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Ohtani electric, erratic in Spring Training debut

Righty shows diverse repertoire, including 69-mph curve, vs. Brewers
MLB.com @mi_guardado

TEMPE, Ariz. -- It wasn't perfect, but it was a start. Angels two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani allowed two runs (one unearned) over 1 1/3 innings in his highly anticipated Cactus League debut against the Brewers on Saturday at Tempe Diablo Stadium.

Ohtani gave up two hits, including a leadoff home run to Keon Broxton in the second inning, while striking out two, walking one and throwing 31 pitches. The 23-year-old Japanese sensation battled command issues but also showed flashes of his impressive arsenal, with a fastball that topped out at 97 mph and some impressive secondary pitches, including a 69-mph curveball.

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- It wasn't perfect, but it was a start. Angels two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani allowed two runs (one unearned) over 1 1/3 innings in his highly anticipated Cactus League debut against the Brewers on Saturday at Tempe Diablo Stadium.

Ohtani gave up two hits, including a leadoff home run to Keon Broxton in the second inning, while striking out two, walking one and throwing 31 pitches. The 23-year-old Japanese sensation battled command issues but also showed flashes of his impressive arsenal, with a fastball that topped out at 97 mph and some impressive secondary pitches, including a 69-mph curveball.

View Full Game Coverage

In the first inning, Ohtani gave up a leadoff double to Jonathan Villar, who opened the game by lifting a 3-1 pitch over the head of center fielder Eric Young Jr. Ohtani then struck out Nate Orf swinging before walking Ji-Man Choi to put runners on first and second.

The Brewers scored their first run of the game after Villar advanced to third on a wild pitch then scored on a throwing error by catcher Martin Maldonado, but Ohtani stranded Choi at third by striking out Brett Phillips looking to end the inning.

Ohtani returned to the mound for the second, but he surrendered a leadoff homer to Broxton, which tied the game at 2. Ohtani then capped his outing by inducing a flyout from Nick Franklin.

Maria Guardado covers the Angels for MLB.com.

Los Angeles Angels, Shohei Ohtani

1 year ago, Judge's eye-popping HR set stage

Revisiting rookie sensation's first spring blast, rise to stardom
MLB.com @BryanHoch

TAMPA, Fla. -- The phrase "All Rise" had yet to be linked to the rookie outfielder with the hulking football build, to say nothing of a dedicated seating area that debuted at Yankee Stadium three months later, celebrating both his immense power and fan appeal.

Yet we should have known that Aaron Judge was about to accomplish special things. It was one year ago today, Feb. 24, 2017, that Judge dropped jaws with a monstrous home run that clanged off of George M. Steinbrenner Field's scoreboard in the Yankees' first home game of the spring.

TAMPA, Fla. -- The phrase "All Rise" had yet to be linked to the rookie outfielder with the hulking football build, to say nothing of a dedicated seating area that debuted at Yankee Stadium three months later, celebrating both his immense power and fan appeal.

Yet we should have known that Aaron Judge was about to accomplish special things. It was one year ago today, Feb. 24, 2017, that Judge dropped jaws with a monstrous home run that clanged off of George M. Steinbrenner Field's scoreboard in the Yankees' first home game of the spring.

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The fifth-inning blast off of Phillies left-hander Elniery Garcia was an appetizer for the greatness to come. MLB.com is marking the first anniversary of that moment with remembrances of that swing and the ones that followed for the reigning American League Rookie of the Year.

Judge, outfielder: "I was still thinking about my first at-bat, taking a first-pitch strike and getting behind, and eventually striking out that first at-bat. I told myself just going into it, 'Hey, if that first pitch is there, you're in a game. Compete! If he leaves it right in the middle, take a good swing at it.'"

Garcia challenged Judge with a 93-mph, first-pitch fastball, a little above belt-high. Judge was ready.

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Judge: "I took a good swing, and it was a hot spring day here in Tampa, with the wind blowing out. I was able to get it off that Budweiser sign."

Phillies left fielder Tyler Goeddel and center fielder Roman Quinn hardly moved in pursuit, while catcher Andrew Knapp craned his neck for a better view. In the Yankees' dugout, most of Judge's teammates marveled.

Luis Severino, pitcher: "I was here. I've been playing with him since maybe 2014, so I'm used to seeing those kinds of homers. I wasn't that impressed for that. I've seen it before."

Tyler Wade, infielder: "When you're that strong and that big and you can connect with the ball when you haven't seen pitching in six months, and you can do that, that's pretty special."

Austin Romine, catcher: "I'm sure everybody was talking about it throughout the camp. Any time somebody hits the ball really far, everybody talks about it."

Judge: "The longest one I got here, I think I got one over the scoreboard, but I think that was in batting practice. I don't even know. The wind was blowing out, too, so it probably pushed it out a little bit."

Judge homered in his first Major League at-bat on Aug. 13, 2016, going back-to-back with Tyler Austin off the Rays' Matt Andriese, but his first taste of the big leagues produced mixed results. Judge hit .179 with 42 strikeouts in 84 at-bats before sustaining a season-ending oblique injury. Returning home to California, Judge etched ".179" atop the notes folder of his iPhone, vowing to use the digits as fuel for his winter workouts.

Video: TB@NYY: Statcast™ on Judge's 446-foot milestone homer

Greg Bird, first baseman: "Early on in spring, I would just check in with him. He would tell me, 'I'm ready. I'm good.' There was a lot of chatter last spring for him, in general. He would say, 'I'm good.' That was all I needed to hear from him."

Judge: "In the offseason, the work I was putting in, how my body was feeling -- I knew that the way my swing was feeling, we had a chance to do something special. You're never given anything, especially with the season I had before that. There were a lot of question marks. I knew I had a chance of making this team. I just wanted to go out there and prove it and give it my best shot, and just leave everything out on the table. Through all the hard work in the offseason, I felt like I had a pretty good chance of doing something."

