Remember Dan Poncedeleon? He’s a 26-year-old Cardinals AAA pitcher who has made national sports headlines precisely once in the past two seasons. Last May, Dan took a scorching comebacker off his noggin that nearly killed him and put him in the hospital for an extended stay with a traumatic brain injury. His progress back has been closely followed, well-documented, and nothing short of miraculous.
Tonight, Dan Poncedeleon made his MLB debut. He was on the 25-man roster earlier this year in the bullpen, but never got onto the field. This is heartwarming for all the right reasons, but realistically, going into tonight’s game, I wasn’t sanguine about Dan’s chances of really excelling. What did it matter though? He’s already won just by being here.
Dan faced the Reds, who have been excellent since Jim Riggleman took over for crusty old Bryan Price, who was sacked for being a bad manager. To the extent the Reds have a weakness in the Riggleman era, it’s pitching. Their bats are hot with the emergence of Scooter Gennett and Eugenio Suarez to complement stalwart Joey Votto, and they play in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in MLB. Ponce has the benefit of being a relative unknown, but his pedestrian profile and OK-strikeout, bad-walk AAA numbers don’t portend big success against a high-octane MLB offense.
I tuned in around about the fifth inning, and I was surprised to see a 0-0 pitcher’s duel, with Ponce somewhere in the sixties on pitch count. His opponent, Luis Castillo, debuted last year to great success but has struggled mightily to approach anything good about his first cup of coffee. Dan didn’t overpower the Reds lineup, but he attacked their hitters in the zone, avoiding the walks that have given caution to his great AAA stats this year. Dan made it out of the fifth. Good job, Dan.
In the top of the sixth, Matt Carpenter led off with a double. If you haven’t been paying attention, Matt Carpenter has been ridiculously good this year, unbelievably good this month, and downright (little-g) godlike this week. Anyway, he continued that. All-Star Yadier Molina poked one into left-center, and Carpenter, though not fleet of foot, did enough to score. Yadi landed on second. Cardinals lead 1-0.
Paul DeJong stepped to the plate. on a 1-0 count, he unleashed hell on a 96 mph two seamer, down and in. It was beautiful, until Billy Hamilton caught it five feet in front of the centerfield fence. Yadi missed the opportunity to advance on the play with some pretty poor baserunning, and ended up stranded after Marcell Ozuna flied out and Jose Martinez struck out.
Ponce came back out for the bottom of the frame and retired the Reds in order. Imagine my surprise as I realized that he had not allowed a hit all night.
Tommy Pham, better lately after a brutal stretch between June and July, led off the top of the seventh with a triple. The umpires said he was out after review, and the official scorekeeper said it was a double, but he made it to third safely. He just slid too hard and couldn’t quiiiiiiite maintain contact with the bag. (I hate review in applications like this.) Fowler and Greg Garcia grounded out, 6-3 and 5-3, on the next two pitches.
Ponce returned for the bottom of the seventh. I knew in my heart that as his pitch count climbed, he would not finish the CG no-no. So I hoped he would finish the 7-inning no-no. After a herculean effort that ended with a full-count walk to Joey Votto, Ponce buckled down to get flyouts to left from Suarez, Jesse Winker, and Tucker Barnhart. Something truly beautiful was going on.
Shildt squashed speculation about whether Dan would return for the eighth by pinch-hitting for him to begin the top of the frame. The Cardinals went in order. Jordan Hicks gave up a single on a 101-mph sinker to a pinch hitter I know nothing about, losing the combined no-hitter bid, which nobody cares about anyway. Billy Hamilton and Jose Peraza grounded out, and we were on to the ninth.
The Cards offense continued looking lackluster in the top of the ninth, going down in order. Everybody not named Matt Carpenter is apparently incapable of hitting. As the end approached, Cards stopper Bud Norris warmed. And maybe that is enough of a summary to suffice.
But no, I lived through it, so you get to as well, dear reader. Norris struck out Scooter Gennett and gave up what should have been a single to Joey Votto, but for a scintillating diving save by Marcell Ozuna. Two pitches later, Ol’ Bud grooved one to Eugenio Suarez, who obligingly deposited his twentieth homer of the season in the left-center seats. Reds tie, 1-1.
I dreaded the thought of bonus baseball, after my preferred team had crapped all over such a beautiful, delicate thing. A ninth-round AAAA farmhand spins 7 innings of no-hit baseball against one of the most potent offenses in the NL just 15 months after nearly dying and sustaining a brain injury, protecting a 1-run lead for a good but frustrating club at the dawn of a new era of management? Of course we screwed this up.
And screw it up we did. From Suarez’s dinger, it was death by a thousand cuts. Seeing eye grounder to Winker. Another grounder single to Barnhart. Adam Duvall walks on a full count, two pitches after spoiling strike 3 with a frustrating foul off. Bases juiced to a pinch-hitter named Dilson. And of course Dilson singled on the first pitch he saw, a convenient centrally-located cutter.
Reds win, 2-1.