JUPITER, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- For most, the fifth and sixth inning of Sunday’s exhibition match played between the Cardinals and Astros was just another forgettable stretch of spring training. Six quiet outs on a sleepy afternoon, played a small town on Florida’s east coast.
For some, every minute of that stretch of baseball was a miracle.
Daniel Poncedeleon, a name many Cardinal fans only know as a peripheral prospect, was back on the mound for the first time since a line drive nearly took his life.
“Everybody has been pulling for him,” manager Mike Matheny said. “We spent a lot of time praying for great healing and the fact that he’d ever get back on the mound, that it’s been this quick is pretty amazing.”
On May 9, 2017, Poncedeleon was starting in a Triple-A game in Des Moines, Iowa against the Cubs’ Triple-A squad.
On his 14th pitch, he missed his spot with a fastball, and Iowa’s Victor Caratini sent it screaming back up the middle. It hit Poncedeleon in the temple, fracturing his skull. What followed was a frantic effort to not only save his life, but ensure his quality of life if he survived. He underwent emergency brain surgery to relieve the swelling and prevent any long term damage.
Miraculously, three months later, he was cleared to return to baseball. In August, he threw to hitters for the first time again. Sunday, he was back in a real game.
“Everyone had a long offseason, I just had a little bit longer,” he said. “I expected to be good out there.”
For everyone else, his return to the mound was a triumph. For the 26-year-old righty, it was business as usual. After all, he’s had months of recovery to process what happened. He had months more to think about milestones. Getting back to the mound was important only in that he meant he could start chasing his MLB dreams again.
“I said, ‘You know, eight months ago or so, did you picture that you’re going to be standing here right now?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’" Matheny said. "As soon as it came out, I knew. But I said, ‘Hey let’s be honest. There are no certainties man. What you went through was tough and the fact you’re right here where you are right now and your stuff looks like it looks, this is a big day.’”
But Poncedeleon wasn’t happy. In his mind, he’d returned months ago, when he faced real hitters again without fear.
“Let’s get that out of the way, get everyone’s doubt out of the way,” he said of that August session. “I’m ready to pitch.”
Sunday he threw two innings, struggling to find his offspeed pitches at first. But he elevated his fastball, struck out two hitters and worked out of a jam. He felt the competitive adrenaline again, and by the time he left the mound, he had everything working.
For some that would be enough; defying the odds and returning to major league action when less than a year ago, a piece of their skull was missing. But Poncedeleon could only think of what was left to accomplish.
“He wasn’t real happy. He was complaining about not doing this and not doing that. I reminded him, this is a big day,“ Matheny said. “You made some really good pitches. You go ahead and be a perfectionist and nitpick what you didn’t do, but we saw a lot of things that you did do.’”
He’ll take that for now.
But before he left the clubhouse Sunday afternoon, Poncedeleon made one thing clear. Even though he’d made it all the way from the operating table to the mound, it wasn’t the end of the journey. He’s picking up where he left off.
“For me it was fine. Going, ‘Alright, you did it, you got out there.’ Well, that wasn’t good enough,” he said. “If I got out there and struck out everybody, that’s the goal.”