Wade: "When I see a guy like that work so hard, I can see it progressively getting better and better throughout the spring in his at-bats. I was like, 'It's only a matter of time before it clicks,' and it did. Be yourself and just work hard. Don't let anyone outwork you. I asked him this year, 'Hey, I'm kind of in the same situation you were last year -- you came off a tough rookie year. What was your mindset?' He goes, 'Dude, just come in and work your butt off. Just stick to the process and things are going to work out.'"

The homer was one of three Judge hit in the spring of 2017, batting .333/.391/.540 in 25 games as he edged Aaron Hicks (.268/.379/.518) and was named the Yankees' Opening Day right fielder.

Video: NYY@PHI: Judge cranks opposite-field solo home run

Brian Cashman, general manager: "I'd say halfway through camp, Hicks was winning by a hair. The last two or three weeks of camp, Hicks didn't necessarily lose it as much as Judge took it. That wasn't false conversations. If Hicks wins the everyday job, then having Judge with options versus having Judge come off the bench, him coming off the bench would serve him no good. It was more like, you've got to win that everyday job or you're going to Triple-A, and he knew that."

Judge: "[Spring Training] didn't start off too well with the strikeout in the first at-bat, but just being able to make solid contact, I was happy with the swing. I felt comfortable in the box. That's all I was looking for. If I'm making consistent contact, even if they're outs or right at somebody, if I'm just making consistent contact, I'm happy."

CC Sabathia, pitcher: "He was fighting for a job. We just wanted him to feel comfortable and make the team and just be on the Opening Day roster. Everything that came after that was just amazing and not a surprise, but the icing on the top."

Romine: "Any time you look at Judge, you can see the possibility of unbelievable things. He's an unbelievable athlete. I knew his swing was in a better place, I knew he was comfortable, but no one could have predicted what he did."

Reggie Jackson, special advisor: "Our owner, Hal Steinbrenner, wanted him in the big leagues in 2017. We were going to take a chance one way or the other, and he was going to make it or fail because he was going to get a chance to play. Our owner saw to that, our general manager made sure he was there, and of course, our manager [Joe Girardi] put him on the field."

Judge's first homer of the regular season came on April 9, off the Orioles' Michael Givens. His teammates quickly learned to pay attention during batting practice, not wanting to miss the next fireworks display.

Video: NYY@BAL: Judge ties the game, fan excited over catch

Adam Warren, pitcher: "When he first got drafted [in 2013], we were in Oakland. He came out and took BP with us. The ball sounded so much different off of his bat. You're talking about hitting with a bunch of big league guys. He was just out of college. You just knew right then why he was drafted and what kind of potential he had with the power. The best part about shagging BP for a pitcher is watching him. He hits balls where you've never even thought balls will be hit."

Bird: "I just know Judgey and know what he's capable of, and know how much work he puts in in the offseason. When he told me that he was ready, that was all I needed to know. He was confident, his work was good, he was sticking to what he knew and what he wanted to do. There's always been a lot of people helping him and around him. He's just very good at getting what he needs to get done, and saying thanks and being polite, but doing what he needs to do and taking care of his work."

Judge set a Major League rookie record by hitting 52 homers, highlighting a remarkable season that also included a winning performance at the T-Mobile Home Run Derby in July. Judge was named the unanimous AL Rookie of the Year and finished second in the MVP Award chase to the Astros' Jose Altuve.

Video: Must C Crushed: Aaron Judge hits homer number 52

Severino: "Everybody was expecting that [Judge would be successful], but nothing crazy like what he did. I think he changed a little bit with his mechanics, how he hits. I thought maybe there was a good chance for him to have a good year, but nothing crazy like what he did."

P.J. Pilittere, assistant hitting coach: "There's a million people in the organization who had a hand in helping that guy speed the process up. He's such a genuine guy. What he gives the world and the media is the truth. It is a really clear picture of who he is as a person, and that personality is infectious. He's really fun to be around."

Sabathia: "I think everybody knew what he was capable of doing, you know what I'm saying? But to have him do that throughout the whole year was amazing to watch, especially his first season."

With the December 2017 acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton, the Yankees created a tandem that has been likened to the modern-day version of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Despite the star power, Judge said that he is taking the same approach that helped him be successful in 2017.

Judge: "You're always still trying to win a job. That's everyone's mindset, come in here and fight for your job, win a job. Getting a chance to be with the team all of last year, you're more familiar with things, which is a little bit easier for me. But I've still got to fight for a job or my spot, just like everybody else."

Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and on Facebook.

New York Yankees, Aaron Judge

Notebook: Rays rebuild, Realmuto, more

MLB.com @feinsand

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It was a tumultuous week around Rays camp following the trades of Jake Odorizzi, Steven Souza Jr. and Corey Dickerson, but the initial storm seems to have passed, leaving Tampa Bay determined to prove its doubters wrong.

Chris Archer -- a popular name on the trade market this offseason -- and Kevin Kiermaier were both critical after the Rays dealt away some of their core pieces. But according to those around the team, the pair has helped set the tone in recent days, preaching positivity as they try to compete with the rest of the loaded American League East.

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It was a tumultuous week around Rays camp following the trades of Jake Odorizzi, Steven Souza Jr. and Corey Dickerson, but the initial storm seems to have passed, leaving Tampa Bay determined to prove its doubters wrong.

Chris Archer -- a popular name on the trade market this offseason -- and Kevin Kiermaier were both critical after the Rays dealt away some of their core pieces. But according to those around the team, the pair has helped set the tone in recent days, preaching positivity as they try to compete with the rest of the loaded American League East.

"I could not be more impressed with the way they have handled it," manager Kevin Cash said. "There were a couple of statements made after the Souza and Dickerson moves; I give a ton of credit to the players and some of the credit to Erik [Neander] and Chaim [Bloom] for reaching out. They did a good job of communicating the Souza decision. I think the players have responded well. It's OK for a little shock to the system every once in a while; it was a shock to all of us. They came in, said the right things and are handling themselves really well right now."

Neander and Bloom, who run the Rays' baseball operations department, were aware that the moves might be unpopular within the clubhouse, making it crucial to keep the remaining players in the loop regarding the team's long-term plans.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"It was definitely an emotional week, but I really have to compliment the group," Bloom said. "I think we've come out of this in about as good a spot as we could have hoped, knowing that guys are losing teammates that they've come to know, guys whose accomplishments on the field they really respect. It's been really nice to see that our players -- especially some of the guys who have been here the longest, the veterans on our club -- are very forward-looking. They're focused on rallying the group and proving people wrong about what we can accomplish this year."

