Written by Daniel Paulling
Published: 27 August 2007
Tony La Russa did everything he could to alleviate the pressure. In public, veteran Darryl Kyle was named as the starter for game one of the 2000 divisional series against the Atlanta Braves. It did not come as a surprise; Kyle absolutely deserved the honor.
Secretly, however, La Russa had a different starter for game one: Rick Ankiel. The lefthander was a second-year pitcher and only 20. To avoid putting too much pressure on his youngster, La Russa had Kyle answer all of the questions before revealing that Ankiel was his true choice.
The game started out well for Ankiel and the St. Louis Cardinals. The offense staked him to a six-run lead in the first, but two innings later, he would commit the cardinal sin: never walk the leadoff hitter and never walk the opposing pitcher. This causes innings and outings to unravel quickly.
For Rick Ankiel, it nearly unraveled his baseball career.
He walked Greg Maddux to lead off the top of the third inning. What happened next is well-chronicled: Ankiel walked another three and threw five wild pitches before mercifully getting pulled.
In his next outing that postseason, he was wild again, this time in relief against the New York Mets. The Cardinals were eliminated from postseason play, and he spent the offseason attempting to regain the form that had earned him countless accolades before reaching the majors.
But it was not meant to be. Ankiel was wild again in 2001 and was sent down to rookie ball, the lowest rung in the minor leagues. He missed 2002 with elbow trouble, 2003 and part of 2004 with Tommy John surgery. He ended his pitching career there and began one in the outfield.
In 2005, he slugged over .500 at two different levels of minor league ball. As a 25 year old, Ankiel could have been considered a decent prospect.
However, after appearing in the major league spring training camp, he received a huge setback. Ankiel injured his knee and would miss the entire season.
It might have been enough for some people to quit. He had, at the tender age of 26, missed two and a half seasons with serious injuries. He had reached the pinnacle of professional baseball, the major leagues, only to drop back to the lowest rung. He had lost out on his pitching career and was trying a far from guaranteed thing.
But Ankiel kept going. And he finally made good on his fairy-tale story. After displaying prodigious power for the Class AAA Memphis (Tenn.) Redbirds, he got called up to the major leagues to replace Scott Speizio. Fittingly enough, Ankiel homered in his first game, a three-run shot off San Diego Padres reliever Doug Brocail.
Through 10 games, the outfielder is hitting .286 and has four home runs. There are concerns about the disparity between his strikeouts and walks (13 vs. 4), but his on base percentage is a very healthy .359 and slugging percentage is .686.
These numbers are pretty good for not only a pitcher, but also for someone making the improbable become true.