Ponce's touching cleats honor mom in debut

August 4th, 2020

’s Major League debut didn’t exactly go according to plan. The Pirates activated him from the taxi squad on Sunday morning, and after a rain delay in the ninth inning, he took the mound at Wrigley Field in the 11th with an automatic runner on second base. Two batters later, the Cubs were celebrating a walk-off victory, and Ponce was walking off the mound.

But the outcome didn’t make the accomplishment of reaching the Majors any less special. The 26-year-old right-hander, acquired from the Brewers in exchange for Jordan Lyles last July, reached the Majors exactly a year after making his debut in the Pirates' organization for Double-A Altoona.

“It was a dream come true. Obviously, everybody knows that,” Ponce said Monday afternoon. “It was a little difficult at the same time. I wasn’t able to share it with one person in particular, but it was a whirlwind of emotions.”

That one person was Ponce’s mother, Jennifer, who passed away on Dec. 1, 2017, after being diagnosed earlier that year with Stage 4 brain cancer. Her name was printed on left side of the cleats Ponce wore during his debut, with his last name on the right side and a grey ribbon to promote brain cancer awareness on each heel.

“Those cleats meant a lot to me. I knew that [Sunday was] the only day that they were going to be worn, no matter what, so those things will be put up for the rest of my life,” Ponce said. “They had a lot of special meanings, coming from my hometown, the area code of where I’m from. And I’m just proud to be able to say that I could be able to share the field with all these great guys.”

Afterward, Ponce called his father, Joe, and received a heartfelt text message from his sister, Devan.

“She’s like, ‘You know what? No matter what happened, you’re still a winner in my heart, because you won and you were able to make your dream a reality. So for you and our family, you’ll always be a winner, because you did what you set out to do,’” Ponce said.

Roster moves
The Pirates selected the contract of right-hander to add a fresh arm to their bullpen before Monday’s series opener against the Twins at Target Field.

Pittsburgh had an open spot on its 30-man active roster after designating for assignment left-hander Robbie Erlin on Sunday. The Pirates claimed Ríos off waivers from the Phillies exactly a year ago, Aug. 3, 2019. He allowed six runs on 10 hits and five walks while striking out 10 over 10 1/3 innings out of the bullpen last September.

The Pirates outrighted Ríos off their 40-man roster when they set their 60-man player pool for this season on June 28, but he was still included in the player pool and assigned to the club’s alternate training site in Altoona, Pa.

To make room for Ríos on their 40-man roster, the Pirates transferred reliever to the 45-day injured list. Pittsburgh placed Feliz on the 10-day injured list on Sunday with “right forearm discomfort” but waited for further testing before moving him to the 45-day IL. According to manager Derek Shelton, Feliz was diagnosed with a right forearm/elbow strain.

With Feliz now sidelined for most of the season, if not all of it, the Pirates are without four relievers who were high atop their bullpen’s depth chart entering Summer Camp: closer , setup man , Feliz and right-hander .

Pittsburgh hasn’t offered any clarity on the status of Crick (strained right shoulder) or Holmes (strained right forearm), but the club is hoping to have Kela back soon now that he has resumed working out at PNC Park after missing a month of workouts and games due to positive COVID-19 tests.

Around the horn
made his second straight start in center field on Monday, giving him five starts in the outfield this season and none at his natural shortstop position. Pittsburgh started at shortstop on Monday and moved Opening Day shortstop to second base, but Shelton said the Pirates still intend to use Tucker in the infield at some point this season.

“His versatility’s important to us,” Shelton said. “It’s just right now, the opportunity for him to get at-bats has been more in the outfield.”

Tucker, for his part, homered on the first pitch of Monday's affair.

• Shelton said he hadn’t heard anything that led him to believe right-hander would be unable to pitch the next time he’s needed. Kuhl exited Sunday’s 2-1 loss at Wrigley Field due to an abrasion to the cuticle of his right index finger.

• Shelton said the Pirates have not yet named a starter for Thursday’s game against the Twins at PNC Park. That spot previously belonged to right-hander , who is on the 10-day injured list due to left side discomfort. Right-hander is the most likely candidate to fill that spot in the rotation.