Such an issue might have been easier to handle had Evan Longoria still been around, but the Rays traded their de facto captain in December, leaving a leadership void in the clubhouse.

"What he has meant to this organization is unique, and it will be a long time before a anybody else can mean as much to this organization as he has and still does," Bloom said. "But we have a lot of good players here, and this is an opportunity for some guys to step up and take more of a leadership role. We have the right guys in this mix to do it."

Archer and Kiermaier are two of the players expected to handle much of that load, and while Archer will undoubtedly continue to be the subject of trade buzz, it appears the Rays are counting on him to be one of their cornerstones moving forward.

"I take it as a compliment; when you have a player and a person as special as Chris Archer, you're going to have people knocking on your door," Bloom said of the continued trade interest. "But he's exactly the type of player that we're looking to build around. We need more people like Chris Archer in this clubhouse if we're going to get where we want to go."

Fresh catch
Another player linked to several trade rumors has been Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, one of the few name players still in Miami following the offseason trades of Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich and Dee Gordon.

Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill believes that Realmuto can be a foundation for the team as it moves forward, and that by the end of the 2018 season, he can be a much bigger name in the game.

"J.T. is drafted by the Marlins and developed by the Marlins and got to the big leagues as a Marlin; all my conversations with him have been that he's a part of what we're building," Hill said. "He's a tremendously talented catcher, and we're happy that he's a part of what we have here. I think you're still scratching the surface with his ability. The nation doesn't know how good he is."

The turnover in Miami may have some fans frustrated, but Hill was gushing as he spoke of the vibe around camp in the early days of Spring Training.

Video: Michael Hill optimistic about Marlins' 2018 roster

"It's been energy," Hill said. "Energy, excitement; there's definitely an optimism surrounding this group of players for the opportunity that's in front of them. They all come excited and ready to compete, doing everything in their power every day to make themselves better."

Trust is a process
In addition to adding names such as Ozuna, Luke Gregerson and Bud Norris among others this offseason, the Cardinals hired longtime pitching coach Mike Maddux.

According to general manager Mike Girsch, the early reviews have been nothing short of spectacular.

"He has a great rapport with people; he's one of those guys you don't have to know very long to feel like you've known him a long time," Girsch said. "You talk about analytics and getting players to buy into making changes, but the most important thing is that players trust you. Mike has done a really good job -- and we're only a week or two into camp -- in building those relationships and building trust. He has a 10- or 15-year history of successful pitching staffs that gives players that confidence."

Are we there yet?
While many teams around the Majors will spend the next five weeks sorting out their rosters and monitoring position battles, the Astros' roster is close to complete.

Video: Tony Kemp on making Astros Opening Day roster

The reigning World Series champions have no battles at any everyday spots, their rotation is seven deep and only one spot in the bullpen is really up for grabs. Their biggest concern in late February? Staying healthy.

"I wish we could just fast-forward to Opening Day," one team official said.

Mark Feinsand, an executive reporter, originally joined MLB.com as a reporter in 2001.

Chris Archer, J.T. Realmuto

Sale throws 1st live BP, loving scaled-back ST

Cora soaking up gems from La Russa; Elias sharp in rotation audition
MLB.com @IanMBrowne

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A couple of hours before his team took the field for a Grapefruit League game against the Rays on Saturday, Red Sox ace Chris Sale was on Field 5 airing it out for his first live batting practice of Spring Training.

In most other years, Sale would have made his first start at some point over this weekend. But the Red Sox are not only using a scaled-back approach for Sale in Spring Training, but the same goes for David Price, Rick Porcello and Drew Pomeranz.

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A couple of hours before his team took the field for a Grapefruit League game against the Rays on Saturday, Red Sox ace Chris Sale was on Field 5 airing it out for his first live batting practice of Spring Training.

In most other years, Sale would have made his first start at some point over this weekend. But the Red Sox are not only using a scaled-back approach for Sale in Spring Training, but the same goes for David Price, Rick Porcello and Drew Pomeranz.

View Full Game Coverage

All four starters will make their Grapefruit League debuts at some point after March 1.

Spring Training: Info | Tickets | Schedule | Gear

"It's been really good," said Sale. "I think this has been a pretty neat Spring Training just with the scheduling and mainly focusing on work and workload. It's been great."

Tweet from @RedSox: #SaleDay feels with live BP! https://t.co/RaOyUNGhtv

Sale felt that Saturday was a productive work session.

"I wouldn't say I'm maxing out, but I wouldn't say I'm holding back either," Sale said. "I'm just trying to find a happy medium of stepping on the gas enough that I'm getting something out of it, but I'm also not going too far over the top."

Though this approach is different than the one Sale has used in the past, he is fully confident he'll be ready to go when the season starts on March 29 at Tropicana Field against the Rays.

Tapping into Tony
Red Sox manager Alex Cora is enjoying having Hall of Famer Tony La Russa at his disposal every day during Spring Training. La Russa was hired by Boston in the offseason as a special assistant to Dave Dombrowski in the front office, but he is also there for whatever Cora needs.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

The conversations have been informative and enlightening for Cora so far.

"It's good to have dinner with him and talk about his teams, and one thing about his teams, they always found a way to have a good April," said Cora.

For that reason, Cora is particularly interested in how La Russa ran his teams throughout Spring Training.

"We talk about Spring Training and how can we push them a little bit, slow them down, position-player wise," Cora said. "And than at the end, get locked in. That's something that got my attention. The only thing is, obviously here is a lot different with the traveling."

Elias auditions for fifth spot
With Steven Wright and Eduardo Rodriguez both in an uphill climb to be on the roster for the first week of the season as they bounce back from injuries, the Red Sox will probably need a fifth starter at least for the first turn through the rotation. Left-hander Roenis Elias made his case on Saturday, firing two perfect innings and striking out two against the Rays.

