The year was 1997, Floridian Rick Ankiel, a fireball hurling lefty went 11-1 with a 0.47 ERA during his senior season, striking out 162 batters in 74.0 innings pitched, and was named the High School Player of the Year by USA Today. He signed a contract out of highschool with the St. Louis Cardinals and received a 2.5 million dollar signing bonus, one of the highest ever to that point. He stormed through the minors, dominating every level, and being named minor league player of the year in 1999. His first full season in the Majors was 2000, where, at just 20 years old, he posted 11 wins, a 3.50 ERA, and had an unbelievable K rate (9.98 batters/9 innings pitched). He was armed with a fastball in the 93-94 MPH range, and also possessed a heavy sinker with great movement, as well as his main strikeout pitch, a devastating curveball which some scouts have called the best they've ever seen. He was the heir-apparent to the great pitchers of the time and seemingly had a long, dominant career ahead of him in the Major Leagues.
The Cardinals won the National League Central Division championship that season. Injuries to other pitchers left Ankiel and Darryl Kile as the only fully healthy starters left on the Cardinal roster. Wanting to maximize their appearances, and due to the fact that Ankiel, only 20 years old and without much major league experience, needed four days of rest between starts, manager Tony La Russa chose Ankiel to start Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. Then things all went wrong.
The Cardinals jumped to a lead early in Game 1, scoring six runs in bottom of the first. Ankiel had walked two batters in the top of the first, as well as allowed a single, but escaped unscathed. He also allowed a double in the second inning, after striking out the leadoff batter, but ended the inning with a double play. It is in the third inning that Ankiel lost control. Here is the line score from that inning:
Maddux walked; Furcal popped out in foul territory; Ankiel threw a wild pitch (Maddux to second); Ankiel threw another a wild pitch (Maddux to third); A. Jones walked; Ankiel threw a third wild pitch (A. Jones to 2nd); C. Jones was called out on strikes; Galarraga walked (Maddux scored on a 4th wild pitch by Ankiel; A. Jones to 3rd); Jordan singled to Lankford (A. Jones scored, Galarraga to 2nd); Ankiel threw a 5th wild pitch (Galarraga to 3rd, Jordan to 2nd); Sanders walked; Weiss singled to Lankford (Galarraga scored, Jordan scored, Sanders to 2nd); Mike James replaced Ankiel; López popped to Viña; 4 R, 2 H, 0 E, 2 LOB. Braves 4, Cardinals 6.
Ankiel shrugged off the event at first, joking about the fact that he was the first pitcher to throw five wild pitches in an inning since Bert Cunningham of the Players League in 1890. But in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets, Ankiel was removed in the first inning. Of only 20 pitches thrown by Ankiel, five went past catcher Eli Marrero, including two official wild pitches. Ankiel appeared again in the seventh inning of game five, facing four hitters, walking two, and throwing two more wild pitches. The Cardinals lost the series four games to one to the Mets. He returned to the majors in 2001 but again had issues controlling his pitches, walking 25 batters and throwing 5 wild pitches in 24 innings, and was sent down to AAA.
The source of Ankiel's problems was apparently not mechanical. He toiled in the minors and experienced more control problems and never regained his pitching form. In 2006, Ankiel was invited to spring training with the major league squad again, but this time as an outfielder. He had a slim chance to make the team as a reserve player. His fielding impressed scouts and managers, and he has shown flashes of power hitting in the minor leagues. He never resurfaced with the big-league club that year. So far this season, in 46 games for the AAA Memphis RedBirds, Ankiel is batting .266 and leads the team with 12 home runs and 40 RBI, he has 2 stolen bases (in 5 attempts) and has committed 4 errors as their everyday right fielder. Manager Tony LaRussa has stated in spring training that Ankiel doesn't figure into the mix at the big-league level in 2007, but rather needed to play regularly at Class AAA Memphis as he continues his conversion from pitching. "It isn't because he isn't capable," La Russa said. "(But) unless you can guarantee that he would get 400 or 500 at-bats, it would be a bad move for him and for us." Seemingly however his numbers are viable for a AAA outfielder close to a promotion. Watch for Ankiel to possibly be a late-season call-up once the roster expands, especially if the Cardinals don't work their way into the NL central race.
Note: much of the background info was ripped off lovingly from wikipedia... I wrote this because I honestly wanted to know what was going on with Ankiel and thought that others might find it interesting.
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