuniga eventually was cleared by a doctor to resume pitching. He had faced only a handful of batters in practices before returning Tuesday. Zuniga's parents and six others traveled from California for the game.
"He was surprised," said his dad, Anthony. "He didn't think any of us would be here."
Zuniga went 5-1 with a 4.80 ERA, third lowest on the team, as a freshman. Chambers said he will pitch him again this weekend when the Rebels (32-21) close the regular season against San Diego State.
He has cleared one psychological hurdle. But a skull fracture that left a small, permanent dent near his eye won't allow him to forget the incident.
"I never imagined getting hit in the face," Zuniga said. "It was very traumatic."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907.