Elias is in competition with Brian Johnson and Jalen Beeks to be the temporary fifth starter. With several days off in the second week of the season, Boston could just need a fifth starter one time through before Rodriguez or Wright is ready.

Tweet from @RedSox: .@RoenisElias29 is done after 2 innings of clean work: 2.0 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 2 K pic.twitter.com/tzSQJGFQh4

"He's stretched out," Cora said of Elias. "We know the situation with the fifth spot. We talk about the schedule. We need it. I know last year he didn't throw too many innings, but he went to the Dominican Republic and caught up with what he needed to do. He pitched all the way to the last week of December and he did an outstanding job. We'll stretch him out, he's a guy who can do a lot of stuff and his stuff plays, just a matter of him -- if it's the bullpen, in the role in the bullpen, he needs to be more consistent with his arm slot."

Myers running for a cause
Former Red Sox lefty reliever Mike Myers -- part of Boston's 2004 World Series championship team -- was at camp on Saturday representing the MLB Players Association. Myers is preparing to run the Boston Marathon in April, and for a good cause. All of the money Myers raises will go to the Angel Fund for ALS Research. Myers has a goal of raising $25,000. Myers will send an autographed picture to everyone who supports him. You can sign up at Runsignup.com/mikemyers.

This will be the first marathon for Myers.

"This is the one," said Myers. "Maybe the one and only when it's all said and done. The training has been going great. I've dropped 15 pounds really quickly. Training in Colorado is always interesting because I'm running on hills and mountains up there comparing to when I go to Florida, I'm going to love it because it's all flat ground."

Up next
The Red Sox will finish their three-game weekend homestand on Sunday when they host the Orioles in a 1:05 p.m. ET contest at JetBlue Park on MLB.TV and Gameday Audio. Brian Johnson, who is out of options and trying to earn a spot in the rotation or the bullpen, will get the start. Setup men Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes and Carson Smith will all see action out of the bullpen.

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.

Boston Red Sox, Roenis Elias, Chris Sale

Broxton welcomes Ohtani with long homer

MLB.com @AdamMcCalvy

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Keon Broxton helped the Brewers say "Welcome to the big leagues" to Angels two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani.

Broxton connected for a line-drive home run leading off the second inning, helping to spoil Ohtani's first U.S. start as the Brewers played the Angels on Saturday at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Ohtani departed two batters later after hitting his pitch count in his unofficial-but-much-anticipated Major League debut.

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- Keon Broxton helped the Brewers say "Welcome to the big leagues" to Angels two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani.

Broxton connected for a line-drive home run leading off the second inning, helping to spoil Ohtani's first U.S. start as the Brewers played the Angels on Saturday at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Ohtani departed two batters later after hitting his pitch count in his unofficial-but-much-anticipated Major League debut.

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A right-handed power pitcher and left-handed slugger who drew offseason interest from teams all over MLB, including the Brewers, Ohtani threw 17 of his 31 pitches for strikes against the Brewers. Milwaukee leadoff hitter Jonathan Villar greeted him by hitting a 3-1 pitch for a ground-rule double over the center-field fence, and later scored on a wild pitch coupled with a throwing error charged to Angels catcher Martin Maldonado.

Ohtani struck out Nate Orf and Brett Phillips in the first inning to limit the damage to that unearned run before Broxton connected in the second.

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast.

Milwaukee Brewers, Jonathan Broxton

After life-threatening scare, Poncedeleon is back

Cardinals right-hander in camp following recovery from fractured skull
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

JUPITER, Fla. -- The sound sent the stadium silent and Daniel Poncedeleon to the ground. Bat to ball, then ball to bone, the stuff of baseball nightmares.

Immobile on the dirt, Poncedeleon's body locked. He knew he'd been hit. The ball always seemed to find him. A year earlier, during his first Spring Training, a comebacker caught him on the foot. Later, he'd blocked a would-be base hit with his chest. The next spring, David Ortiz blasted a line drive off his butt.

JUPITER, Fla. -- The sound sent the stadium silent and Daniel Poncedeleon to the ground. Bat to ball, then ball to bone, the stuff of baseball nightmares.

Immobile on the dirt, Poncedeleon's body locked. He knew he'd been hit. The ball always seemed to find him. A year earlier, during his first Spring Training, a comebacker caught him on the foot. Later, he'd blocked a would-be base hit with his chest. The next spring, David Ortiz blasted a line drive off his butt.

"Right on the meat," Poncedeleon would say. "Didn't feel a thing."

This time, the pain would come. It lay in wait, bubbling up between his brain and dura mater, the tough outer membrane that borders the cranium. Had he been a half-second quicker, raised his glove an inch higher, the ball would have hit leather, and Poncedeleon would have smiled and shrugged. Instead, it rocketed off the bat of Victor Caratini, a Cubs catching prospect, and struck Poncedeleon flush on the right temple. His skull fractured.

In the away dugout, an idyllic Iowa afternoon turned dark. It was supposed to be a light Tuesday for the Memphis Redbirds -- the Cardinals' Triple-A affiliate -- in Des Moines to finish off a four-game, early-season series with the Iowa Cubs, their rivals in the Pacific Coast League. This was May 9, 2017, weeks into Poncedeleon's fourth season in the St. Louis system. The club tabbed the 25-year-old starter to get it through getaway day and onto the team bus. A 10-hour ride back to Tennessee loomed.

The first inning passed with little issue. In tricolored stirrups, Poncedeleon wound up and delivered his first pitch of the second, a two-seam fastball to Caratini. He'd meant for it to run toward the outside corner. It stayed middle-middle, and changed the trajectory of his life.

"I heard the crack of the bat," remembers pitcher John Brebbia, who witnessed the event from the dugout. "Then I heard what I thought was another crack of the bat. And it was [Poncedeleon]. I turned around thinking, 'What happened?' Then people started rushing the field. 'Oh,' I thought. That wasn't two baseball bats'…"

More than 8,000 fans on hand collectively gasped. Poncedeleon's teammates rushed the dugout railing in silent shock. Hopping over, Memphis head athletic trainer Scott Ensell sprinted to the foot of the mound. He knelt over Poncedeleon as a group formed around them: infielders, umpires, coaches and Caratini, all huddling helplessly, their hands on their heads.

