Remarkable Recovery

Redbirds pitcher Daniel Poncedeleon survived line drive to head to become All-Star

By Don Wade

The dream had come true, at least part of it. Thirteen months after being struck in the head by a line drive while pitching for the Memphis Redbirds at Iowa, Daniel Poncedeleon was in the majors wearing a St. Louis Cardinals uniform. He hadn’t just recovered from a career-threatening injury, a life-threatening moment, he was in the big leagues.

As fortune would have it, he would not get into a game before being sent back down to Triple-A Memphis. It’s the kind of thing that happens all the time in baseball.

But he was still a story during his brief stint with the Cardinals, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch writing about his amazing recovery and his having to undergo emergency surgery on his brain to stop bleeding and swelling.

Memphis Redbirds pitcher Daniel Poncedeleon survived being struck in the head by a line drive in May 2017 and earned a spot on the Pacific Coast League All-Star team this year. (Kevin Lanlgey/Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

“I was hoping everyone would forget about it and notice me as a pitcher, not as a guy who got hit in the head,” Poncedeleon said while with the Cardinals.

Although the Cardinals have not summoned him to the majors again, Poncedeleon is getting notice as a pitcher. He made the Pacific Coast League All-Star team on the strength of his 2.39 earned run average and 98 strikeouts, both of which rank second in the PCL. The 6-4 right-hander also has an 8-3 record and has held right-handed hitters to a .189 batting average.

That’s what he and everyone around him would rather talk about – not May 9, 2017.

“When I talk about it, I get images in my head and it’s not fun,” said Memphis manager Stubby Clapp. “It’s done, over with.”

Poncedeleon did not pitch the rest of the 2017 season.

“We deal with a lot of different injuries in our game,” John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations, told the Post-Dispatch. “But not usually one that you’re reflecting on someone’s future in terms of living or dying.”

To hear Poncedeleon now, he moved past the life-and-death questions to the goal of returning to the pitching mound as soon as he could.

“Probably two months into my recovery I wasn’t thinking (about what happened),” he said in the Redbirds’ clubhouse after his most-recent victory. “I just kept thinking when am I gonna get back, when am I gonna play. Any fear, I give it to God and let it go.”

After getting back on the mound in spring training this year (he reportedly has worn a protective insert in his cap) he quickly turned his attention to his craft. Poncedeleon was a heavy two-seam fastball guy. The pitch had plenty of movement and run, but at times he struggled to corral the control.

“When I get sent down in spring training our pitching coordinator Tim Leveque came up to me and is like, `You should try throwing the four-seam.’ And I was like, `I don’t think so,’ ” Poncedeleon said.

Reluctantly, he devoted an inning to throwing the four-seam; it typically comes with a little more velocity but less movement. He liked what he saw.

So he made a bigger commitment.

“The next game I threw only four-seams and it worked out really well,” he said. “I haven’t thrown a two-seam since.”

Said Clapp: “He’s got a knack for the swing-and-miss fastball. It’s been slow progress, but progress. His strikeouts are up, his ERA is down. What’s in his heart, and the mental toughness he has shown, is awesome.”

And while there is no doubt more to that journey than Poncedeleon cares to share, he is also confident that listening to Leveque and switching from the two-seam fastball to the four-seam fastball has played a significant role in his season.

And will for the rest of his career.

“That was actually the pitch I threw when I got hit in the head – a two-seam right down the middle,” he said. “So the four-seam has been a life-changer.”