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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.

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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

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.

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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.

Video: TB@BOS: Elias strikes out Snyder in the 2nd inning

"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."

Video: TB@BOS: Mike Myers talks about the Boston Marathon

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

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

'Judge's Chambers' took star to new heights

MLB.com @BryanHoch

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of Bryan Hoch's first book, "The Baby Bombers: The Inside Story of the Next Yankees Dynasty," which is being published by Diversion Books and includes a foreword by Mark Teixeira. On sale March 6, it is now available for pre-order.

The concept of "The Judge's Chambers" was first floated in the spring of 2017, during a time in which team officials were brainstorming avenues to make Yankee Stadium more appealing to a younger generation of fans. Work had already begun in The Bronx to add children's play areas, terraces and party decks to the facility, which was readying for its ninth year of service. Noting the popular response that Aaron Judge had received during the exhibition games in Florida, the Yanks' decision-makers deemed a dedicated cheering section to be a logical next step.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of Bryan Hoch's first book, "The Baby Bombers: The Inside Story of the Next Yankees Dynasty," which is being published by Diversion Books and includes a foreword by Mark Teixeira. On sale March 6, it is now available for pre-order.

The concept of "The Judge's Chambers" was first floated in the spring of 2017, during a time in which team officials were brainstorming avenues to make Yankee Stadium more appealing to a younger generation of fans. Work had already begun in The Bronx to add children's play areas, terraces and party decks to the facility, which was readying for its ninth year of service. Noting the popular response that Aaron Judge had received during the exhibition games in Florida, the Yanks' decision-makers deemed a dedicated cheering section to be a logical next step.

Similar concepts had been successful in other ballparks, such as the Astros' "Keuchel's Korner" for ace Dallas Keuchel and the Mariners' "King Felix's Court" for standout pitcher Felix Hernandez. It may not have been groundbreaking, but it seemed that way for the Yankees, a team that often had to fight the temptation of simply leaning upon their storied history to sell tickets. Though some would argue that there had never been a special section devoted to Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera, the willingness to innovate represented a refreshing change of pace.

Judge told the Yankees that he thought the idea was "cool," but first, he had to actually make the team. It may seem difficult to believe in hindsight, given how sensational Judge's rookie season turned out to be, but there was legitimate consideration given to having Judge begin the season in the Minors. Because Judge still had Minor League options remaining and Aaron Hicks did not, the Yankees decided to carry Judge on the roster only if he won the starting right-field job, believing that a backup role would stunt his development.

Video: Robert Flores on Aaron Judge's new cheering section

"He never had a full year in the big leagues," general manager Brian Cashman said. "He had competition that was legitimate with Aaron Hicks. Aaron Hicks had performed just as well for a period of time, if not better, for the first half of the spring. It was a tight competition. I'd say halfway through camp, Hicks was winning by a hair."

Driven to convince management that he was ready for the opportunity, Judge said that he locked his focus on having quality at-bats for 30 days straight. The organization held daily meetings in the final weeks of camp, with Cashman, Tim Naehring and numerous other assistants disappearing into then-manager Joe Girardi's office. Judge ignored their lengthy chats, saying that he couldn't afford to waste time worrying about whether he would begin the season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre or the Yankees.

"I wasn't getting paid enough to make that decision," Judge said. "I had one goal in my mind: to go out there and compete and do whatever I can to fight for a job. Every day, I was just taking that mindset, 'I've got to go out there and work my butt off to get this job.'"

At 10:07 a.m. on March 30, the heavy steel door to the manager's office swung open, indicating that a decision had been made. Someone joked that it reminded them of the clouds of smoke that rise over the Sistine Chapel to announce the selection of a new Pope. Girardi summoned the team's beat reporters and lauded both Hicks and Judge for making it a very tough call, but announced that Judge's late-spring surge had tipped the scales in his favor.

Hicks took a couple of days to stew over the decision, and though he was disappointed with the outcome, he acknowledged that the team had given him a fair shot. The job had been given to the man who had played the best.

"The last two or three weeks of camp, Hicks didn't necessarily lose it as much as Judge took it," Cashman said. "Those weren't false conversations. It was more like, 'You've got to win that everyday job, or you're going to Triple-A,' and Judge knew that. Aaron Hicks is an above-average right fielder in this game, but Judge has turned out to be an MVP candidate. It was real. I guess we made the right decision."