Ensell checked for signs of awareness.

"Can you hear me?" he asked breathlessly.

Poncedeleon did not respond.

"Are you OK?!"

As the question lingered, Ensell signaled for the stadium's emergency medical services. 911 was called. Soon, sirens echoed, screaming closer as the seconds slipped away.

*******************************************

In his home in La Miranda, Calif., 1,700 miles west, Ramon Poncedeleon awoke into a nightmare. Ramon and his wife, Mary, raised four children in this suburb south of Los Angeles, where Daniel, the only son, blossomed into a three-sport high school star. He chose baseball.

"That's the sport he saw a future in," Ramon says now.

Major League teams agreed. The Rays in 2010. The Reds in 2012. The Cubs in 2013. In all, Poncedeleon was drafted four times in five years, during which he bounced between four colleges. He signed with the Cardinals after they selected him in the ninth round in 2014 out of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, on the east coast of Florida. From there, he climbed through the Cardinals' Minor League system, pitching himself into a prospect. Over 62 Minor League starts, Poncedeleon owns a 2.78 ERA.

"A few things click for him," said Bryan Eversgerd, who was the Redbirds' pitching coach at the time. "And he's helping out at the Major League level."

Ramon's job as a longshoreman required him to work overnights, which allowed him to witness Daniel's rise in the afternoon. A 7:05 p.m. CT start in Memphis became a 5:05 p.m. PT in La Miranda. Dad could check out his son before clocking in.

But an oddly early 12:05 p.m. CT start on May 9 translated to 10:05 a.m. PT. Ramon slept through the first pitch.

A call from a friend woke him up.

"Are you watching the game?" the voice on the other line asked. "I have it on ..."

"Daniel got hit."

By the time Ramon got online, more than a dozen people surrounded what he assumed was his son. The only visible part of the young man injured on the ground were his legs. They were shaking.

Ensell's questions rattled around inside the pitcher's head, and soon, he was able to answer them.

"What's your name?"

"Daniel," he mumbled.

"What day is it?"

"Tuesday," he grunted.

Next, Ensell checked his hands and toes. Could they move? Did they have strength? Any paralysis would suggest a spinal cord injury. They wiggled, and Ensell exhaled. He cradled the pitcher's head in his hands and waited.

In the dugout, there was grave but unspoken worry. Catcher Carson Kelly began to pray. Left-hander Ryan Sherriff realized he'd probably have to pitch now, and began to wonder what he should do. Brebbia, usually a ball of energy, stood bewildered.

"It's not something I've experienced on a field before," Brebbia said. "That emotion. There has been anger, there has been joy, but there never had been fear for someone's life."

"Did my teammate," Sherriff thought, "just pass away on the field?"

As they worried, Ensell deemed Poncedeleon physically and neurologically stable. The initial period of unresponsiveness, though, meant he needed be rushed to the hospital.

Nine minutes after the pitch, Poncedeleon was carted off the field. An ambulance awaited beyond the right-field stands. With all his strength, he mustered the smallest of waves to the standing, cheering crowd. But few in his dugout saw. To a man, they wondered how to go on and what would happen next.

The pain started in the ambulance. Strapped down, his eyes now wide open, Poncedeleon felt his anxiety build. Then the pounding began.

In the front seat, Ensell called California to inform Ramon, who'd been rewinding the footage and playing it back. Then he rang Gary LaRoque, the Cardinals' director of player development.

"When we got to the hospital, it was my first inclination that something might be worse than we originally thought," Ensell said. "It became clear this was serious."

As nurses rushed him into a CT scan, Daniel began to feel sick. He tried to lift himself up, but couldn't. His vomit trailed across the hospital floor.

Then the memories get spotty. There is the CT scan. There is the doctor shaving half his head. There is the pitch, there is afterward, and there is little else.

Underneath the wound, blood leaked from Daniel's middle meningeal artery into the space between his dura mater -- which covers the brain -- and his skull. The condition is called an epidural hematoma, and without an emergency craniotomy, they typically result in death.

Ensell told Ramon doctors may have to operate. Fifteen minutes later he called again, asking for consent. Ramon granted it in something of a trance.

"The possibility of him having some brain damage … " Ramon said. "I couldn't even fathom looking up a flight."

Ramon's son-in-law made the arrangement. Los Angeles International Airport to Chicago O'Hare to Des Moines International, leaving that night.

 

*******************************************

 

The city of New Smyrna, on Florida's east coast, sits inside an inlet named for Spanish conqueror Juan Ponce de Leon. It is also where Daniel Poncedeleon relocated after college, to be with Jennifer Beatty, his girlfriend, and Casen, their 5-month-old son.

Beatty, her father Mitch and Casen settled down in the living room that afternoon to watch Daniel play.

"It's just a concussion," she told herself, when she saw. "Don't freak out."

Jennifer already planned to visit Daniel in Memphis that weekend. The tickets were booked. It would be Casen's first flight. Now she wasn't sure she should wait another minute, let alone three days.

She spent the next few hours on the phone. Josh Lucas, a right-hander who'd spend most of the year with Memphis, rushed into the clubhouse to text his wife, who texted Jennifer. Then Jennifer called Ensell. Ramon phoned Jennifer. Finally, a surgeon called. Jennifer called Ensell again, looking for some sort of answer.

"Should I change my flight?" she asked. "Do you think he'll be back on the bus?"

"Let's just see," Ensell said, "if he makes it through surgery first."

"That," Jennifer said afterward, "was when I lost it."

The Redbirds lost that day, but it didn't matter. Players filed solemnly onto the bus, their minds racing and hearts sinking. It'd been more than three hours since Daniel was wheeled away, and no update had come. So instead of hooking east onto I-235, the bus stayed north, toward Mercy Medical Center.

"Not knowing what's going on, that was probably the hardest thing," Kelly says.

The bus sat outside the hospital while surgeons removed a bone flap from Daniel's skull. For four hours, they worked to close Daniel's arterial laceration and relieve pressure from his cranial cavity.

