Ankiel’s wild ride is finally a blast

SAN FRANCISCO – A thousand steps – no, more – a million steps put Rick Ankiel(notes) in that batter’s box late Friday night.

From then, from where he began, his eyes are harder now. It’s come perhaps from the years and the miles, from standing alone in a crowd and from the unrequited search for the unexplainable.

Rick Ankiel whooped it up and silenced Giants fans after his dramatic 11th-inning home run, his first ever in the postseason.
(Eric Risberg/AP)

He was going to be a great pitcher. Now he’s an OK hitter. In between, only he could have counted the steps and known their toll.

“Unfathomable,” Chipper Jones(notes) said. “It just goes to show you the kind of stones he’s got. It’s really remarkable.”

Ten years before Ankiel hit the home run that changed this National League Divisional Series, Jones had watched a 21-year-old kid disintegrate from a distance of 60 feet. On a warm and sunny afternoon at Busch Stadium, the St. Louis Cardinals led their postseason with Ankiel. Young, strong and sure of himself, he’d start Game 1 against Jones’ Atlanta Braves.

What followed was as sad as it was impenetrable. In between and around eight outs, the final count was six walks and five wild pitches. Jones had two plate appearances, walked once and had one ball go to the backstop.

Baseball’s incurable malady had taken Ankiel. They all knew it that day. Well, most of them knew. Ankiel wouldn’t stop pitching for four more years, long past the time everyone but him knew.

“The baseball player part of you feels sorry for him,” Jones said. “Nobody wants to see a guy struggle like that. And, the thing is, it always happens to the nicest guys.”

Dontrelle Willis(notes). Mark Wohlers. Ankiel.

“He was the sure thing,” Jones said. “The next guy.”

Then he wasn’t.

Then he’d be a wonderful athlete catching up on years in the batting cage. He’d age into his 30s – still strong but no longer young – and be a career .248 hitter, a .210 hitter in two months of 2010 with the Braves, a .143 hitter in this divisional series leading up to his final at-bat of Game 2.

Then he’d look for a fastball from Ramon Ramirez(notes), the right-hander for the San Francisco Giants, and get five. The last he hit into the bay.

“I wanted to go from the batter’s box to the dugout,” he said. “I didn’t want to run the bases. I wanted to be with the guys. What a cool way to win.”

The Braves did, too, by a 5-4 score. So, the division series is tied for a hundred little reasons (and one very large, 450-foot one), most of them coming over the final six innings Friday night. Buster Posey(notes), the Giants’ rookie everything, had one swing to push the Giants to the brink of the NLCS, and he grounded into a 10th-inning double play. Brian Wilson(notes), of the 48 regular-season saves, was asked for an extreme save, and Alex Gonzalez(notes), who’d had two hits in his previous 43 at-bats, doubled home two runs. Tommy Hanson(notes) and six relievers held the Giants scoreless for the final nine innings, their own personal shutout to match Tim Lincecum’s(notes) from Game 1. And they did it around what might have been a career-ending oblique injury to Braves closer Billy Wagner(notes), who took a knee three pitches into the Giants’ 10th inning.

But the enduring memory will be of the fastball that shot from the bat of Ankiel, and the story of perseverance it told as it carried over the brick wall in right field – and the life it breathed into a dugout and a franchise.

Ankiel had arrived in the first days of August from the Kansas City Royals along with Kyle Farnsworth(notes), the two of them learning the news as they soaked in a large hot tub inside Kauffman Stadium. They shared a flight to Atlanta, thrilled to be jetting toward first place in the NL East. Farnsworth was the winning pitcher Friday night, Ankiel providing the run he’d need after all those steps put Ankiel into that batter’s box.

The last of them have included Terry Pendleton, the Braves’ hitting coach. Pendleton has asked him to slow his body in order to quicken his hands. That’s what they’ve worked on in recent weeks, in the at-bats leading up to Friday’s. As Ankiel covered those final 30 feet from the dugout to the plate, Ramirez waiting, one teammate turned to another and was overheard to say, “He’s Ramon’s kind of guy,” meaning a fastball hitter, matching Ramirez the fastball pitcher.

“I was looking for something to drive,” Ankiel said.

The fifth fastball split the plate, a little up. Right fielder Nate Schierholtz(notes) made a few heartless strides toward the wall. The largest crowd ever at AT&T Park went so quiet, it would hear the whoops from Ankiel as he returned to the dugout, and the shouts from the rest of the Braves.

“I just got lucky,” Ankiel said.

Jones was among the first to the steps.

“You know, it’s awesome,” Jones said. “It really is, how things comes full circle. He’s had the bad taste in his mouth for so long. Trust me, I was in the batter’s box against him and it’s not fun. But he’s here, back in the playoffs and a hero for the Braves tonight.”

When he arrived in the clubhouse, the Braves met him again, with applause, with a face-full of shaving cream, with appreciation for all that put him there.

On television, Ankiel called his home run “the pinnacle of anything I’ve ever done.”

More precisely, perhaps, of everything he’s ever done.

“It’s been a long, fun journey,” he said. “And I appreciate everything that’s happened. And I appreciate the Braves bringing me over here on the deadline. And what a fun thing, what a cool thing to be a part of, from Bobby [Cox] retiring to all the way here. I mean, I can’t put into words how it feels.”

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Oct 9, 2010