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Pressure should be off Ankiel; he could make playoff roster
By Bernie Miklasz
Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist
As comebacks go, pitcher Rick Ankiel couldn't ask for a better place or a better time.
The Cardinals want Ankiel, like Ankiel, and will support Ankiel.
But they don't need him.
The Cardinals have rocketed to a secure lead in the NL Central, so they don't have to look to Ankiel for heroics. They don't have to count on him to make a difference. He doesn't have to be a star. He can come out of the bullpen to contribute, and he will probably be called on to make a spot start later this month during the Cardinals' stretch of 20 games without a day off.
Ankiel can blend himself back into this pitching staff and integrate his way into the team culture in a steady, sure manner. Ankiel is under no pressure to please his teammates, the fans, or the media. His performance won't impact the team's place in the standings. Ankiel can concern himself with one goal: throwing strikes.
Ankiel can settle in, get comfortable.
And that should help him settle down.
As Ankiel rejoins the Cardinals at the big-league level for the first time since May 2001, he will experience the optimum scene: an epic winning season, a harmonious clubhouse and caring teammates. There's nothing but good vibrations at Busch Stadium. Ankiel's confidence is up after a successful turn in the minors, where he rehabilitated his left elbow and his career. And Ankiel's progress will only be enhanced in this setting.
If there are any unfriendly ghosts roaming around Busch to stir unpleasant memories for Ankiel, by now he has surely developed stronger coping skills and can deal with them. He is 25 now, more mature. He's been hardened by adversity. This tormented lefthander has been through so many trials, it's hard to imagine that anything can blow up his personal reconstruction.
A gutless competitor would have been destroyed by now, after all of the wildness, mental meltdowns and left-arm breakdowns. A weak heart would have given out. A pitching prodigy with no soul would have walked away a long time ago. This kid always had a terrific left arm. Now there's indisputable evidence of a firm spine.
"He's calendar years older," manager Tony La Russa said. "And he's gone through a lot. Rehabbing from arm surgery is very lonely, very hard. You're eating your heart out, wanting to compete. It steels you."
It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals handle Ankiel. How protective they will be of Ankiel when reporters seek him out for interviews and distant replays. And how aggressive they will be with Ankiel's pitching assignments. After Ankiel's sensational performance in the minors, the Cardinals are, with some reluctance, allowing themselves to get excited.
The groin injury suffered by lefthanded reliever Steve Kline could provide an opening in the Cardinals bullpen. When asked if there's a chance for Ankiel to be added to the team's postseason roster, La Russa didn't hesitate.
"Yeah, sure, absolutely," La Russa said. "That's a lot to ask of him, but with Rick's talent, that's possible."
La Russa cautioned that the Cardinals will take it one step at a time with Ankiel. But they won't set limits, and I like that. Why reinforce negative thoughts? The Cardinals will be careful with him. But if Ankiel is good, if he is stable, if he is throwing those moving 92 mph fastballs and anchor-drop curves, the message to him should be: We believe in you, so everything is still possible.
"He's such a phenomenal talent," catcher Mike Matheny said.
The Cardinals will, however, take a prudent approach to Ankiel's off-field obligations. They will try to shield him from a lot of one-on-one interviews. Which is understandable. Why should he be expected to relive his past over and over again? Why subject Ankiel to what amounts to a thousand little paper cuts?
"A lot of it depends on what Rick wants to do," La Russa said. "If he asks my opinion, I'd say you ought to give everybody a shot to ask you whatever they want one time and then after that I'd try to resurrect my career. And I wouldn't be real nice about it. He should go about his business. I think people would drive him crazy with their requests for individual time and their exclusives."
Then again, any attempt to make Ankiel the boy in the bubble carries some risk. The Cardinals tried to get cute by hiding Ankiel from the media before Game 1 of the 2000 playoff series against Atlanta, and the strategy backfired. After an 11-7 rookie season, Ankiel started that first playoff game and imploded on the mound, initiating his hard fall, disappearance and comeback odyssey.
"You can't ask him to be treated any differently than anyone else in here," Matheny said. "But one reason we're so defensive is, there are people on the outside who want to see something bad happen. In this clubhouse, we just want to see him pitch well and get a reward for all the work he's done to make it back."
The party-boy kid who made his major-league debut at age 19 is a man now. Baseball, and life, caused Ankiel to swerve off course and tumble. But he had the resolve to get up. Ankiel is polished and poised and ready to reemerge. This wildflower has blossomed.
StlSluggers wrote:I figured as much. Like my title implies, I was just hyping up the event because it's fun to think about. I'd need pretty long odds to place a bet that Ankiel makes the postseason roster, and even longer to bet that he'll make a fabulous return in the playoffs.
ramble2 wrote:It'd be incredibly foolish of the Cardinals to put Ankiel on their playoff roster. It's incredible enough that he's fought his way back to the the ML. Let him get in a few no-pressure innings in September, sure, but if he's in a playoff game and things go wrong, everything they worked so hard for could be gone. It'd be incredibly irresponsible and foolish of the Cards.
eftda wrote:My nipples got hard there for a second.
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