May 11, 2011, 6:40 PM EDT
Having walked five and thrown two wild pitches the night before, Rick Ankiel was sent down to Triple-A Memphis on this day 10 years ago. It’d be 3 1/2 years before he returned to the majors and six before he was back for good.
After going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA as a rookie, Ankiel experienced a meltdown in the 2000 postseason. Named the Cardinals’ Game 1 starter in the NLDS, he threw five wild pitches and walked six on his way to giving up four runs in 2 2/3 innings. He worked twice more in the NLCS, throwing four wild pitches and walking five in 1 1/3 innings.
The hope was that Ankiel would find his form over the winter, but while he was no longer denting the backstop in spring training, control remained a big problem. He ended up going 1-2 with a 7.13 ERA in his six starts for the Cardinals. He struck out 27 in 24 innings, but he also walked 25.
Ankiel then completely lost it at Memphis, walking 17 and throwing 12 wild pitches in 4 1/3 innings. The Cardinals backed off him for a bit before sending him all of the way down to Rookie ball to get him out of the spotlight. The treatment worked, as he came back to post a ridiculous 158/18 K/BB in 87 2/3 innings for Johnson City of the Appalachian League.
At that point, Ankiel’s stuff was still some of the best in baseball, and the hope was that he’d come back and emerge as one of the NL’s elite hurlers. Ankiel, though, went on to miss 2002 with an elbow injury. Tommy John surgery followed in 2003. He returned to the majors as a reliever in Sept. 2004 and showed promise. While he allowed six runs in 10 innings, he posted a 9/1 K/BB ratio in the process.
Ankiel went on to pitch successfully in Puerto Rico over the winter, but he tweaked his elbow towards the end of the stint and his command issues came back after he rejoined the Cardinals. On Feb. 28, he threw just three strikes in a 28-pitch batting practice session. Nine days later, he announced that he’d make the full-time switch to the outfield.
Of course, the story has a semi-happy ending from there. Ankiel returned to the majors in 2007 and hit 36 homers for the Cardinals in 585 at-bats through the end of 2008. Unfortunately, he’s dealt with injuries and hasn’t been nearly as productive since. The Nationals opened this season with him as their primary center fielder, but he’s currently on the DL with a sprained right wrist.
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