Judge, meanwhile, was elated. He responded by saying that "now the real work starts," adding that the challenge would be to ward off the competition from Hicks and the team's stable of talented Minor Leaguers. Girardi said that the Yankees were now locked in and would give Judge plenty of leeway if he got off to a slow start. With the Yankees about to open the regular season, Judge called his folks in California, urging them to hop on the next flight to Florida.

"They were worrying about it, just like any parent would," Judge said. "They just wanted to know what was going on, so I just called them and let them know, 'Hey, I'll be in Tampa on Opening Day.'"

Video: NYY@TB: Judge plates Castro with a double in the 2nd

Judge was one of five players on the Yankees' active roster who participated in their first big league Opening Day, joined by Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Jonathan Holder and Bryan Mitchell. Judge hit eighth in the season opener and opted to settle into an art deco hotel in the heart of Times Square, living out of two suitcases between road trips. It was the same hotel where the Yankees had sent him after his first big league callup the previous August.

"I didn't know where else to live," Judge said. "This is my first go-round, so I just kind of thought, 'I'll live in New York.' It was just busy. There were a lot of things going on. That was probably the first thing I noticed when I came here, especially from a small town in California. Then you come here, and usually on the sidewalks back home, there's nobody on the streets. Here, you're shoulder to shoulder with people."

Judge's plate appearances quickly became the ones that no one wanted to miss, easing traffic at the concession stands and the stadium lavatories. Judge tied a Major League record by hitting 10 home runs in April, and the top spot in the books would have been his alone if not for an April 16 drive against the Cardinals that was inexplicably credited as a fan-interference triple.

Video: Must C Classic: Judge ties rookie record with 10th HR

"Last year was kind of like a practice test," Judge said. "I saw the league a little bit, got a chance to face some pitchers. Now, I'm seeing some familiar faces and just getting used to the league, going out there and trying to compete and just keep continuing to have quality at-bats."

Hitting them high, far and often, Judge quickly won a fan in Matt Holliday. After Judge homered twice in a 14-11 slugfest victory over the Orioles, the 14-year veteran gushed that he thought Judge was "probably the most gifted baseball player I think I've ever been around." That was no small compliment, considering Holliday had shared a clubhouse with Albert Pujols for four seasons in St. Louis.

"You just look at the guy in batting practice, and he hits the ball 550 feet," Holliday said of Judge. "He can run and he can throw at 6-foot-7, 280 pounds. You just don't see it. I haven't seen anything like it. It's fun to watch. He's fun to watch. I think the whole stadium stops when he comes up to bat. That doesn't happen all the time."

When Nick Swisher stopped by Yankee Stadium in a new role as an analyst for FOX Sports, Judge's former Minor League teammate and Waffle House dining companion marveled at how far the slugger had come in such a short period of time.

"He's a whole different player now than he was at Triple-A," Swisher said. "He's got a new stance, he's got a new swing. Everything has changed. He went home in the offseason and I think what really got him was when he missed those last few weeks of being up here in the big leagues. When he left here, I know that man went home and busted his tail to get ready for this year. He knew that once this season came around, this was his shot."

Exit velocity was the new buzzword for hitters around Major League Baseball, and the Yankees had started displaying those miles-per-hour readings in the top-right corner of the center-field scoreboard, as they would for a pitcher's velocity. It did not take long for Swisher, and any other observer with eyes and ears, to realize that Judge's 35-inch, 33-ounce Chandler bat was impacting the ball more loudly than any other in the Majors.

"I've never seen anybody hit a baseball like that," Swisher said. "He's the red circle in the lineup now. Guys don't want him to beat them, but this man hits popups for home runs."

Judge's mighty strokes were incredible to watch from a safe distance, while unnerving for those who had the misfortune of standing 60 feet, 6 inches away. Pitching for the Rays, reliever Jumbo Diaz surrendered a game-tying single on April 12 that rocketed off Judge's bat at 116.5 mph, whistling past the hurler's right ear into center field.

Video: TB@NYY: Statcast™ measures Judge's hard-hit single

"It was very close. I felt the wind go by my head," Diaz said. "When I got back, I received a message from my wife. She was a little scared, a little jolted by it. She was just grateful I was OK."

Judge celebrated his 25th birthday on April 26 at Fenway Park, where he had captured the Yankees' attention a few years earlier with a memorable batting-practice session in a Cape Cod League showcase. The party started quickly, as Judge mashed the first pitch he saw from Rick Porcello over the wall in right-center field for his seventh homer of the season.

