Before last night’s game winning homerun in the top of the 11th, Rick Ankiel’s playoff legacy was one of infamy. Ten years ago, Ankiel was one of the most promising pitching prospects in the game. In his 2000 rookie campaign, the young lefty went 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 175 innings, which was good enough for second place in the Rookie of the Year balloting. Unfortunately, however, what he did in the post season would completely overshadow his impressive first season and mark the beginning of the end of his pitching career.
The 2000 Cardinals finished in first place in the NL Central, thanks in large part to the 20-win campaign of Darryl Kile. So, it wasn’t a surprise when the Tony LaRussa tapped the veteran ace to pitch the opener in game one of the ALDS against Greg Maddux and the Braves. In the press conference before the first game, Kile talked about his upcoming start, but in reality, LaRussa had another plan in mind. After the players had left the stadium upon the completion of their media responsibilities, LaRussa announced that Ankiel would be taking the ball in game one instead.
Although LaRussa’s tactics, which were presumably designed to shield the 21-year old Ankiel from media scrutiny, left a lot to be desired, the reasoning behind the decision was sound. LaRussa reasoned that the game two starter would be lined up for game five on three days rest, a task that Kile was better equipped to handle. What’s more, Ankiel had actually emerged as the Cardinals best pitcher, going 3-0 with a 1.65 ERA in five September starts. Still, many wondered how the rookie would handle the pressure of a game one post season start. The answer to that question would be as sad as it was shocking.
October 3, 2000 was an unseasonably warm St. Louis afternoon, but it took three innings before Ankiel started to wilt under the heat of the post season spotlight. Ironically, the early returns couldn’t have been more favorable to the Cardinals. Despite battling some wildness, Ankiel was able to work two scoreless frames, while the Cardinals’ offense was busy battering Greg Maddux for six first inning runs. That development was shocking enough, but the top of the third inning turned out to be more stunning.
Ankiel walked Maddux on four pitches to start the third inning, but retired the next batter on a foul pop. Then, all of a sudden, Ankiel not only lost the ability to throw strikes, but couldn’t even hit the catcher’s glove. Over the next six batters, Ankiel surrendered three more walks as well as two hits, but the most disturbing development was the major league record five wild pitches he had thrown in the inning.
The Cardinals rebounded to win both the game and sweep the series, but Ankiel never recovered. Although he laughed off his struggles, saying, “at least I set a record”, there would be no humor after his game 2 start against the Mets in the NLCS. In that outing, Ankiel lasted only 2/3 of an inning, walking three batters and throwing two more wild pitches in the process. Ankiel pitched once more in a game 5 blowout loss, but the results were no better. Two more walks and two more wild pitches in another 2/3 of an inning effectively marked the end of his pitching career.
What Rick’s going through these last two starts has been real tough to watch. We were really trying to pull him through it. . . . I thought the first one might’ve just slipped, but then after the second one I had to tell him to stop thinking the backstop is a Pitch-Back.” – Cardinals’ first baseman Will Clark, New York Daily News, October 13, 2000
Sadly, Ankiel’s 2001 season picked up where he left off in the post season. In six games started at the beginning of that season, Ankiel walked 25 men and threw five more wild pitches in 24 innings before being demoted back to the Rookie league. Additional struggles and an elbow injury would further hamper Ankiel’s attempts to revive his shattered pitching career, which officially came to an end in March 2005, when the former CY Young prospect decided to pursue a career in the outfield.
Ankiel returned to the Cardinals as an outfielder in 2007, but never had a chance to redeem his post season failure…that is, until last night. Although Ankiel’s game winning blast can’t erase the infamy of his struggles 10 years ago, his post season legacy will now include a moment of triumph. After the game, Ankiel stated, “It’s been a long, fun journey and I appreciate everything that’s happened.” At 31, Ankiel’s journey is far from over, but with one trip around the bases, it does seem as if he has finally come full circle.
Rick Ankiel’s Post Season Pitching Statistics