"We tend to think about athletes as being indestructible, as being bulletproof," said Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak. "But when [Poncedeleon] is laying in the ICU, fighting for his next breath, fighting for his next day, he's in a completely different spot."

Ensell and the front office coordinated a plan. Ensell would stay in Des Moines, at least until the family arrived. The rest of the team would go. An eight-game homestand was on the schedule, two short days away. Baseball rolls on and waits for no one.

Eversgerd grew reflective back on the bus. Soon it rumbled down the prairie, out of Iowa altogether, roaring through the night like nothing happened.

"It felt like we were leaving a man in the field," Eversgerd said.

 

*******************************************

 

Ensell sat with Daniel as the sun went down, the pitcher sedated under heavy bandaging. His family arrived later, as night became morning. Ramon, Jennifer, Casen and Mitch filed in from opposite corners of the country.

They parsed through the doctor's counsel in hushed tones. Whether he would walk, whether he would talk, whether he would remember.

The nurses woke Daniel up every hour to check his strength and sodium levels, which had to be kept elevated to subdue his brain swelling. He'd groan. He'd grumble. He'd sleep.

He was the only one in the room who did.

"It was the longest 24 hours," Jennifer remembers.

The whole way to Iowa, she listened to upbeat worship music in an attempt to ease her nerves. Now, her mind oscillated between the music's message and what she saw in front of her. The dichotomy challenged her Christian faith and tested her resolve.

"Casen's whole life flashed before my eyes," Jennifer said. "What I would say to him to tell him about his dad? I really thought I was going to lose him."

Take it a day at a time, the doctors told her. This was only day one.

 

*******************************************

 

The next 48 hours brought positive signs. The family divided hospital duty into shifts, with Jennifer and Mitch pulling days and Ramon watching his son until seven the next morning. The nurses brought toys for Casen. Ensell barely left.

"It was almost like it was [Ensell's] son," Ramon said. "I owe that young man a lot of gratitude."

In between long stretches of sleep, Daniel began to respond. He recognized his family. He answered questions, whether with words or grunts or, sometimes, just blinks. His head pulsed with pain. His body sagged with fatigue, sensitive to light and to sound. The family members kept their voices down and the blinds low.

As he waited, Ramon received a call from LaRoque. Then Mozeliak. Then Memphis manager Stubby Clapp. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny rang. Ramon thanked Ensell, who'd kept the club informed.

By the third day, Daniel sat up. He ate solid food. Upright in his hospital bed, Daniel spoke to Ensell for the first time.

"That fastball was right down the middle," he said. "But don't worry. I will pitch again."

Video: Cards pitcher Daniel Poncedeleon returns to practice

 

*******************************************

 

The Redbirds enjoyed a sensational summer. They won 91 games and the Pacific Coast League championship, graduating 18 players to the Majors along the way. Ten of those were pitchers, plucked to help boost St. Louis' bullpen.

A few more good starts in Memphis, and Daniel Poncedeleon probably would've been a part of that picture. Instead, he spent the summer far from even the sidelines. Ten days total in intensive care. More than a month in Iowa. Then two more in Florida, inactive. The swelling took weeks to dissipate. His head ached. A four-inch scar looked back at him in the mirror. It always will.

But he walked. He talked. He remembered.

There were setbacks, like the fourth day in Des Moines, when his sodium levels slipped after a transfer from the ICU. There were acts of kindness. The Iowa Cubs rented Jennifer a car. Fans sent their wishes. Caratini and his wife, Janise, visited the hospital with homemade dinner.

"I felt bad," said Caratini, who is slated to back up Willson Contreras in Chicago this season. "I don't want to hit somebody and mess with his life."

There was extra time, lots of it, for Sudoku and for bible study. There were bad jokes, Daniel wondering aloud why brain surgery didn't make him smarter. There were long stretches of boredom. There were silver linings, like a family trip to the zoo, before Daniel was cleared to fly, when he held his son and showed him tigers.

"As unfortunate as it was that this happened, it was really a blessing for our family," Jennifer says. "Daniel left [for baseball] when Casen was three months old. All the time he was able to spend with him, you saw their relationship form completely. They really bonded."

Back in Florida, Daniel says he first passed a psychiatric evaluation. Then he passed a vision test. He built up to baseball activities and was cleared on Aug. 9, three months to the day after throwing that two-seamer down the middle. He spent the rest of the year tossing at the Cardinals' spring complex, inching toward the day he'd step back on a mound for real.

"I was the only guy in rehab who wasn't hurt," he said.

In September, the Redbirds flew Poncedeleon back to Memphis for the opening game of the PCL championship series. He threw out the ceremonial first pitch. In between hugs and high-fives, he heard a constant refrain: "You're lucky."

"They told me that a lot," he said.

It's possible, Poncedeleon admits, the worst thing that can happen on a field has already happened, that he's gone through it, and come out the other end. Maybe that explains his newfound sense of calm. Back in Cardinals camp as a non-roster invitee, Poncedeleon loosens up each morning eager, not anxious, to restart his big league climb.

Six months off allowed him to build up his body, to freshen his arm, to shop for protective headgear. Standing at his locker, Poncedeleon unwraps a carbon fiber insert -- the same one Angels starter Matt Shoemaker wears -- and slots it in a gap under his cap. It covers his right temple, strapped across the scar and the dent the baseball left.

"I'm not afraid to die," he smirks. "They told me I'll always have a dent, the rest of my life. I don't care. I'm already locked down."

He and Jennifer married in a small ceremony a week before camp. Two weeks later, he'll pitch again in a game setting for the first time since last May in Iowa. He'll come out of the Cardinals' bullpen, no restrictions, no L screens, just him and the glove, and a professional hitter 60 feet, six inches away.

"I couldn't care less if he threw another pitch in his life," said Ramon, who flew in from California to support his son. The Poncedeleon party on hand this weekend will number eight, including Jennifer, Casen and Mitch. "The only concern I had was, Lord, give me my son back. Daniel's drive to return was overwhelming. He didn't have an ounce of doubt he'd be back on the mound."

"Perseverance will be part of his biography one day," Mozeliak said. "Think about it. Worst-case scenario, he could have not survived. Best-case scenario is where we are today."

