ST. LOUIS -- Last May, Daniel Poncedeleon lay on the ground on a Triple-A field in Iowa, that close to his Major League dreams and suddenly fighting for his life. On Monday, he walked into the Cardinals' clubhouse, capping a remarkable recovery and one of the best comeback stories in
ST. LOUIS -- Last May, Daniel Poncedeleon lay on the ground on a Triple-A field in Iowa, that close to his Major League dreams and suddenly fighting for his life. On Monday, he walked into the Cardinals' clubhouse, capping a remarkable recovery and one of the best comeback stories in baseball this year.
The arrival of Poncedeleon comes on the heels of a splendid two-month stretch at Triple-A Memphis, where the 26-year-old right hander went 5-2 with a 2.41 ERA across 12 games (11 starts). It also comes 13 months removed from a career-threatening brain injury sustained last May, when a Victor Caratini comebacker struck Poncedeleon in the right temple, fracturing his skull.
"I was hoping everyone would forget about it," he said. "Notice me as a pitcher and not a guy who got hit in the head."
But the severity of the ordeal, the gruesome images it produced and the arduous journey it sparked make that impossible. Poncedeleon required an emergency craniotomy to repair an epidural hematoma -- bleeding from his brain -- followed by weeks of rehab and three months of inactivity. He did not return to game action until this spring, wearing a carbon fiber insert under his hat to prevent reinjury. He will wear the protective insert across the dent in his right temple -- which he says "will always be there" -- if and when he takes the mound at Busch Stadium for the first time.
It's an MLB debut that appears imminent after the club purchased Poncedeleon's contract from Triple-A Memphis on Monday, when the righty was summoned to reinforce a bullpen president of baseball operations John Mozeliak called "in an exhaustive state." The club optioned Luke Voit in a corresponding move.
"Last year when we were talking about the ups and downs of our bullpen, there were two names that stood out to me as guys who could help our club. One was Alex Reyes and the other was Daniel Poncedeleon," Mozeliak said. "A year ago he was still in the ICU and obviously dealing with a very scary injury. His story is amazing and we couldn't be more excited for him, and that's just true perseverance,"
The way Poncedeleon sees it, he was a Major League longshot well before he had a scar. He battled elbow trouble and cycled through four colleges. His ninth-round selection out of Embry-Riddle University in 2014 prompted a steady climb up the Cardinals' farm system, absent of much bonus leeway or prospect pedigree, in the years that followed. He developed into one of Memphis' top starters last spring at age 25, going 2-0 with a 2.17 ERA in six starts. Then one pitch sent back up the middle put more than his career in jeopardy.
"That guy's sadness of the story at the time was, we're talking about a guy who, probably it was just a matter of time achieving that dream," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "Daniel was beating a lot of odds, and to that he'd done everything himself to get to that point and then have to set him back and wonder if he'd ever be on the mound again, and to see it all go full circle."
Standing at his new locker Monday, a fresh No. 62 jersey hanging behind him, Poncedeleon recounted all of it. He said he almost cried when hearing the news of his promotion. His wife, Jennifer, did. His father, Ramon, screamed into the phone before booking a flight to St. Louis. More than anything, Poncedeleon said he thought of his young son, Chasen, who was only a few months old when his father was taken from a baseball mound on a stretcher, barely able to wiggle his toes.
"It's been a long road. But it's also taught me a lot and helped me grow up a bit," Poncedeleon said. "The dent will always be there. But I'm not going to let it define me."
AROUND THE HORN
Wearing a light brace under his glove, Paul DeJong participated in baseball activities Monday, fielding grounders for the first time since fracturing the fifth metacarpal in his right hand May 17. DeJong will consult with doctors again later this week, after which he could ramp up baseball activity "as tolerated," Mozeliak said. The Cardinals are hopeful he can return before the All-Star break.
• Though he is eligible to return from the hip impingement that landed him on the DL on May 26, the club is unlikely to activate Greg Holland after the reliever's struggles continued at Triple-A Memphis. Holland allowed three earned runs in the Redbirds' 7-6 loss on Monday, his third rehab appearance with the affiliate. He walked four hitters across two innings in his previous two appearances.
"We're still not at that point where I think you can find a place for him," Mozeliak said.
• The situation is different for the Cardinals' other reliever on a rehab assignment at Memphis, righty Matt Bowman. Mozeliak said the club plans to activate Bowman by the end of the week, after Bowman made three appearances without a resurfacing of the blisters to his middle and index fingers.
• Mozeliak revealed right-hander Ryan Helsley has been inactive at Memphis due to "shoulder fatigue." The club's No. 4 prospect per MLB Pipeline, the hard-throwing Helsley is 5-3 with a 4.12 in 12 starts across two levels this season, including 2-1 with a 3.71 ERA in five starts at Memphis.
"For us, its really taking a timeout. His volume was up. For us, it's more being conservative and trying to be smart," Mozeliak said. "I'm not overly concerned, but any time you have to put someone on the DL, it's real."
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.