By Larry Dierker
An Amazing No-Hitter Debut & Return to the Cardinals
I couldn’t believe it what I read that Daniel Poncedeleon was taken out a game in Cincinnati after pitching seven no-hitter innings in his first major league start. I would have gone nuts. But Poncedeleon said, “I 100% understand.”
I 100% understand too. In five years of minor league work, he had only pitched one complete game, which happened to be his last start at Memphis. In that game, Poncedeleon pitched a 1-hit shutout. That was eight days before his game against the Reds, ample rest by anyone’s standards.
Cardinals interim manager, Mike Shildt said, “We weren’t in a situation where he would have been able to finish that game with a no-hitter.” I wonder how he knew that. He added, “It was his time.” Oh, I see, Shildt had a message from God. How else would he know? The Cardinals were ahead 1-0 at the time. If he had remained in the game and pitched two more hitless innings the Cardinals would have won 1-0 instead of losing 2-1.
Granted, that’s a big if. Poncedeleon had already thrown 116 pitches, which may be the most he has ever thrown in a game. Modern baseball theory is that pitchers’ arms should be protected with pitch counts. I can tell you from first-hand experience that all pitches are not created equal. I have been gassed after 100 pitches and I have been fresh after way more than 116 pitches. The temperature has a lot to do with it. And the ease of your delivery has a lot to do with it. Some days, you just sail along. Some days, you labor. I’d be willing to bet that none of the people who established the pitch count protocols were pitchers.
Because the Cardinals sent Poncedeleon back to Triple-A Memphis after the game, I assume they feel he wasn’t likely to continue pitching well in the big leagues. The Cardinals rotation isn’t too bad, so they may like him for the future but are satisfied with the starters they have going forward. There is no way to be sure. My guess is that decision probably wasn’t made only by a person, but also by a radar gun. Devices are important these days. It’s almost as if the decision makers need something hard to lean on like pitch counts, velocity measures, and computer diagnostics.
The other thing that supports the decision is that Poncedeleon was leading off the top of the eighth, and if he didn’t have a no-hitter going, it would have been a no-brainer to take him out. The Cardinals have a pretty decent bullpen and Bud Norris is having a good year as their closer. I can see where Shildt would feel like he had a better chance to win the way he played it. I would probably have felt the same way myself. But, I would have asked my pitcher how he felt first. And I would have asked my catcher if he still had good command of his stuff.
Pitchers who feel obligated will say they still feel good when they are tired; and, I would consider that. If I left him in, I would start a left-hander and right-hander, and start throwing easily in the bottom of the eighth. We used to call that “going along.” It means that they throw enough to get close to being ready without fully extending their arms. The idea is to throw lightly until being told to get ready. This way, they can be ready with five or ten more pitches. I’m not sure that expression is used these days because I seldom see relievers warming up lightly while their team is at bat.
If Poncedeleon said he was good to continue and the catcher didn’t reveal any hesitancy, I probably would have left him in. The Cardinals are within striking distance of a wild card slot, so winning is important. But a no-hitter is important too. In 1969, the Astros started the year 4-20. The twentieth loss was a no-hitter by Jim Maloney in Cincinnati. Our fifth win came the next day when Don Wilson no-hit the Reds. It started a ten-game winning streak. The no-hitter seemed to relieve the pressure and get us going. But you can’t measure that.
If Poncedeleon had remained in the game, he could have been replaced after giving up a hit. As long as it was a single, it wouldn’t compromise the lead that much. If he walked the leadoff hitter, that would have really put the squeeze on the manager.
Not knowing the details of the Cardinals situation, I hesitate to say that I would have left him in the game if he wanted to keep going. But I can say, I would lean that way. This guy may never make it back to the major leagues and, even if he does, it’s unlikely that he will ever have a better chance to pitch a no-hitter.
Back in 1970, Preston Gomez pinch-hit for Clay Kirby with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, behind, 1-0. Kirby had a no-hitter going. He was already a veteran pitcher and he was livid. The Padres were cellar dwellers and one more win or loss would mean nothing to them. Ten thousand fans booed the decision. Gomez struck again on September 4, 1974.
Don Wilson had a no-hitter going for eight innings in the Astrodome. He was trailing 2-1 and leading off the bottom of the eighth. The Astros were hopelessly out of the race, 16 games back. I was on the bench that day and I was angry. I thought Don had as good a chance to get a hit as anyone who would pinch-hit for him. The small crowd booed, and Tommy Helms grounded out. After the game, Don supported Gomez’ decision.
My bias as a pitcher has a lot to do with my feelings about Shildt and Poncedeleon. I can’t say for sure what I would have done, but I can say that I would have left Kirby and Wilson in the game. They weren’t rookies and they were used to throwing a lot of pitches. Plus, the games weren’t ‘make or break’ for their teams. Focusing on winning a game only is more important when you’re in the race than when you are not. The Cardinals aren’t rebuilding, but they haven’t been mentioned much as buyers in a trade as the July 31st non-waiver deadline approaches.
The one thing I have been surprised by is the coverage of the no-hit bid. I’ve read a few stories about the game but still don’t know if the manager spoke to the pitcher and catcher after the seventh. I can say for sure that I would have done that. As a reporter, I would have asked. The other thing that I noticed was the stories said that the Elias Sports Bureau confirmed that it was the fifth time since 1961 that a pitcher in this first start worked seven no-hit innings. Had they gone back a few more years, they would have found that Bobo Holloman pitched a nine-inning no-hitter in his first start and won 6-0. I can only speculate that reporters are more concerned with getting their stories out first than including all the relevant information.