The baseball broke his bones, but not his spirit. Now, true to his word, Daniel Poncedeleon will pitch again.

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals, Daniel Poncedeleon

School's in session: Votto talks about hitting

When Joey Votto speaks, you stop what you are doing and you listen.

During MLB Network's "30 Clubs in 30 Days," the Reds first baseman talked about hitting. It seemed simple enough, but he had a message for younger athletes in the baseball and softball world:

Kapler has Phils compete for Instagram follows

Entering Spring Training new Phillies manager Gabe Kapler introduced a team motto: Be bold. While that primarily applies to the team's play on the field as it hopes to surprise other teams in the National League East, it seems to also apply to life off the field.

In that vein, Kapler has started a social media challenge among his players to help some of the lesser-known Phillies gain followers on Instagram. To do that, he has made pairs where a player with a high follower count matches up with a player with fewer followers.

Cora 'not concerned' as Sox mull J.D. physical

MLB.com @IanMBrowne

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Perhaps it's only fitting that the signing that took the entire offseason and into the early portion of Spring Training to happen would have a little bit more of a delay before it becomes official.

Slugger J.D. Martinez is still expected to walk through the entrance to the Red Sox's clubhouse and put on his new uniform with the familiar No. 28 on the back in the very near future, but there was no grand entrance on Friday.

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Perhaps it's only fitting that the signing that took the entire offseason and into the early portion of Spring Training to happen would have a little bit more of a delay before it becomes official.

Slugger J.D. Martinez is still expected to walk through the entrance to the Red Sox's clubhouse and put on his new uniform with the familiar No. 28 on the back in the very near future, but there was no grand entrance on Friday.

There are procedural issues related to the physical that are still being worked through, prolonging the formal announcement of a five-year, $110 million contract that includes opt-outs after the second and third seasons. The terms of the deal were agreed to on Monday.

Spring Training: Info | Tickets | Schedule | Gear

Friday marked the third straight day the Red Sox hoped to have a news conference, but it now appears Saturday is the earliest that one will take place.

Physicals can take varying lengths of time depending on the player, and certainly, the amount of the contract.

Martinez had a right elbow injury in 2016 and a sprained Lisfranc ligament in his right foot last year. The Red Sox could be having specialists scanning images to make sure there's minimal risk of those injuries recurring.

NBC Sports reported Saturday the Red Sox are sorting through a medical matter, but one that would not have any effect on Martinez in the immediate future, though it is unclear what the issue is.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Another thing complicating matters is that most of the team's medical staff is in Boston.

Martinez, who lives in Miami, arrived in Fort Myers early Wednesday morning for his physical. His agent, Scott Boras, was also in town, as he typically likes to attend press conferences for his premium clients.

By Friday afternoon, nobody seemed to know if Martinez was still in town or if he had returned to his home in Miami.

"I have no idea," said Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who gave up his No. 28 earlier this week to free it up for Martinez.

Cora and the Red Sox went ahead with their regular business, beating the Twins, 4-3, in the Grapefruit League opener for both teams.

Video: Outlook: Martinez's power makes him dangerous slugger

Has it been hard for the new manager to spend the last few days waiting on his highly-anticipated new addition?

"We're still working and getting ready," said Cora. "That's what we can do."

Is Cora concerned about the delay in the Martinez signing becoming official?

"I'm not concerned," Cora said. "The thing I can do is do my thing. My job here is to show up every day and get 'em ready."

The Red Sox have a double locker in the clubhouse that appears to be set aside for Martinez. It is between the stalls used by two other veterans -- Dustin Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez.

As of Friday, Martinez didn't have a nameplate. But there were three boxes on a shelf inside the locker.

Everyone around the Red Sox will feel better once there is a right-handed hitter in the fold to unpack those boxes.

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.

Boston Red Sox, J.D. Martinez

Middlebrooks carted off field with leg injury

MLB.com @ToddZolecki

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies infielder Will Middlebrooks appeared to suffer a serious left leg injury in the eighth inning of Saturday afternoon's game against the Orioles at Spectrum Field.

Middlebrooks collided with left fielder Andrew Pullin as both pursued a pop fly. It appeared Middlebrooks' left ankle got caught underneath Pullin, although the Phillies have made no official announcement about the injury.

View Full Game Coverage

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies infielder Will Middlebrooks appeared to suffer a serious left leg injury in the eighth inning of Saturday afternoon's game against the Orioles at Spectrum Field.

Middlebrooks collided with left fielder Andrew Pullin as both pursued a pop fly. It appeared Middlebrooks' left ankle got caught underneath Pullin, although the Phillies have made no official announcement about the injury.

View Full Game Coverage

Middlebrooks, who entered camp as a non-roster invitee, had an inflatable cast put around the ankle before he got carted off the field.

Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and listen to his podcast.

Philadelphia Phillies, Will Middlebrooks

Future MVP? Nats phenom compared to Cutch

Special to MLB.com

JUPITER, Fla. -- Victor Robles has yet to play a full season, but his ceiling is off the charts. When asked on Saturday to compare Robles to any other Major Leaguer, Nationals manager Dave Martinez sat and thought about it for a few seconds, then offered the name of the Giants' Andrew McCutchen.

"It's still early to say, all I know is that he's a really good athlete and he's only going to get better," Martinez said of the Nats' top prospect and the No. 6 prospect in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline. "But he's young and he's really honing in on the baseball skills and the little things."

JUPITER, Fla. -- Victor Robles has yet to play a full season, but his ceiling is off the charts. When asked on Saturday to compare Robles to any other Major Leaguer, Nationals manager Dave Martinez sat and thought about it for a few seconds, then offered the name of the Giants' Andrew McCutchen.

"It's still early to say, all I know is that he's a really good athlete and he's only going to get better," Martinez said of the Nats' top prospect and the No. 6 prospect in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline. "But he's young and he's really honing in on the baseball skills and the little things."

Robles, who doubled and walked in the Grapefruit League opener on Friday, went 1-for-3 in Saturday's 3-2 loss to the Marlins at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium.

