By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – From his seat on the fifth row of section 206, Ramon Poncedeleon had his video camera rolling as his son Daniel made the slow jog from the bullpen, coming in to pitch the fifth inning of the Cardinals’ spring training game on Sunday against the Houston Astros.
It was a sight that 293 days ago Poncedeleon didn’t know if he would ever see again.
On that day, May 9, 2017, Daniel Poncedeleon left Principal Park in Des Moines, Iowa on a stretcher after being hit in the head by a line drive. He was taken by ambulance to a local hospital where he underwent emergency brain surgery that night as his dad scrambled to catch a flight from his home in southern California to be with his son.
“This is just a blessing, the icing on the cake,” Ramon Poncedeleon said. “After the injury all I cared about was having my son back. We had a lot of prayers. Everybody was praying for him and we had faith in the Lord that he was going to be fine.”
Daniel Poncedeleon was determined not only to recover physically but to come back and pitch again, which he did for the first time in a game on Sunday.
“From the day he woke up, and he didn’t know he had surgery until a week later, he was convinced he was going to come back at the end of last season if they made the playoffs,” Ramon Poncedeleon said. “That’s what he was thinking in his head. I knew it was going to be next year. I told him to be ready to come back and tear it up next spring.”
Poncedeleon worked two innings against the Astros, giving up one run on three hits as he walked two and struck out two, including Alex Bregman, the first batter he faced. It wasn’t as good an outing as Poncedeleon had hoped for, and that also showed another aspect of his recovery.
“Not very happy with my outing,” he said after the game, which the Cardinals lost 7-3. “Walked a couple of guys, gave up a couple of hits. I settled down after the last few hitters, got into my motion a little better.”
Poncedeleon said he did finally feel a little bit of adrenaline while he was pitching, something he had yet to experience during any of his practice outings either last fall or this spring.
“I did not do as good as I wanted,” he said. “My fastball was doing what I wanted it to do. I felt my motion at the end. To me the fact people say, ‘You got out there, you did it,’ that wasn’t good enough. If I got out there and struck out everybody, that’s the goal.”
Manager Mike Matheny tried to remind Poncedeleon of the bigger picture as he met him at the edge of the dugout after completing his second inning.
“He wasn’t real happy and he was complaining about not doing this or not doing that and I reminded him, ‘This is a big day,’” Matheny said. “I made a mistake and said, ‘Eight months ago or so did you picture you were going to be standing here right now and he said, ‘Yeah.’ I knew he would say that as soon as it came out.
“But let’s be honest. There were no guarantees. I told him, ‘What you went through was tough and to be right here where you are right now and your stuff looks like it does, this is a big day. You made some really good pitches. Go ahead and be a perfectionist and nit-pick what you didn’t do, But we saw a lot of things you did do.’”
As he watched from the dugout, Luke Weaver was able to appreciate what Poncedeleon accomplished just by being back on the mound. Weaver was Poncedeleon’s roommate last year, and he was in the stands charting the game when Poncedeleon was injured.
“I can’t lie that I wasn’t a little bit nervous,” Weaver said. “Not because of anything baseball related, just for everything he has been through, the ride and the emotions physically and mentally. It was an amazing thing to see. He got over a hump today, no matter what he says, and he will think about how it all went. Being the competitor he is he will nit pick everything and what he can get better on. But he should be proud of where he was and where he is now.
“As a friend and teammate I couldn’t be more proud of him, to take something so dramatic and drastic and really just sad and flip that around and kick it in the butt and go out there and hopefully have a successful career.”
Weaver knew after the injury that despite Poncedeleon’s confidence that he would recover and pitch again, there was no certainty it would happen.
“Having his room in our apartment, and every day looking in there and he’s not there, you kind of flashback to that moment,” Weaver said. “I was in the stands and I watched it. You can almost slow-mo it in your mind and have a heart attack. We just hoped and prayed he would get better and he sure as heck did.”
Now, Poncedeleon hopes the focus will be on how well he is pitching and competing for a spot with the Cardinals. That’s all he is thinking about, and his father has the same thoughts.
“Baseball is a drive for him,” Ramon Poncedelon said. “He’s one that finishes his tasks and this one’s unfinished. He’s determined to pitch in the majors and stay there for a long time.
“Every single player who is out there has a story and they’ve all been through some type of struggle. It takes a different type of person to be at this level. The tenacity that each one of these players has puts them there. He has it.
“At this point we’ve put that injury behind us. He still has to deal with it because of the interest from the press and how his recovery is going to go. We know in our hearts ‘that’s Daniel’ and he’s going to do what he did before – he’s going to go out there and battle. He’s proven that just by getting here. We’re not nervous about it, we’re just happy about it.
“We’re moving forward. He says he’s good, we’re good, it’s all good.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains