CINCINNATI -- It was with a carbon fiber insert in his cap; his father, pregnant wife, and young son in the stands; and the doubt of whether he would eat, walk or talk again -- never mind pitch -- long gone that Daniel Poncedeleon took the mound at Great American Ball Park
CINCINNATI -- It was with a carbon fiber insert in his cap; his father, pregnant wife, and young son in the stands; and the doubt of whether he would eat, walk or talk again -- never mind pitch -- long gone that Daniel Poncedeleon took the mound at Great American Ball Park for his Major League debut. Fourteen months separated the righty from an Iowa emergency room, where surgeons worked to cap bleeding from Poncedeleon's brain after he was struck in the head by a line drive during a Triple-A game.
No matter what Poncedeleon did Monday, his first MLB outing would mark a culmination of his remarkable recovery since that day, and a realization of a dream horrifically interrupted, but not derailed. That the Cardinals squandered his historic -- "magical," in the words of his manager -- effort only made their 2-1 loss to the Reds harder to swallow.
Making a spot start for a Cardinals team playing its sixth game in five days, Poncedeleon became the fifth pitcher to carry a no-hitter through seven innings of his MLB debut in the Expansion Era (since 1961), per the Elias Sports Bureau. The 26-year-old did not allow a hit through seven, the only barrier between him and history being the 116 pitches he required to do so.
Thus, Poncedeleon had already been removed when Phillip Ervin singled off Jordan Hicks in the eighth, and was long gone by the time Bud Norris coughed up two two-out runs in the ninth. Norris' third blown save of the year sunk St. Louis back to .500 and erased the most dominant start by a Cards rookie in his debut in nearly six decades.
"This one stung," said Norris. "Some of them sting a little bit more."
The circumstances of the deciding rally, coupled with the backdrop of Poncedeleon's story, only accentuated that sentiment.
A ninth-round Draft pick who'd cycled through four colleges, sidestepped arm trouble and climbed methodically up the Cards' farm system largely as a marginal prospect, Poncedeleon was knocking down the big league door when a Victor Caratini comebacker struck him in the right temple on May 9, 2017. Emergency surgery was required, and doctors wondered whether he would survive as they closed a gap between his brain and dura mater, the barrier that separates the skull from the cranium.
• Poncedeleon's long road to recovery
A four-inch scar reminds him every day of that night, which Poncedeleon said "changed everything for me," and sent the right-hander on a grueling road back: weeks in intensive care, three months of inactivity, his career stalled by circumstances outside of his control.
"That allowed me to become a much better Christian that what I'd been," Poncedeleon said. "I think that played a huge part into this, because without that, I'm pretty weak. With God, I have a lot of faith and confidence."
Poncedeleon returned to competitive action this spring, blossoming into one of the top pitchers in the Pacific Coast League. After abandoning his sinker for a higher-spin four-seam fastball, Poncedeleon flummoxed the hitter-friendly league to a tune of a 9-3 record and 2.15 ERA in 18 games (17 starts). Poncedeleon had not allowed an earned run in 20 consecutive Triple-A innings, and most recently threw a then-career-high 111 pitches in a one-hit complete game.
He eclipsed that pitch total in the seventh Monday, giving interim manager Mike Shildt perhaps the most difficult decision of his eight days on the job.
"It wasn't a situation where he was going to be able to finish that game with a no-hitter. He competed very well and he understood the decision," Shildt said. "When you realize what he went through, it puts things in perspective … I wish it had ended better for him."
"The journey was not drawn up by me. Obviously, there is something greater drawing up this plan or this story," Poncedeleon said. "I just wanted to win, to be honest."
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
A successful Reds challenge erased a Tommy Pham triple in the seventh, after replay revealed Pham was tagged out by Eugenio Suarez. Pham was initially ruled safe by third-base umpire Quinn Wolcott, but Wolcott's call was reversed after a 1-minute, 33-second review. That reduced Pham's long drive to the left-center-field wall to a mere double -- it may have been a home run had Billy Hamilton not hurdled toward the fence to bat the ball back into play with his glove -- and squashed the Cards' lone scoring chance outside of Yadier Molina's RBI single in the sixth.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
After Hicks evaded trouble in the eighth, the Cardinals sent Norris to the mound for the ninth clinging to a one-run lead. It wasn't without a scare that Norris retired his first two hitters -- Scooter Gennett pummeled a near home run foul before striking out, then Marcell Ozuna left his feet to rob Joey Votto of a hit in left. But Norris' luck ran out against Suarez, who socked a game-tying homer over the left-field wall. The next four Reds reached, all with two outs: Norris allowed singles to Jesse Winker and Tucker Barnhart, then walked Adam Duvall in front of Dilson Herrera's walk-off single.
Thus continued a nightmarish stretch for the Cards' relief corps, which has now allowed 21 runs over the last six games.
"Clearly, it hurts," Shildt said. "There are guys in that clubhouse who are hurting, who laid it out there. The more you lay it out there, the more it's going to hurt when you don't bring it home."
Of the four pitchers before Poncedeleon to carry a no-hitter through seven in their MLB debut in the Expansion Era (since 1961), the Dodgers' Thomas Stripling (2016) is the most recent. The others are Rudy May (Angels, 1965), Billy Rohr (Red Sox, 1967) and Bill Slayback (Tigers, 1972).
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Ozuna ran 47 feet in 3.1 seconds to snag Votto's sinking liner in the ninth, temporarily keeping the tying run off base and bringing the Cards one out away from victory. Ozuna made a similar play Sunday in Chicago, which Statcast™ registered as a four-star grab. But this one ranked better: Ozuna had just a 1 percent catch probability on the play. That qualifies it as a five-star catch, the first by a Cards outfielder since Harrison Bader on July 8.
HE SAID IT
"Since the injury, we appreciate all the support from everybody and from the team. But that's a chapter that is now in the books. It's closed. It's past. It's adversity that he's put behind him. … That was the major hurdle. That was the ultimate example of the person he is. That would be the pinnacle of defining him. If adversity comes, he's going to overcome it." -- Ramon Poncedeleon, Daniel's father
"I don't know if words can describe it. You talk about magical, with what he's dealt with, what he's come back from. Making his MLB debut, throwing seven innings without giving up a hit, that's what's magical about this game and special about this game." -- Shildt
A few weeks removed from a month-long stretch over which he emerged as the Cardinals' most-trusted left-handed reliever, Austin Gomber (0-0, 3.77 ERA) will be activated to make his first MLB start when this series continues Tuesday from Great American Ball Park. Gomber, who returned to Triple-A Memphis recently to be stretched out, will be opposed by Homer Bailey, the veteran returning to the Reds' rotation after seven weeks on the DL. First pitch is set for 6:10 p.m. CT.
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.