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Poncedeleon's 'magical' no-hit debut botched by Cardinals bullpen

Poncedeleon's 'magical' no-hit debut botched by Cardinals bullpen


CINCINNATI • Less than 15 months after a line drive fractured his skull, threatened his life and sent him from emergency surgery into the unknown, Daniel Poncedeleon turned his major-league debut Monday into a stirring, unerring beginning for him that once seemed unimaginable.

The ending for the Cardinals was all too predictable.

Poncedeleon became the first Cardinal in more than 100 years to throw seven no-hit innings in his first start and, his pitch count exhausted, he turned a 1-0 lead and a no-hitter over to the bullpen for the final two innings. The no-hitter vanished in the eighth, the lead in the ninth, and the game fell apart, decidedly, on the final swing.

Cincinnati pinch-hitter Dilson Herrera tagged a bases-loaded, two-out single off closer Bud Norris to flip the fairy tale into a 2-1 loss at Great American Ball Park and leave the Cardinals with just another faulty fable in the late innings.

“Pretty frustrated,” said Norris, who allowed a solo homer to tie the score and the single to lose. “You never want to have this. Especially the way Ponce threw the ball and this road trip — what it means for us going forward. This is a tough one.”

The loss dropped the Cardinals to 50-50 in the first 100 games of the season, which is as much their record as their stance on the trade deadline. The front office has been using this road trip and eight games against the first-place Chicago Cubs to measure what direction to turn before July 31. A player like Norris, on a one-year deal, could find himself moved for a prospect, or the Cardinals could look to overhaul the bullpen and, in the words used last week as they dismissed manager Mike Matheny, “salvage the season.” First, the road trip.

With three losses at Wrigley this past weekend, the Cardinals must win the two remaining games against Cincinnati just to stay even on the road.

The step back Monday hit harder because of the many steps Poncedeleon took to come back from emergency surgery, to get through months of rehab, to return to the mound, unflinching, to reach competition, and — remarkably — to see the majors.

“Clearly it hurts,” manager Mike Shildt said. “You’ve got guys in the clubhouse who are hurting that laid it out there. The more you lay it out there the more it’s going to hurt when you don’t bring it home. They’re competing. They’re wanting this thing to move in the direction we know it can be.”

Poncedeleon and Tuesday starter Austin Gomber, a lefty rookie, traveled together Sunday from Class AAA Memphis to Cincinnati. Along the way they talked about how they and Wednesday starter Jack Flaherty had started consecutive games before — at Class A, three years ago. In the crucible of July, as the Cardinals are searching for their footing, they are also starting three rookies in the three-game series at Cincinnati. It is the first time since 1997 that the Cardinals will have the rookie hat trick, and it is the first time since August 1959 that the team will do that outside September and the expanded rosters.

Against the Phillies almost 60 years ago, the Cardinals started rookies Marshall Bridges, Ernie Broglio and future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson.

Like Poncedeleon, Gomber will be making his first major-league start Tuesday. Despite his no-hit seven innings, it could be Poncedeleon headed back to Class AAA to make room for his once, present and future teammate. The righthander left an impression.

“I don’t know if words can describe that,” Shildt said. “Talk about magical.”

• CARDINALS CHAT: Rick Hummel Live at 11 a.m.

• CARDS TALK: Fans debate decision to pull Poncedeleon

It didn’t feel magical in the moment. During his warmup in the bullpen, Poncedeleon’s neck stiffened so much that he couldn’t turn it to look at home plate. He had one of the team’s trainers loosen his neck up just so he could see the catcher.

“I was a little nervous then,” he said.

Poncedeleon, who threw a one-hitter in his previous start at Class AAA, got help from Marcell Ozuna’s catches in left field throughout the start, including a sinking liner snagged in the first inning. Poncedeleon elevated with a 95 mph fastball to strike out the first batter, Eugenio Suarez, of the second inning, and the righthander never had an inning where he had more than one baserunner.

At one of the most difficult parks in the division to pitch in, Poncedeleon worked with a scoreless tie through five innings and didn’t budge. He also didn’t throw a curveball and had a limited feel for his two-seam fastball.

“Obviously luck and great defense,” he said.

He retired 11 of the final 12 batters he faced. The only rookie to take a no-hitter deeper into his debut this season was Dodgers righthander Ross Stripling, and he got through 7 1/3 innings.

Poncedeleon didn’t get that chance because it took 116 pitches for him to get 21 outs, and his spot in the order came up in a 1-0 game. Harrison Bader pinch-hit for him.

“First,” Poncedeleon said, “I’m a liability at the plate. I struck out twice looking. It's a one-run game. We needed the AB. I 100 percent understand."

• BOX SCORE: Reds 2, Cardinals 1

• WILD CARD STANDINGS: Cards 5½ games back

The Cardinals staked Poncedeleon to a 1-0 lead when Matt Carpenter opened the sixth with a double and scored on Yadier Molina’s RBI single. With no outs, Molina stood at second when Ozuna drilled a ball to center. Molina said he got caught “in between” and did not advance. That proved costly as the next batter would have had a sacrifice fly. In the seventh, Tommy Pham drilled a ball to the wall in center and raced for third, where he arrived safely. But as he popped up, third baseman Suarez kept the glove at Pham’s hip. Replay showed that Pham was out instead of at third with no outs.

Both plays cost the Cardinals an added run and left Jordan Hicks in the eighth and Norris with no net. Hicks walked his rope. Norris got two outs before his wobbled.

A pitch drifted and Suarez put it in the seats to tie the score at 1-1.

The next three batters reached base against Norris, with the last, Adam Duvall, drawing a strategic walk to get Norris the more favorable matchup vs. a pinch-hitter. Herrera hit the first pitch he saw to center for the winner.

Though the ending soured, Poncedeleon showed this is just a start.

“I had a lead with two outs and didn’t get it done,” Norris said. “I need to make one more pitch, get a ground ball, and get out of it. We can talk late in the year, August and September, how those ones count a little more. They all count for a reason. Some just sting a little bit more. This one stung.”

Sports columnist Jeff Gordon grades the pitchers

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