Judge's production carried the Yankees early, as he became the youngest player in Major League history to hit at least 13 homers through his team's first 26 games of the season. The only other right-handed-hitting outfielder of any age to accomplish that feat had been Hall of Famer Willie Mays, who did it for the Giants in 1964.

It was during this time that Judge received a call from Mike Batesole, his baseball coach while at Fresno State. Having once been a high school teammate of Lenny Dykstra and a scout-league teammate of Darryl Strawberry, Batesole told ESPN that he wanted to make sure that the temptations of New York City weren't having a negative impact on Judge.

"On his first day off this year, I said, 'Look, dude. Bars across America are full of guys who had one good month," Batesole said. "'You haven't done anything except piss the rest of the league's pitchers off, and now they all want you extra bad. You're better off shutting your phone off. Get some alone time, call Mom, give thanks. I don't want to hear that you had dinner with Jay-Z and Beyoncé on your first day off. Make sure you're keeping your feet on the ground and taking care of business.' His response, as it always is, was, 'Yes, coach.'"

The national media enthusiastically embraced the storyline of a hulking Yankees superhero with an aw-shucks demeanor. A May 15-22, 2017, double issue of Sports Illustrated featured Judge on the cover, depicting his mighty pinstriped cut behind the words, "All Rise! The Yankees' Youth Movement Is in Session. The Powerful Aaron Judge Presiding." Stephanie Apstein's accompanying article traced Judge's roots, painting Judge as a shy rookie from a small California town whose career happened to be off to the most prolific start ever.

The next week, NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" aired a hilarious segment in which Judge tested his acting chops with his best Clark Kent impression, donning a blazer and glasses behind a desk in New York's Bryant Park to quiz Yankees fans about … Aaron Judge.

After asking one fan how much he thought the rookie might be able to bench press, Judge nonchalantly replied, "400? You're right." One fan referred to the prospect as "Adam Judge," and another passerby wearing a Yankees jersey figured out the gag when Judge held up his SI cover, offering a double take before taking note of Judge's toothy smile.

"It was the gap," he said. "There's only two gaps in New York, you and [Michael] Strahan, man."

Video: NYY@KC: Judge was a hit on the Tonight Show

The Yankees were visiting Kansas City the day after that segment aired, and Judge said that his phone had been overwhelmed with text messages and voicemails. Judge had tipped off his parents to the upcoming bit, asking them to set their DVRs, but the late-night appearance had come as a surprise to most of Judge's friends and family.

"I'm not really a comedian at all, but I think it turned out great," Judge said. "I was nervous the whole time. When I was going through it, I didn't think I was doing well at all. They did a lot of editing, and it really turned into something great."

When several groups of fans began attending games in black robes and white powder wigs, waving signs that included variations of "All Rise," the Yankees responded by unveiling the project that they had discussed during the spring. When the Yankees took the field for batting practice on May 22, "The Judge's Chambers" appeared at the rear of Section 104 in right field, 18 seats boxed in by wood to create the appearance of a courtroom jury box.

New York vs. Kansas City was first on the docket. It would only be Judge's 66th Major League game, but Jason Zillo, the Yankees' director of media relations, said that "The Judge's Chambers" had simply continued the momentum that the fans established on their own.

"It's all part of a shift toward making the experience more interactive," Zillo said. "It's a different era. It's a different group of fans. Fans are looking for things in their trip to a stadium that fans weren't looking for 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago."

The seats became a wildly popular attraction, with fans lining up early for the opportunity to snap selfies in the area. Fans flooded the team's ticket office with inquiries about the section and were told that they could not buy their way into "The Judge's Chambers." Instead, Yankees employees roamed the concourses prior to first pitch, looking for fans who were wearing Judge paraphernalia and offering them the opportunity to upgrade their seat location.

Upon entry, fans were issued black robes with the Yankees logo on the front and Judge's No. 99 on the back, as well as foam gavels. The gavels (also sold in stadium gift shops) were theirs to keep, but the robes were washed and reissued for the next home game. On one occasion, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor spent a few innings in the Chambers, cheering along with her fellow Yankees fans.

"It's pretty unreal," Judge said. "I never would have thought [this could happen] so soon. But the fans like it, so I'm glad they're having fun."

