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 in the Iowa sun, 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, a grave worry circulated, shared but unspoken. 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 mattered little. 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 like nothing happened through the night.
"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."
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 model Angels starter Matthew 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. On Sunday, he pitched again in a game setting for the first time since that May day in Iowa. Wearing the same tri-colored socks, Poncedeleon threw two innings out of the bullpen against the Astros with no restrictions and no L screens. It was just him and the glove, and a professional hitter 60 feet, 6 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. And true to his word, Daniel Poncedeleon pitched again.
After the first day was done, Matheny approached his resilient righty with a question he'd soon regret.
"Eight months ago, did you expect to be standing where you are right now?" the skipper asked.
Without blinking, Poncedeleon responded.