Ponce de Leon not rattled by tough start

Oviedo among latest roster cuts; Kim slated for return against Marlins

March 26th, 2021

As enters a rather crucial year in his career, it’d be hard to blame him if external pressures were to creep into his performance. The Cardinals right-hander is 29, with just one full Major League season on his resume and without a defined role heading into the 2021 season (at least officially).

But that’s not the case, Ponce de Leon said, after working through rough patches in Thursday night’s 3-0 loss to the Astros. He walked six batters over 4 1/3 innings, including five in the first three frames.

“I'd say in past years, I feel like if I gave up one run, I'm getting sent down right there on the mound,” Ponce de Leon said. “But this year, I'm not pressing as much. I feel pretty good.”

Ponce de Leon was pulled after throwing 25 pitches and recording two outs in the first, then he returned for the second, and settled in for three scoreless frames before getting nicked again in the fifth.

It was Ponce de Leon’s final tuneup of the spring (92 pitches), and while he’s awaiting firm word on where he’ll start the season -- in the bullpen or rotation -- it’s looking likelier by the day that will be in the rotation.

The Cardinals, facing a pair of injuries in their starting corps, have opportunities for pitchers to step up. Ponce de Leon and John Gant are hoping to fill those roles. For Ponce de Leon, specifically, those years of worrying one poor outing could end his time in the Majors are starting to dwindle. Thursday wasn’t exactly a moment to dispel his past, but a microcosm of how far he’s come.

“Once you establish yourself, you get the benefit of the doubt,” manager Mike Shildt said. “Ponce has earned enough opportunities to get some benefits of the doubt.”

More roster cuts

After Thursday’s loss, the Cards trimmed their roster in camp to 36 players by optioning right-hander Johan Oviedo and re-assigning pitchers Jesus Cruz, Evan Kruczynski, Matthew Liberatore, Zack Thompson and Tommy Parsons, infielder Nolan Gorman, and outfielder Matt Szczur to Minor League camp.

Oviedo (No. 10) was in contention for a roster spot, but he only appeared in one Grapefruit League game, while Liberatore (No. 2), Thompson (No. 5) and Gorman (No. 3) represent the last remaining St. Louis Top 30 Prospects by MLB Pipeline heading to the Minor League side, outside of No. 1 prospect Dylan Carlson, who’ll be on the Opening Day roster. Undrafted and non-rostered, Parsons earned wide respect for his performance (2.00 ERA across six games), while Szczur was looking to provide outfield depth.

Kim set for return

Kwang Hyun Kim will make one Grapefruit League appearance before camp ends, and it’ll likely come on Saturday against the Marlins, Shildt said. Kim will target two-three innings of work in what’ll be his first spring start since March 8, but a final plan is still being hammered out.

Kim was shut down for a few days with back tightness that flared up in a bullpen session following that March 8 outing. He’s thrown a bullpen session and took part in a simulated game on Monday since he was first announced to be shut down on March 13.

The 32-year-old lefty Kim is being built back up in a starter’s role, and while the Cards have been optimistic that he can return for the start of the year, Shildt said after Thursday’s game, when asked about Ponce de Leon’s chances in the rotation, that “we have two starters that aren’t going to start the season with us,” with Miles Mikolas already ruled out for the start of the season.

Paying homage to a legend

Shildt on Thursday took a moment to pay homage to a St. Louis icon. Bob Plager -- an original St. Louis Blues hockey player -- died in a car crash on Interstate 64 on Wednesday at the age of 78.

“I want to pass along condolences to the Blues family and the city of St. Louis for the loss of Bobby Plager,” Shildt said. “Clearly a local icon and a Blues great, not only a player, but also an ambassador for the organization. Our hearts are with his family and the Blues organization in that loss.”

Around the horn

• The Cardinals faced off against the Marlins in a “B” game on Thursday, though only two roster regulars -- Andrew Miller and Tyler Webb -- took part in the contest. Both lefties figure to be integral parts of the bullpen this season, and both were said to be efficient against the Marlins, with Miller focusing on sharpening his two-seamer.

• St. Louis was without a baserunner until two out in the seventh inning on Thursday, when Nolan Arenado doubled down the left-field line for his second extra-base hit of the spring. All told, it’s been a rather quiet start for Arenado, who’s fitting in quite well with his new team, but is slashing just .195/.277/.244 through 17 games.

• Ryan Helsley worked himself into a bases-loaded jam with none out against the Astros, but he escaped with a popout and a double-play ball. The righty figures to get high-leverage chances during the regular season, and Thursday was a prime reason.