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

New York Yankees, Aaron Judge

Broxton welcomes Ohtani with long homer

Brewers gives first impressions on facing Japanese phenom
MLB.com @AdamMcCalvy

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

Broxton smashed a fastball 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 reaching his pitch limit in an unofficial-but-much-anticipated Major League debut.

View Full Game Coverage

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

Broxton smashed a fastball 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 reaching his pitch limit in an unofficial-but-much-anticipated Major League debut.

View Full Game Coverage

"I think he's got great stuff. He has the ability to be a Major League Baseball player, for sure," said Broxton, who hit 20 home runs last season but finds himself fighting for a spot in the Brewers' crowded outfield. "In Spring Training, it's hard to get a good judge on how the guy is feeling or if all of his stuff is locked in. I think there's definitely more there; he's going to improve."

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.

Milwaukee leadoff hitter Jonathan Villar greeted him by hitting a 3-1 fastball 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.

Video: MIL@LAA: Villar doubles to center, scores on error

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.

"I shouldn't have missed the first fastball," said Phillips. "The first one he threw me, I fouled off, and then he threw me what we like to call the kitchen sink. … On the fastball I swung at and fouled off, I heard him say, 'Ooooh!' and I was like, 'Oh gosh, here comes all the offspeed.' So, I only got to see one fastball."

Video: MIL@LAA: Ohtani catches Phillips looking

Are players interested in seeing if Ohtani can make it in the Majors as a two-way player?

"If you can do it, all power to you," Phillips said. "He proved himself over in Japan that he can hit and pitch. Now he's at the highest level, in the Majors, and I hope he gets the opportunity to show if he can do it. He's earned it. We'll see if he gets the chance to."

Better days ahead

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Brewers catcher Manny Pina was hit by a pitch twice in Friday's spring opener against the Cubs, but his wife, Leny, had it much worse. She was holding the couple's young daughter on the right-field concourse at Maryvale Baseball Park when she was hit in the head by a foul ball.

Leny Pina passed a concussion test, Manny said, but does require dental work for a broken tooth. They were thankful her injuries weren't worse and that young Jimena was unharmed.

"Not a good day for the Pina family," Manny said.

Houser back on the hill

Pitching prospect Adrian Houser threw off a mound Saturday for the first time since undergoing an emergency appendectomy last month. He is entering his first full season since a 2016 Tommy John surgery, and despite being a bit behind the other pitchers in camp, Brewers manager Craig Counsell considers Houser among the group of prospects who can help at the big league level as soon as the middle of this season.

"When I mentioned [Freddy] Peralta and [Taylor] Williams the other day, I should have mentioned Houser, too, because he falls into a similar category, for me," said Counsell, who has also mentioned Corbin Burnes in that class. "A set of guys who we think can help us this year. One more little step certainly puts him in the mix for a spot on our staff this year."

Brewers' Top 30 prospects

Houser, one of four prospects who came to the Brewers from the Astros in a 2015 trade for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers, got a taste of the Majors at the end of the '15 season before succumbing to the elbow injury the following year.

Last call

• Before beginning his 48th season calling games on the Brewers Radio Network, Bob Uecker told a tale of his harrowing start to his offseason. After Uecker went home to Arizona last October, he was changing a light bulb outside his home when he was bit on the right knee by a brown recluse spider. Uecker required surgery but was back to full strength long before he went on the air Saturday with broadcast partner Jeff Levering.

Tweet from @Brewers: Ah, the sound of summer. ������ pic.twitter.com/Xq2hCzaa2K

Up next: A pair of Brewers newcomers are scheduled to pitch against the D-backs on Sunday in Scottsdale, though one is a familiar face. After Jhoulys Chacin makes the start for Milwaukee, all-time Brewers strikeout leader Yovani Gallardo will follow, launching his bid for a spot in the starting rotation or the bullpen. Zack Greinke starts for Arizona. Bill Schroeder and Lane Grindle will have the call in the first exclusive Brewers.com webcast of the spring.

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

Florial's potential has Yankees ecstatic

Club high on 20-year-old prospect who will likely start year at Class A Advanced
MLB.com @BryanHoch

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Faces beam when Estevan Florial's name is mentioned around the Yankees' talent evaluators, and as the 20-year-old phenom settles into his first Major League Spring Training, manager Aaron Boone said that it is already apparent why the center fielder is held in high regard.

