The last win for Rick Ankiel as a big-league starter was an unexpected gem, a parting gift to Cardinals fans and a final reminder of his special talents as a pitcher.
When Ankiel confirmed on March 5, 2014, that his career as a major-league outfielder was finished, it triggered remembrances of his terrific rookie season (11 wins, 194 strikeouts in 175 innings) as a starting pitcher for the 2000 Cardinals and the meltdown that followed (9 wild pitches, 11 walks in four innings) in the postseason against the Braves and Mets.
What usually is forgotten is the first regular-season start Ankiel made for St. Louis the next year. It was, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote at the time, “dazzling” and “startling” and “magical.”
After an erratic spring training performance (19 walks, 12 strikeouts in 9.1 exhibition innings), Ankiel was paired in his first start of the 2001 season against Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson on April 8 at Phoenix.
“Naturally, I have a little apprehension,” Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan told the Post-Dispatch before the game.
Duncan also had a secret plan. Rather than have Ankiel warm up in the bullpen that day, he instructed the skittish left-hander to throw in an indoor hitting tunnel at Bank One Ballpark. “I wanted him to get ready in as secluded an atmosphere as possible,” Duncan told Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch.
Ankiel warmed up on sloped carpeting rather than on a mound. It didn’t faze him.
“He was throwing missiles to me,” said Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny. “He was throwing 100 mph fastballs and hitting the target. You could tell he was locked in, ready to go.”
Still, the game had the potential to be a mismatch. Johnson was the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner. The Diamondbacks had a potent lineup. (They would go on to win the 2001 World Series title after surviving a taut postseason series with the Cardinals.) St. Louis was without two of its top players, ailing Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds, and had utilitymen Eli Marrero at first base and Craig Paquette in left field.
The game began ominously for Ankiel and the Cardinals.
In the first inning, Matt Williams connected for a two-run home run off a low fastball from Ankiel. In the second, the Diamondbacks loaded the bases with one out. Two of those runners, including the pitcher, Johnson, reached on walks.
Then, somehow, Ankiel found a higher gear.
Tony Womack struck out looking on a curve. Reggie Sanders ended the threat, striking out swinging at a high fastball.
“I was like a nervous father,” said Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty. “I was living and dying on every pitch.”
Wrote Mikalsz: “Ankiel settled in and became the golden child again.”
After the Cardinals scored four off Johnson in the third (on back-to-back home runs by Matheny and Marrero and a two-run double by rookie Albert Pujols), Ankiel protected the lead by retiring the next nine batters in a row.
When Ankiel walked Luis Gonzalez, the leadoff batter in the sixth, with his 100th pitch, manager Tony La Russa lifted him for Gene Stechschulte, with St. Louis ahead, 9-2. “Electric stuff,” La Russa said of Ankiel’s pitches.
The Cardinals cruised to a 9-4 victory. The line for Ankiel: 5 innings, 3 hits, 2 runs, 3 walks, 8 strikeouts, 0 wild pitches. Boxscore
Wrote Miklasz: “Ankiel defeated Johnson, but mostly conquered himself, rediscovering the form that had scouts writing sonnets about him.”
It was, however, Ankiel’s last major-league win as a starter. He made five more starts for the 2001 Cardinals and mostly reverted to his wild and ineffective form of the 2000 postseason. Ankiel finished 1-2 with a 7.50 ERA for the 2001 Cardinals.
His last pitching performances were five relief appearances, with a win, for the 2004 Cardinals before he converted fulltime to outfielder.