A former Brave and one of the more interesting players in recent baseball history is going to retire, per this article from MLB Trade Rumors. While many may not think Braves when they hear Rick Ankiel‘s name, he really had some of his big moments involving the Braves.
Ankiel was one of the highest thought-of pitching prospects in recent memory, ranking as the #2 and then the #1 prospect in all of baseball in the offseason Baseball America rankings before 1999 and 2000. He was a pitcher with incredible velocity and movement on his pitches. He received a ton of comparisons to John Smoltz as a young pitcher because of his velocity and his poise in tough situations at a young age. In 2000, his first full season in the major leagues, Ankiel finished second to our own Rafael Furcal in the Rookie of the Year award voting with an 11-7 record, 3.50 ERA, and sported a 10 k/9 in 175 innings.
The blow up
In the 2000 playoffs, the Cardinals started the young rookie in Game 1 versus the Braves in a series that they would eventually sweep in 3 games. Ankiel cruised through the first two innings before the third inning happened. Five wild pitches later, Ankiel was removed from the game. The following series against the Mets, Ankiel was slated to start game two, and he couldn’t get out of the first inning, going 2/3 of an inning before walking 3 and allowing two wild pitches. The Cardinals attempted to bring him back in relief in game 5 of the series, and he walked two and threw two more wild pitches in 2/3 of an inning before being removed. All told in that offseason, Ankiel threw 4 total innings with 11 walks and 9 wild pitches. Thinking he would return to form after an offseason, the Cardinals returned him to the rotation to start 2001, and Ankiel only lasted 6 starts with a 7.13 ERA with 25 walks and 5 wild pitches in 24 innings before being sent to AAA where he continued to struggle. He finished the 2001 season on the DL with surgery, but had spent most of the season in rookie ball re-learning how to hit as Ankiel was a highly regarded two-way prospect when he was drafted.
The unlikely hero
Ankiel made his way back to baseball after three more seasons trying to make it back on the mound as a hitter with light-tower power and a tremendous nose defensively. He also showed good patience at the plate, even though his contact rate left plenty to be desired. He had climbed back to the point of consideration for a big league spot in 2006 before a knee injury kept him out for the entire season. In 2007, he came back to baseball as a platoon outfielder with plenty of power. He was a tremendous hustler and one of the hardest working guys in all of baseball, so it was hard not to cheer for the guy. In 2010, he was traded from the Kansas City Royals to the Braves along with Kyle Farnsworth. Many remember that Farnsworth as having saved the Braves season after trading for him in 2005 and inserting him as the closer to finish the season, but he was not to be the same guy in 2010. In fact, many considered the trade a bust for the Braves as Ankiel hit all of .210/.324/.328 as mostly the starting centerfielder for the Braves. Then came his moment. In 2010, the Braves returned to the playoffs in what would be Bobby Cox’s last season at the helm for the team. They ran into a very solid club in San Francisco in the playoffs, and the games were hard-fought, with every single game ending with a 1-run difference as the separator. In game 2, Ankiel stepped to the plate in the 11th inning and launched a ball into McCovey Cove that ended up being the winning run in the Braves lone victory in the series. The team mobbed him in celebration, an image that outlasted the fact that Ankiel finished the series after game two going a combined 0-4 with 2 walks and a strikeout in the final two games in the series. He’d come full circle in his Braves playoff moments, from that terrible moment as a rookie in 2000 to the hero in 2010.
Guys like Rick Ankiel don’t come around baseball too often. It’s hard enough to pitch OR hit well enough to make it to the major leagues, let alone be able to make it doing each in separate parts of your career. Ankiel worked incredibly hard his entire career and received plenty of high marks as a teammate as well. So, thank you for the memories, Rick, and enjoy your retirement from all of us donning our Braves gear!
Oh, and one quick personal note – happy birthday, Mom!