Ranked as the Yankees' No. 3 prospect by MLB Pipeline and the No. 44 prospect in all of baseball, Florial ripped a stand-up sixth-inning triple to right-center field in Saturday's 4-1 Grapefruit League victory over the Pirates at LECOM Park.

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Faces beam when Estevan Florial's name is mentioned around the Yankees' talent evaluators, and as the 20-year-old phenom settles into his first Major League Spring Training, manager Aaron Boone said that it is already apparent why the center fielder is held in high regard.

Ranked as the Yankees' No. 3 prospect by MLB Pipeline and the No. 44 prospect in all of baseball, Florial ripped a stand-up sixth-inning triple to right-center field in Saturday's 4-1 Grapefruit League victory over the Pirates at LECOM Park.

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:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"He's one of those guys that I'm really excited to see these first couple of weeks, because he's going to get some opportunities to play," Boone said. "He's going to log some at-bats. We just want to get him as comfortable as possible. When we see him do that, even though that [triple] was the first one, it's not a surprise to us. The talent is real."

Florial hit .298/.372/.479 with 23 doubles, 13 homers and 57 RBIs in 110 games for Class A Charleston and Class A Advanced Tampa last year, and he wants to cut down on his strikeouts after fanning 148 times in 420 at-bats. He is expected to begin the season in the Florida State League.

Boone said that Florial's spring experience alongside established big leaguers should prove beneficial.

"There's just kind of a calm, a grace to the way he plays the game," Boone said. "There's no panic, really. Then you watch him ... he looks the part. He's someone me and the coaches get excited, like, 'Oh, Flo is going in.' You just get excited to see what he can do."

Gift of grab
Clint Frazier wowed the crowd with a leaping grab in left field that ended the second inning on Saturday, fighting the wind to rob Ryan Lavarnway of an extra-base hit. Frazier tumbled to the warning track and said that he banged his head into a chain-link fence covering the scoreboard.

"I've just got to make it look a little bit easier from here on out," Frazier said. "That way, I can have people trust in me whenever the ball is hit to me."

Frazier hit the ball hard in both at-bats Saturday, lining out to left field in the first inning and singling up the middle in the fourth before being picked off. Frazier said that he made adjustments to remove a hitch and limit the movement of his swing over the offseason.

"This is the best I've felt, as far as kind of being aware of what my body is doing and how it is supposed to do it," Frazier said. "In the past, I just tried to muscle everything. I created a lot of moving parts to hit the ball harder. I struck out a lot and I fouled off a lot of balls last year. I needed something to change."

Bumper stickers
Hitting coaches Marcus Thames and P.J. Pilittere have been repeating several key catchphrases to players early in camp, one of which concerns urging aggressiveness in the strike zone while laying off borderline pitches. Last season, the Yankees led the Majors in homers (241) and paced the American League in walks (616) while ranking 12th in the Majors in strikeouts (1,386).

"I want us to be obsessed with controlling the strike zone. That's one of our bumper stickers, if you will," Boone said. "And I know Marcus and P.J. are really driving that message home with our guys. We want to be great at that, because we feel like if we do that with our slug potential when you're controlling the strike zone, that's a dangerous combination."

Boone was asked what some of his other "bumper stickers" have been.

"I've got a lot. I'll unveil them as we go," Boone said. "You'll hear me repeat myself a little bit."

Bombers bits
• After singling in his first at-bat during his Yankees debut, Brandon Drury was plunked in the left hand by a pitch in the third inning. Drury remained in the game and said that he had treatment, but X-rays were not necessary.

Video: Hoch on the Yankees landing Drury in trade

Billy McKinney cracked a go-ahead three-run homer in the ninth inning. McKinney also played five innings at first base as he looks to provide depth behind Greg Bird and Tyler Austin.

• Infielder Thairo Estrada has resumed training on an elliptical machine as he recovers from a gunshot wound to his right thigh, sustained during a late January robbery attempt in Venezuela. Estrada is unlikely to be ready to begin the Minor League season.

• Right-hander Albert Abreu is recovering well from appendix surgery performed on March 7, Boone said. Rated as the Yankees' No. 7 prospect by MLB Pipeline, Abreu has been playing catch at the Yankees' complex.

Up next
The Yankees are on the road Sunday, visiting the Phillies in Clearwater, Fla., at 1:05 p.m. ET, and the game can be seen on MLB.TV and MLB Network. Left-hander Jordan Montgomery will start for New York opposite right-hander Aaron Nola for Philadelphia. The Yankees' lineup is scheduled to include Bird, Gleyber Torres, Jacoby Ellsbury and Aaron Hicks.