"I feel great to be compared to a great ballplayer like Andrew McCutchen. How can you not feel great about that?" Robles said. "To be compared to him is amazing."

Video: Top Prospects: Victor Robles, OF, Nationals

But first things first, making the team would be a good start. Robles said he isn't feeling the pressure to create a big splash right away, but more to continue to improve.

"I have the same mindset that I've always had," Robles said. "Just come up here and do my work, play baseball. I obviously want to make the team, but that's not what I'm worried about. I can't control that."

Doolittle slider coming along
Hard-throwing closer Sean Doolittle is working on his offspeed pitches this spring. That can't be good news for opposing hitters. The National League as a whole is still trying to catch up to his heater, and now the left-handed fireballer is attempting to be even more nasty.

Martinez said he has kept an eye on the slider that Doolittle is working on.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"It's actually pretty good," Martinez said. "He says he's going to try to develop it as he gets in the games and throw it a little bit more to get the feel for it.

"I told him to work on what you need to work on, but remember what got you where you're at and why you're good. But I like the fact that he's trying different things."

Many pitchers don't survive for very long on one pitch, but Doolittle has made a successful career with it.

"He's mastered it," Martinez said. "I think with him is he knows how to get hitters out. He commands his fastball really well."

Doolittle set a career high with 24 saves last season, including 21 for the Nationals. He posted a 2.40 ERA for the club over 30 innings.

Video: Outlook: Doolittle can be elite closer if healthy

Jackson struggles in debut
Edwin Jackson pitched two innings out of the Nationals' bullpen on Saturday, allowing three hits -- one of those a solo home run by Marlins designated hitter J.T. Realmuto. He struck out one in his first Grapefruit League outing, a 34-pitch effort (20 strikes).

In what capacity Jackson could be used is still to be determined. He went 5-6 with a 5.07 ERA in 13 starts for the Nationals last season.

Washington re-signed Jackson to a Minor League contract in January.

Big bro's debut
Bryce Harper's big brother, Bryan Harper, worked the eighth inning. The 28-year-old non-roster invitee gave up the go-ahead run on two hits and a hit by pitch. He escaped more damage with an inning-ending double play.

Harper has spent six seasons in the Minor Leagues, reaching as high as Triple-A Syracuse.

Up next: The Nationals return home to face the Braves at 1:05 p.m. ET on Sunday (MLB.TV). Reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer gets the start for Washington, opposed by Atlanta lefty Scott Kazmir.

Glenn Sattell is a contributor to MLB.com.

Washington Nationals, Victor Robles

Cy Young winner Blue was Bay Area workhorse

MLB.com

Over the course of February -- which is Black History Month -- MLB Network and MLB.com are looking back at some of the most prominent African-American players in MLB history. On Saturday, we look back on the career of former A's star Vida Blue.

Before Vida Blue began a successful 17-year career in the Majors with the A's, Giants and Royals from 1969-'86, he was drafted by the Kansas City Athletics in the second round of the 1967 MLB Draft out of De Soto High School in Mansfield, La.

Over the course of February -- which is Black History Month -- MLB Network and MLB.com are looking back at some of the most prominent African-American players in MLB history. On Saturday, we look back on the career of former A's star Vida Blue.

Before Vida Blue began a successful 17-year career in the Majors with the A's, Giants and Royals from 1969-'86, he was drafted by the Kansas City Athletics in the second round of the 1967 MLB Draft out of De Soto High School in Mansfield, La.

While Blue made his Major League debut in '69 with the A's, he started just 10 games his first two seasons. However, they weren't without some excitement. On Sept. 21, 1970, Blue got his second win of the season by tossing a no-hitter against the Twins, allowing just one walk and striking out nine batters.

It wasn't until Blue became a permanent member of the A's starting rotation in 1971 -- at the tender age of 21 -- that he had arguably one of the best seasons for a pitcher in baseball history. The left-hander went 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA, including 24 complete games and eight shutouts. Those numbers helped him win the American League Cy Young Award and AL MVP.

Blue's success as a power pitcher came from working fast and pounding the strike zone. He threw an occasional curveball to keep hitters off balance, and an above-average changeup, but his signature pitch was a blistering fastball that could dial up to 100 mph.

Blue won 20 games in '73, and along the way, became an integral member of an A's team that won three consecutive World Series championships in '72, '73 and '74. Some of his finest postseason performances were four innings of shutout relief work against the Tigers to save Game 5 of the '72 ALCS, and a complete-game shutout against the Orioles in Game 3 of the '74 ALCS.

Blue was a part of another no-hitter on Sept. 28, 1975, when he, Glenn Abbott, Paul Lindblad and Rollie Fingers combined to no-hit the California Angels.

In '77, Blue's last season with the A's, he went 14-19 with a 3.83 ERA, though he was still named to the All-Star team.

Blue moved across the Bay for the next four seasons, and became an All-Star two more times with the Giants in '80 and '81. He'd finish his career with the club in '86, going 10-10 with a 3.27 ERA.

A durable pitcher, Blue finished his career going 209-161 with a 3.27 ERA. He tossed more than 200 innings in nine separate seasons, including eight straight from '73-'80, and had double-digit wins in 11 seasons.

Quinn Roberts is a reporter for MLB.com.

Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants

Get pumped with 10 of the best dingers from the first day of Spring Training games

The calendar may say that it's still "officially" winter, but we know that's not true. That's because Spring Training is in full swing, with Friday giving us the first Spring Training games of the year. That means there are box scores to read! Pitcher mechanics to debate! And, most importantly, dingers to watch majestically soar over the wall. 

So, with one day of games in the books, here are 10 of those grand dingers. Think of it as the most bombastic amuse bouche for the baseball season. 

'Party Hard' at Tigers games? Andrew W.K. did

In 2001, a man in a sweaty, stained white T-shirt and white jeans emerged on the hard rock scene with a raucous anthem titled  "Party Hard" -- a song that would come to identify Andrew W.K. and everything he stood for: relentless positivity and, yes, partying. 

17 years later, he's preparing to release a new album, "You're Not Alone," filled with more blasts of uplifting rhythms, crushing riffs and his signature unending life-affirming existence.