Curve Ball

Eagle standout Daniel Ponce de Leon conquers injury and the AAA shuffle to make a historic MLB debut

When Daniel Ponce de Leon stepped on the mound at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark on July 23, 2018, he became the first-ever Embry-Riddle draftee to appear in a Major League Baseball (MLB) game. What followed was one of the greatest pitching debuts in baseball history. The 26-year-old right-hander for the St. Louis Cardinals fired seven, no-hit innings against the Cincinnati Reds, becoming just the fifth pitcher in MLB’s expansion era (since 1961) to take a no-hit bid through seven innings in his Major League debut.

The La Mirada, California, native has now appeared in 21 games for the Cardinals (as of Aug. 20, 2019), including 11 starts, posting a 3.30 ERA in 73.2 innings of work. Over the last two seasons, Ponce de Leon has split time between the Cardinals and their Triple-A affiliate, the Memphis Redbirds, earning Pacific Coast League All-Star honors for Memphis in 2018.

The shuttling back and forth between a Major League club and its Minor League affiliates is common for young players early in their careers, and for Ponce de Leon, a change of scenery is nothing new.

New Surroundings and a Change of Plans

Ponce de Leon started his collegiate career at the University of Arizona in 2011, before stops at Cypress Junior College (2012) and the University of Houston (2013). A three-time MLB draftee, Ponce de Leon turned down the Rays in 2010 and the Reds in 2012. An injury concern caused the Cubs to walk away in 2013. Prior to the 2014 season, he transferred to Embry-Riddle with only one thing on his mind.

But plans change.

“When I came to Embry-Riddle, I told myself I was purely focusing on baseball, but then I found a wife,” Ponce de Leon says. “It’s crazy to look back and see how God had a different plan than I had in my head.” In the midst of an NAIA All-American campaign for the Eagles in 2014, Ponce de Leon met Jennifer Beatty, a standout for the Embry-Riddle volleyball team from 2013-14; the two married in 2018 and have two children together, Casen and Mila.

Yet Another Twist of Fate

Following a 2014 season with the Eagles that saw Ponce de Leon go 9-2 with a 1.60 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 95.2 innings, the Cardinals made him the highest draft pick in program history when they selected him in the ninth round of that summer’s draft.

“I’m very grateful to coaches Randy (Stegall) and Dave (Therneau) for giving me a chance my senior year,” Ponce de Leon says of his time with the Blue and Gold. “Coach Therneau taught me how to set up a good routine between starts and that has really brought about a lot of success for me.”

The 6-foot-3-inch hurler moved steadily up through the Cardinals organization after being drafted. He was knocking on the big league door in 2017 while at Triple-A Memphis, when a freak accident nearly derailed his career — and his life.

A line drive off the bat of Chicago Cubs prospect Victor Caratini on May 9, 2017, struck Ponce de Leon in the head. He was rushed to a local hospital where a CT scan revealed that he had an epidural hematoma, a condition where blood leaks from the meningeal artery into the space between the dura mater, which covers the brain, and the skull. Without an emergency craniotomy, the typical result of an epidural hematoma is death.

The surgery was successful.

Ponce de Leon spent 10 days in intensive care and more than a month in the Hawkeye State before returning home to Daytona Beach, Florida, where he spent two months recovering. He was cleared to start throwing on Aug. 9.

For the next six months, Ponce de Leon fought to regain his strength and stamina, including working out and throwing at Embry-Riddle’s Sliwa Stadium over much of that time.

“He’s got a special makeup,” Embry-Riddle Head Coach Randy Stegall says. “You would never know he went through the type of injury he sustained. He doesn’t let anything faze him. Since the moment he stepped on campus back in 2014, we could tell he was different from a mentality standpoint, and he’s proved that over and over.”

Ponce de Leon’s baseball journey has been anything but ordinary. The native Californian has been a Wildcat, a Charger, a Cougar, a Redbird and a Cardinal. But, he is Forever an Eagle.