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

New York Yankees

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:

Hitless in debut, Acuna eager for 'results'

Braves' top prospect 'has handled himself remarkably well' at camp
MLB.com @mlbbowman

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Ronald Acuna spent last year proving he is as physically gifted as any of baseball's top prospects. Now as he progresses through his first big league camp, the Braves are getting a feel for how the 20-year-old phenom might deal with the hype and added pressure that he'll face once he reaches the Major League level.

"I think he has handled himself remarkably well, just watching him go about his business" Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "I think this kid has so much confidence in his abilities. He's going to see pitches he's never seen before as he progresses. He lived [with the attention] last year and during the winter. I think he probably couldn't wait to get down here and start playing."

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Ronald Acuna spent last year proving he is as physically gifted as any of baseball's top prospects. Now as he progresses through his first big league camp, the Braves are getting a feel for how the 20-year-old phenom might deal with the hype and added pressure that he'll face once he reaches the Major League level.

"I think he has handled himself remarkably well, just watching him go about his business" Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "I think this kid has so much confidence in his abilities. He's going to see pitches he's never seen before as he progresses. He lived [with the attention] last year and during the winter. I think he probably couldn't wait to get down here and start playing."

View Full Game Coverage

Provided the opportunity to make his Grapefruit League season debut during Saturdays' 6-1 loss to the Astros at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, Acuna certainly was deterred by the fact he struck out twice and went hitless in three at-bats.

"Everything felt the same," Acuna said. "My focus was to go out there and give it my all and give my best effort. The results weren't there, but tomorrow is another day. I'll get after it again."

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Acuna displayed some athleticism as he snared Tony Kemp's long drive near the warning track to end the second inning. But the most impressive thing he might have done was choose to remain in the dugout to watch the remainder of the game after being removed once he concluded his last scheduled plate appearance in the sixth inning.

Most players return to the clubhouse after being removed from a game. But without any prompting from his coaches, Acuna chose to soak in some more knowledge by staying in the dugout.

"He's an impressive kid," Snitker said. "There's a lot to like about him."

Acuna got a taste of the Grapefruit League when he was called over from Minor League camp to serve as an extra roster player in 13 games last year. But this marked the first time he played in a big league setting while being widely recognized as one of the game's top young players. He ranks No. 2 on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list.

Situated in the third spot of the lineup, Acuna took two healthy cuts as he fouled the first two pitches he saw from Collin McHugh in the first inning. He swung and missed on the third offering from the Astros right-hander, and then he fouled a few more pitches before producing a weak grounder to the right side against David Paulino in the fourth.

Acuna proved to be more patient as he got ahead of left-hander Framber Valdez with a 2-0 count in the sixth inning. But after looking at a pair of strikes, he swung and missed on a fastball to conclude his debut.

"I think he has a lot of expectations riding on him, and I think coming into this year, he's trying a little too much, but he'll settle in and just trust his skill because it's through the roof," Braves pitching prospect Mike Soroka said. "He's got more skill than anybody I've ever seen play or played with. I think he wanted to do some damage right away. I don't think you can blame him for that. He's an aggressive hitter and more often than not, once he gets his rhythm, those swings and misses will turn into scorched baseballs."

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.

Atlanta Braves, Ronald Acuna

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.

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

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 9-6 win over 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.

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CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies infielder Will Middlebrooks appeared to suffer a serious left leg injury in the eighth inning of Saturday afternoon's 9-6 win over 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.

View Full Game Coverage

Middlebrooks immediately rode to a local hospital for X-rays and further evaluation.

"Pretty emotional moment," Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. "He was disappointed to come out of the game, especially after busting his [rear end] the first five or six days [of camp] and being in really, really good condition and being excited about camp. We'll see how this goes. You put yourself in his position. A ton of hard work leads up to that moment. [He gave] everything he [had] on that play."

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"It was kind of one of those balls that's in between," Pullin said. "I was running hard and I didn't hear him call it, and I didn't call it because I wasn't sure if I could get to it. At the last minute I slid for it. I'm not sure if he called it." 

Pullin said Middlebrooks appeared to be in a lot of pain.

"Yeah," he said. "He wasn't doing too good." 

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

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 Sunday against the Astros, 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.

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