Rick Ankiel had a short but eventful pitching career for the St. Louis Cardinals. Baseball America named him as the number-one pitching prospect in America before the 2000 season. He had a cup of coffee in the majors in 2000 and was installed in the starting rotation in 2001. As a 20-year old, he had a very good rookie year, going 11-7 while striking out 194 batters in 175 innings.
But the young man lost his composure on the big stage that season. He pitched three games in the postseason (two starts), walking 11 batters and throwing nine official wild pitches in four innings. His wildness continued in 2001 and, to add injury to insult, he required Tommy John surgery.
Ankiel returned in 2004 and seemed to have shaken his control issues. However, after a terrible spring-training outing in 2005 when he couldn’t find the plate, he announced he would switch to the outfield. He was effective at two levels that season, slugging over .500 and flashing a great arm in right field. But he had season-ending knee surgery before the 2006 season. In 2007 he was back in the Cardinals’ minor-league system as a slugging outfielder, and hit 32 home runs through early August.
As they prepared to play the Padres in the last of a four-game series in St. Louis, the Cardinals were suffering through a sub-.500 season, possibly a hangover from their 2006 World Series-winning year. The Padres were right in the thick of the race, only two games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West Division. St. Louis had defeated San Diego 2-1 the previous night.
It was a warm, overcast August evening (93 degrees), not unusual weather for St. Louis. Despite the heat, 42,484 people paid to attend the game and actual attendance was substantial. A 13-MPH wind blew out to right. The spectators did not expect Ankiel to be in the lineup. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted manager Tony La Russa the day before as saying, “We’re talking about when it is the right time [to bring Ankiel up]. I don’t think it is necessarily in September.”1 However, the team placed Scott Spiezio on the disabled list so he could enter a substance-abuse treatment after asking the team for assistance.2 So the Cardinals called Ankiel up from Memphis. The lineup had him batting second and playing right field — his first appearance in the major leagues as a position player.
San Diego skipper Bud Black called on 28-year-old Chris Young to start. Young, a veteran of three seasons, was in the midst of his finest year. He made his only All-Star Game appearance and was sitting at 9-3 with a 1.82 ERA entering the game. He had just been activated after a short stay on the disabled list with a strained abdomen muscle. LaRussa started Joel Pineiro, in his second St. Louis start since being acquired from the Boston Red Sox at the trading deadline.
Pineiro retired the Padres in order in the top of the first. In the bottom of the inning, after leadoff man David Eckstein walked, Cardinals fans gave Ankiel a standing ovation as he walked up to the plate. The Padres starter stepped off the mound to give Ankiel time to enjoy the applause,3 then induced Ankiel to pop out to the shortstop, and retired Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds to end the inning.
With two outs in the top of the second, Rob Mackowiak doubled off Pineiro but nothing came of that threat. Likewise, in the bottom of the inning, Yadier Molina worked a walk but Pineiro left him stranded. The Padres made some extra-base noise in both the third and the fourth. In the third Scott Hairston doubled and was stranded and Adrian Gonzalez had the same results in the fourth.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Cardinals bats reached Young. After the first two batters were retired, Scott Rolen singled and Chris Duncan walked. Molina, on his way to a 3-for-3 game, singled in Rolen for the Cardinals’ first run.
Aside from Mike Cameron being plunked by Pineiro in the sixth, there were no other baserunners until the eventful bottom of the seventh. Duncan started the inning with a walk and Molina singled him to third. Pineiro, after pitching his scoreless seven innings, was pulled for pinch-hitter So Taguchi, the Cardinals’ Japanese outfielder. Young threw a wild pitch, scoring Duncan, then walked Taguchi. Black replaced Young with Doug Brocail. The 40-year-old reliever was on his way to having a very good season, finishing the year with a 3.05 ERA in 76⅔ innings pitched. He quickly retired second baseman Adam Kennedy on a fielder’s choice and Eckstein on a comebacker.
With two men on, Ankiel stepped up to the plate. He had struck out looking in the third and struck out swinging in the fifth for an 0-for-3 day to that point. This at-bat he got an offering the former curve master was familiar with, hammering a 2-and-1 curveball from Brocail out to right field. The pitcher was surprised and noted after the game, “I pitched the [scouting] report. I have no idea how he hit that ball.”4 Ankiel’s homer scored Taguchi and Kennedy, giving the Cardinals a 5-0 lead. The Cardinals fans gave him a standing ovation until he came out for a helmet-tip curtain call.5
The game ended at the same 5-0 score. Troy Percival and Tyler Johnson each pitched a scoreless inning in relief of Pineiro while Brocail completed the game, working around singles given up to Ryan Ludwick and Molina in the eighth. Molina went 3-for-3 with a walk but the players of the game for the Cardinals were Pineiro’s effective pitching performance and Ankiel’s impressive home run on his return. Ankiel become the first player since Clint Hartung in 1947 to hit a home run as a position player after hitting his first home run as a pitcher. He expressed his happiness and wonder at being back in the major leagues, saying, “I appreciate (the Cardinals) giving me a chance to start my career over. I’m happy to be home.”6
The St. Louis win pushed the Cardinals’ record to 53-59 on their way to a 78-84 finish. San Diego’s loss dropped the Padres to three games behind the Diamondbacks. They briefly climbed back into first place in late August but after 162 games they were one game behind Arizona and tied with the Colorado Rockies for the wild-card spot. In the 163rd game, they lost at Colorado, 9-8 in a 13-inning struggle, closing their book at 89-74, and barely missing the playoffs.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author used Baseball-Reference.com and the SABR BioProject bios for box scores, player statistics, and background information.
1 Rick Hummel, “Cards Notes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 9, 2007: D5.
2 Joe Strauss, “Spiezio to Seek Drug Treatment,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 10, 2007: A1.
3 Derrick Gould, “Blast from the Past,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 10, 2007: D1.
4 “Game of the Day,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2007: D4.