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Poncedeleon sees silver lining from freak injury

Righty focused on positives during long road to recovery following brain surgery
MLB.com @LangoschMLB

ST. LOUIS -- There are portions of that day, May 9, 2017, that Daniel Poncedeleon still vividly remembers.

It was a school-day game, he recalls, which meant that hundreds of children from the greater Des Moines, Iowa, area had packed into Principal Park to watch a game between the Cardinals' and Cubs' Triple-A franchises. Poncedeleon, who had opened the season in Memphis' rotation, was especially looking forward to the start since it was to be his first time working with catcher Alberto Rosario that season.

ST. LOUIS -- There are portions of that day, May 9, 2017, that Daniel Poncedeleon still vividly remembers.

It was a school-day game, he recalls, which meant that hundreds of children from the greater Des Moines, Iowa, area had packed into Principal Park to watch a game between the Cardinals' and Cubs' Triple-A franchises. Poncedeleon, who had opened the season in Memphis' rotation, was especially looking forward to the start since it was to be his first time working with catcher Alberto Rosario that season.

With the game scoreless entering the bottom of the second, Rosario gave his signal: a two-seamer, down and away. It was to be the 14th pitch of Poncedeleon's 62nd professional start.

It also became his last.

Poncedeleon remembers having enough time to regret the pitch as it came out of his hand. It stayed center-cut with little movement, and Iowa's Victor Caratini lined it right back where it came from. The 6-foot-4 right-hander couldn't react quickly enough. The ball struck Poncedeleon in the head, knocking him to the ground. He felt a tingling sensation throughout his arms and legs before trainer Scott Ensell could reach the mound.

When Ensell arrived, he immediately braced Poncedeleon's head.

"I was like, 'What are you doing? I'm fine,'" Poncedeleon recalled in a recent conversation with MLB.com. "I thought I was going to have to pass concussion protocol and maybe be out a week or two. It was once I got into the ambulance, that's when it started hitting me that something might be wrong."

It's been nearly eight months since Poncedeleon took an impact that nearly took his life. The scars and small dent that remains in his head serve as a permanent reminder.

The details of what happened during Poncedeleon's early hours in the hospital have since been relayed back to him. His father flew in from California. His girlfriend, along with their son and her parents, rushed north from Florida while Poncedeleon went in for emergency brain surgery.

He next remembers waking up with a headache, and, later, grasping the gravity of why. In those early days of Poncedeleon's recovery, the doctors didn't speak much about baseball. They were focused on much simpler things. Could he move his hands? What about his feet?

But for Poncedeleon, the benchmarks were always more far-reaching.

"I was already planning how I was going to come back and play," he said. "I knew that I'd feel fine. It was just a matter of when my skull was going to heal up."

At some point during those first few days, Poncedeleon came across video of what had happened. His reaction wasn't one of horror, but rather of disgust at himself. He still believes he should have reacted quickly enough to deflect the line drive.

He feels fortunate, though, that the road to a full recovery had been mostly linear. He spent nearly three weeks in that Des Moines hospital before receiving permission to return to his home in Florida. It then became a test in patience. While he waited for the brain swelling to reduce and his skull to heal, Poncedeleon watched several of his teammates get called up to the Majors.

He tried not to let his mind wander to whether that could have been him.

Poncedeleon also soaked in the unexpected time he had to spend with his infant son, and he committed himself to reading more about nutrition and health. About three months post-surgery, he was medically cleared to start baseball training again. It was never a question in Poncedeleon's mind whether he would.

"Once the doctors went through everything with Daniel, we started to get a sense that he wanted to get back," said Gary LaRocque, director of player development for the Cardinals. "He was extremely positive about the road back, and he was making tremendous progress early. And so every time we'd make a call or get the reports, it would always suggest, 'Hey, he's doing well. He's doing really well.'"

Poncedeleon resumed throwing in August. He rejoined the Memphis club, as a spectator, for its September postseason run. Later that month, Poncedeleon returned to the mound to face hitters for the first time since May.

He made only one request to the players who stepped into the batter's box that day.

"Swing as hard as you can," Poncedeleon told them. "Don't be scared to hit me."

The mental scars had healed.

"He's really ready to get back after it," LaRocque said. "He's a remarkable young man with a great intensity and focus. Without a doubt, he's going to compete in the highest levels, and he'll get plenty of opportunity to be seen."

All that time spent marking forward progress preceded Poncedeleon's current countdown. Spring Training can't arrive quickly enough.

Because of the time missed last season, Poncedeleon began his offseason throwing program in early November. He has also been packing on the pounds after dropping 17 during his first week in the hospital. He's pleased to be up about 20-25 pounds now.

What you won't find Poncedeleon doing is feeling sorry for himself. He'll never know if 2017 could have been his year to ascend to the Majors, or whether a strong season performance would have led the Cardinals to add the right-hander to their 40-man roster this fall.

Instead, he dwells on the blessings.

Like being present for several of his son's first milestones. Or the relationship he formed with Caratini, who brought home-cooked food to the hospital for Poncedeleon's family. Or the heartfelt well-wishes and prayers that poured his way from strangers and schoolkids and St. Louisans.

It's those gestures, he says, that superseded any setback.

"I don't let my mind dwell on what could have been because that's not what happened," Poncedeleon said. "I just look ahead. It gave me new perspective, getting hit in the head."

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

 

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