By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — One could call it ‘The Battle for the Bottom’ or ‘The Interim Manager Series,’ these three games in Great American Ball Park between the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals.
With their three-game weekend sweep of the Reds, the Pittsburgh Pirates vaulted over the Cardinals and into third place. So now it is the Cardinals the Reds are trying to catch to scramble out of last place.
And the managers, Cincinnati’s Jim Riggleman and St. Louis’ Mike Shildt, both carry the ‘interim’ tag in front of their names, temporary skippers after the Reds fired Bryan Price and the Cardinals fired Mike Matheny.
The game? Some nifty stuff. With the Reds down to their last out, trailing by a run with nobody on base, Eugenio Suarez homered into the left field seats to dramatically tie the game.
The Reds then filled the bases and pinch-hitter Dilson Herrera drilled a first-pitch single to left field, a game-winning walk-off hit that provided the Reds with a 2-1 victory.
While those are nifty story lines, none can usurp the fairy tale of St. Louis pitcher Daniel Poncedeleon.
He made his major league debut Monday night and what a coming-out party it was. He pitched seven no-hit innings — no runs, no hit — but Shildt took him down after seven innings and 116 pitches, clearly the right move.
There is, though, much, much more to this story — a Paul Harvey rest of the story tale. A little more than a year ago there was a question over whether Poncedeleon would survive the night, let along live to walk to the pitching mound again.
On May 9 of last year, while pitching for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, the 26-year-old right hander was hit on the right temple with a line drive. He was stretchered off the field and rushed to a hospital. It was determined he had a fracture and there was bleeding on the brain, requiring emergency surgery.
Beating heayy odds, Poncedeleon reported to spring training and was sent back to Memphis, where he was brilliant — 9-and-3 with a 2.15 earned run average and he struck out 10.5 hitters per nine innings. While doing it, he wears a custom-made carbon fiber shield under his hat and he wears clear Oakley safety glasses.
His minor-league success earned him a promotion and he made his major league debut Monday night for the Cardinals against the Reds.
And what a beautiful introduction he made to the Reds. Where do the Cardinals find these guys? Poncedeleon was the 285th player picked in the 2014 draft out of tiny Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
With an assortment of two-seam fastballs, change-ups and a few cutters, Poncedeleon held the Reds without a hit.
“I was hoping everyone would forget about it and notice me as a pitcher and not a guy who got hit in the head,” he said. “The dent will always be there. But it’s not going to define me.”
The Reds certainly made no dents in the young man’s armor.
“I don’t know if words can describe that,” said Shildt. “I mean, you talk about magical. What he dealt with, what he has come back from, making his major league debut, seven innings without giving up a hit. That is what is magical and special about this game. One of the reasons we all love this game is to see stories like that. I wish it had ended better for him.”
Poncedeleon plans to change his last name to Ponce De Leon, the name of the explorer who thought he discovered the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, Fla. That was some fountain he was drinking from Monday night.
“This journey was not drawn up by me, not myself,” he said. “There is a greater one drawing up this plan and this story. It’s God’s plan,” he said.
Of his personal game plan, Poncedeleon did not have lofty plans, no thoughts of, “Hey, I’m going out and throw a no-hitter.” Instead, he spouted the usual cliches from the pitcher’s almanac: “I just wanted to throw some strikes, get our team deep into the game and give them a chance. It was an unfortunate loss.”
He claims thoughts of a no-hitter never danced in his head and said, “No, I just wanted to win. I was just pissed that I couldn’t put the ball in play (two strikeouts). To be honest I was most nervous at the plate when I was trying to hit.”
He also said he tweaked his neck warming up in the bullpen before the game and couldn’t turn his head toward home plate. But some quick massage work by the St. Louis medical staff unkinked him.
Poncedeleon fully understood his removal, even with a no-hitter and said, “Ah, yeah. First off all, I’m a liability at the plate trying to hit, struck out twice looking (Shildt pinch-hit for him in the eighth, but that wasn’t why he took him out in a 1-0 game). And I was more than 100 pitches in. What, 116 pitches? There you go.”
Said Shildt, “We had already decided the last batter he faced in the seventh would be it. He had done his part. He was working, getting after it. But his pitch count was up there. It was his time for him to go.
“You didn’t see a lot of comfortable swings against him and he had guys off balance all night,” Shildt added. “He was working everything with all his pitches, working ahead and attacking the zone. You can’t say enough about what he did.”
Reds starter Luis Castillo was nearly as efficient as Poncedeleon. He held the Cardinals to no runs and five hits through five innings.
Matt Carpenter, just as big a nemesis to the Reds as Milwaukee’s Eric Thames and Pittsburgh’s Corey Dickerson, led the sixth with a double to right field. Catcher Yadier Molina, booed heavily, as always, by Reds fans, drove a single to left and it was 1-0.
Center fielder Billy Hamilton took a home run away from Tom Pham, leading off the seventh. Hamilton didn’t catch the ball, but he went above the wall and swatted the ball back onto the field. Pham slid into third with an apparent triple, but a replay/review revealed Pham’s foot came off the base and Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez tagged him out.
Poncedeleon gave up a two-out walk to Tucker Barnhart in the third, a one-out walk to Joey Votto in the fourth and a leadoff walk to Votto in the seventh and that was it.
The no-hitter ended in the eighth inning against fire-breathing relief pitcher Jordan Hicks when pinch-hitter Phillip Ervin poked a line drive single to center. He moved into possible game-tying scoring position at second when Billy Hamilton grounded out, but Jose Peraza grounded out to third base to leave it 1-0 after eight innings.
St. Louis closer Bud Norris arrived in the ninth and caught pinch-hitter Scooter Gennett looking at strike three, retired slump-shrouded Joey Votto (0-8, 3 walks on the homestand) on a sliding catch by left fielder Marcell Ozuna and then. . .crash, bang, boom…Eugenio Suarez tied it with a drive into the left field seats, his 20th home run and a 1-1 game.
It was Cincinnati’s second hit of the game and it quickly became three and four when both Jesse Winker and Tucker Barnhart singled, putting the potential game-ending run on second base with two outs. Adam Duvall walked on a full count to fill the bases and Riggleman sent up pinch-hitter Dilson Herrera.
Once again. . .crash, bang, boom. . .Herrera drilled the first pitch into left field to end it, 2-1. It was the second time this season the Reds scored all their runs in a game with two outs and nobody on in the ninth inning.
Remember Cleveland? The Reds were down 4-0 in the ninth and scored seven runs with two outs to win, 7-4.