Call It a Comeback: Rick Ankiel Goes Deep Twice

11 08 2007

by maddness

rick-ankiel.jpg

For most pitchers, getting the ball in Game 1 of the NLDS would be an ultimate achievement. It almost seems like a scene from one of those generic, feel good sports movies; the old, respected manager walks in to the locker room and hands the ball to the wide-eyed kid. A young pitcher in the minor leagues may dream of a day he gets to take the mound in Game 1 of a playoff series, with the confidence of a manager, team, and city behind him. For Rick Ankiel, however, this moment was a horrible stop on his journey from baseball glory to anguish, and back to glory. He is back on top again, and given something everyone in baseball should feel good about…his story.

With young St. Louis Cardinal starter Rick Ankiel cruising through the first third of Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS, Manager Tony LaRussa must have been feeling pretty good. The decision to throw his youngster in this huge game seemed to be paying off. LaRussa was the type of manager that would not hesitate to remedy a decision if it failed. He certainly had a veteran arm on call in the bullpen ready if Ankiel failed. If “failed” was the only word describing what Ankiel did after a solid start, it probably would be better. Walking four of eight batters was accompanied by 5 wild pitches in one inning, which would lead to 9 in the 2000 playoffs, setting a major league record. What was more painful was the look on Ankiel’s face; a poor kid who, like the viewers of the game, had no idea where the ball was going.

LaRussa had the pain in his eyes too, as he took the ball from Ankiel, who was as accomplished a minor league pitcher as any prospect in the Cardinals organization. His walk off the field that day signified his decent back to the minor leagues to try and get his head right. But how could you after such a meltdown on the biggest of stages? The bumps in Ankiel’s road back to the majors were plenty, with everything from anger to basic pitch control. But the biggest bump came in the form of Tommy John surgery, a brutal procedure for a pitcher. Contrary to belief, Ankiel was not set on this being the final step on his journey.

In 2004, he made a triumphant return to the majors, pitching in 10 innings, with 9 strikeouts and only one walk. Eyes opened everywhere, and the comeback stories were all over the news. Rumors had Cardinals leadership counting on Ankiel to be back in the rotation until a fateful simulated game during a practice. Again, he could not find the plate, throwing less than 5 strikes out of every 20+ pitches. In March 2005, Ankiel made a shocking announcement with the support of St. Louis Cardinals management. He was quitting pitching and becoming an outfielder. This is a transition the world has not seen many make successfully and definitely not from a man who had been through so much. Back to the minors again, and this time even further down the progression ladder.

A rocky start was expected and it came for Ankiel. But even early coaches could see potential in his hitting stroke. In the A and AA levels, the homeruns and batting average rised gradually, pushing him slowly up the steps on the minor league ladder again. Watching him hit over 25 homeruns this season in the minors, the Cardinals knew they would have to call him up soon. With injuries to Jim Edmonds and Preston Wilson, along with the recent absence of utility man Scott Spiezio, the Cardinals needed a bat. Enter Rick Ankiel, again. When the same nice young man walked through his locker room door, Tony LaRussa was probably feeling a ton of mixed emotions. He was no doubt happy for Ankiel, but he also was probably nervous that another meltdown could be around the corner for this poor guy. Once again, LaRussa penciled Ankiel on his lineup card, but this time in was playing right field and batting second.

Thursday, August 9 was the day the whole baseball world gave Rick Ankiel a round of respect. In his first game back and his first ever as an outfielder, he homered, spurring LaRussa to jump up and down with joy in the dugout. We all jumped a little bit, but couldn’t call it a comeback yet, not for this guy. The world knew better than to get excited about Ankiel again, as screaming comeback stories would make the fallout from another meltdown all the more painful. Friday came along and Ankiel was in the lineup again. Instead of a meltdown, he had a normal off-day, but managed to get a knock and go 1-4, something good hitters tend to do.

What happened Saturday was nothing short of phenomenal. Anyone watching the Cardinals game or highlights of it pumped their fists, watching the incredible dedication of Ankiel pay off with him hitting two homeruns in the day’s game versus the Dodgers. Even with the all-time homerun record being broken earlier this week, this is the best feeling story going in baseball right now. The once broken Ankiel now has a .412 average with 3 HR and 6 RBI in three games. The Cardinals have something to feel good about in a season with deaths, drugs, and injuries. We can only hope that with this incredible rise back to the top, there is not another brutal fall around the next corner.

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