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Baseball Told the Right WayIn-depth Baseball analysis on various topics regarding the sport we all love!
He's back.........for now.
The Cardinals have called up Rick Ankiel, famous for his meteoric rise and subsequent fall. Its not really a "disease" but people like to call this Steve Blass disease. Its when a guy (it doesn't have to be a pitcher) loses all ability to throw a baseball in a straight line.
Ankiel never had Maddux-like control, but he was never particularly wild either. In 300 minor league innings, he walked 112 (3.4 BB/9). Not great, but its comparable to the walk rates of Cy Young candidates Mark Mulder (3.2), Roger Clemens (3.5) and Carlos Zambrano (3.7).
Ankiel got called up in September of 1999 at the age of 20, after embarrassing AA and AAA hitters. He pitched pretty well in 5 starts and things looked promising. In 2000, at only 21, Ankiel made the opening day Cardinal roster and didn't disappoint any Cardinal fans who were anxious to see this phenom. That is until the playoffs.
After putting up a 3.50 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 175 innings, Ankiel was poised to be the next big superstar pitcher. The next Roger Clemens. Nobody steps in at 20 and dominated big league hitters this way, hell Clemens was 22 or 23 before he did. Then the playoffs came.
This game, Ankiel started game 1 of the NLDS against Greg Maddux. First inning, he walked two, struck out one. Normal postseason jitters for a 20 year old. Right? Sure, 2nd inning he gives up a hit and retires the side. He's back on track. Then the third inning came and with it, the ghost of Steve Blass.
Furcal popped to first,
A. Jones walked,
C. Jones strikes out,
Final line for Ankiel: 2-2/3 IP, 4 H, 4 ER, 6 BB, 3 K, 5 WP.
And if you remember this game, those 5 wild pitches weren't you're ordinary breaking balls in the dirt. They were airmailed to the backstop, not even close. It was sad to see a guy out there with absolutely no idea where the ball was going.
Ankiel pitched again in the NLCS, not faring much better. In game 2 against the Mets, he couldn't even get out of the first inning. He retired 2 batters, walked 3, and threw 2 wild pitches to the backstop. Something clearly was wrong with the phenom.
The Cardinals were bounced in the championship series, but Ankiel was still just a nervous rookie who lost his mechanics in a high-pressure situation. Then after a scary spring training, and 24 scary (for opposing batters) innings in '01, the "something" wrong with Ankiel was clearly mental.
I have empathy for Ankiel because a similar thing happened to me, and pre-maturely ended my life as a pitcher. Something flipped in my head and I couldn't throw a pitch that wouldn't hit a left-handed batter in the head or a right-hand batter in the foot. I was never able to pitch again, and for a time I had trouble playing first base. I also had a teammate, a catcher with no previous problems, who showed up to a game and was unable to throw the ball back to his pitcher without bouncing it first. He had to be removed from the game, and his baseball life was never the same. If you've ever seen Shaquille O'Neal shooting free throws, you know this "disease" isn't confined to baseball players. Shaq is just lucky he can still be a good basketball player without being able to shoot free throws. Rick Ankiel cannot be a good pitcher unless he is able to throw strikes.
So can Ankiel put this behind him and throw strikes? He has so far this year, but will it continue? I'm not a sports psychologist so I don't know if something like this can be overcome. Today, I can throw a baseball (too often a softball) with no problems. I can throw relatively accurately and consistently. But I can't pitch. For some reason when it gets in my head that I am in the act of pitching, something changes. I can't pitch BP in a cage, I can't pitch a slow-pitch softball, and I can't pitch "lob" to anybody either. Even whiffle ball gives me problems. So I wouldn't be holding my breath on Rick Ankiel if I were a Cardinal fan. I like the guy, I like his stuff, he's a lefty, and he's got that pretty delivery where he kicks up his leg real high on the followthrough. I'm rooting for him, but I'm not holding my breath.