Ankiel's long ball caps trying road back
Massive homer brings playoff redemption to one-time Cards hurler
SAN FRANCISCO -- Rick Ankiel didn't know the history right offhand, but he was quickly informed. His "splash hit" into the San Francisco Bay on Friday night was the second in AT&T Park postseason history, and the first in a playoff game was October 2002. That's a long time for a stadium or a franchise. It's a much longer time for Ankiel.
In that game in '02, Barry Bonds went deep against Ankiel's St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series en route to eliminating a favored Redbirds team. Only Ankiel, then a pitcher, wasn't exactly a Cardinal at the time.
He had been a Peoria Chief -- for a few hours -- four months before, with a scheduled Minor League rehab start aborted at the 11th hour. He would be a Tennessee Smoky the following year, fighting the best he could before succumbing to left elbow surgery. But mostly he was in the midst of a detour from the Major League game that lasted the better part of seven years.
On Friday night, though, Ankiel put some punctuation on his reinvention. Now an outfielder for the Braves, he obliterated a 2-2 fastball from Ramon Ramirez, driving it into the Bay and giving Atlanta a 5-4, 11-inning victory over the Giants.
It's not putting too fine a point on things to say that it's the first unequivocally happy moment of Ankiel's postseason career. And he showed it. Before the ball had even cleared the wall, Ankiel flipped his bat toward the visitors' dugout, raised his right arm in celebration and grinned as he rounded the bases.
"To be honest with you, I wanted to go right from the batters' box to the dugout and just be with my teammates," Ankiel said. "I didn't want to round the bases. But what a cool thing, what a fun thing. [It was] definitely the biggest homer of my career. I can't really describe it."
Watching Ankiel revel in his moment, you wouldn't have to know a single smidgeon of his history to know it was something special. But for anyone who knows the story, it was transcendent.
Ten years earlier, Ankiel endured one of the worst days any pitcher has ever experienced. On Oct. 3, 2000, he threw five wild pitches and walked six batters in 2 2/3 innings in Game 1 of the Cardinals' NLDS against the Braves. Nine days later, he walked three and threw two wild pitches in an NL Championship Series start that didn't even last an inning.
His career, which up to that point had ridden an almost impossibly steep upward trajectory, trended downward for more than half a decade. A year after going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA and 194 strikeouts, Ankiel made only six starts in 2001. He didn't appear in a professional game in '02 and had surgery in '03.
He was a feel-good story briefly for the pennant-winning '04 Cardinals, tossing 10 innings of relief. But a frustrating pitching spring in '05 caused Ankiel to offer his retirement before he decided to try the near-impossible: coming back as an outfielder.
Even then, it was a struggle. A knee injury derailed him in '06. Finally Ankiel returned to the big leagues in '07 for another of those feel-good moments. He homered in his first game back, brightening a largely miserable Cardinals season with his late-season surge.
And still Ankiel fought to maintain traction. He hit 25 home runs in 2008, but tailed off in the second half. His playing time dwindled in '09. St. Louis made the playoffs last year but was swept, with Ankiel playing in one game and going 0-for-3. He signed with the Royals for '10 and still had trouble staying healthy, playing 27 games before a trade to Atlanta. After the deal, he hit .210.
Then ... boom. One swing, one moment, and in at least one portion of the country, Ankiel's name has a totally new connotation: October hero.
"It couldn't happen to a better guy," said reliever Kyle Farnsworth. "Just the way he's battled back, from pitching to playing outfield, for him to hit a home run to win a playoff game, it's awesome. Great guy."
Remarkably, one of Ankiel's teammates these days was in the park at old Busch Stadium in October 2000. Chipper Jones drew Ankiel's first walk that day. So Jones definitely knows how long it's been.
"It's awesome -- it really is -- how things come full circle," Jones said. "He's had the bad taste in his mouth from when he was in St. Louis. And trust me, I was in the batters' box against him in that series, and it was not fun. But that guy is a remarkable athlete and he's got a huge heart. ... It took him a while to get back, but he's here, he's back in the playoffs and a hero for the Braves tonight."
Such a hero that he was still sporting some shaving cream in his hair when he did postgame interviews. It's tough to get sweeter than winning an extra-inning postseason game, but for the Braves, it was made even better by the fact that Ankiel was the star.
"If you'd have been in here when everybody came off the field through the congratulatory line, you would see how we all feel about him and how all of his teammates have always felt about him," Jones said. "They're always pulling for him -- always want the best for him. We absolutely mobbed him when he came in here. And I don't think other players would have gotten quite the reception that he got because of the fact that he's such a favorite here in the clubhouse."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.