The St. Louis Cardinals are closing in on the NL Central lead, but all of a sudden, the focus has shifted from their playoff push.
They’ll continue trying to overcome yet another distraction in a tumultuous season Saturday when they continue a three-game series with the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.
Rick Ankiel had been one of the great stories of the 2007 season as the former pitcher, whose career appeared once he suddenly lost his control just three seasons earlier, made his way back to the majors as an outfielder. In 24 games since being called up from the minors, he is hitting .353 with nine homers and 29 RBIs.
However, the New York Daily News reported in Friday’s editions that Ankiel received eight shipments of HGH from January to December 2004 from Signature Pharmacy, under investigation for illegally distributing prescription medications. In a brief session with reporters before Friday’s series-opening 4-2 loss on Friday, Ankiel said he received all of the medications under a doctor’s care.
“I’m just disappointed,” he said. “I just don’t want it to become a bigger distraction that it already has become. We’re in the middle of a pennant race. I just want to be able to go out there and compete at the highest level I can.”
The bombshell is just the latest in string of obstacles the reigning World Series champions have had to deal with this season. Manager Tony La Russa received a DUI in spring training, pitcher Josh Hancock was killed in a car accident, ace Chris Carpenter underwent season-ending elbow surgery and Scott Spiezio left the team to undergo treatment for substance abuse.
Still, the Cardinals (69-69) have managed to claw their way up the NL Central standings and remained one game behind the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers, who both lost on Friday. Ankiel went 1-for-4 Friday before being replaced in a double switch in the seventh, one night after homering twice and driving in seven runs in a 16-4 win over Pittsburgh.
The Diamondbacks (79-63), meanwhile, increased their NL West lead to two games over San Diego, which lost at Colorado.
“We’ve played this game a few times this year,” manager Bob Melvin said, “this type of game.”
However, Arizona did receive some bad news. Second baseman Orlando Hudson could be forced to undergo season-ending surgery after tearing a ligament in his left thumb sliding into third base on Tuesday. He played Wednesday but was replaced after seven innings.
Hudson is hitting a team-high .294 with 10 home runs and 63 RBIs. Alberto Callaspo, out since mid-August with a strained hamstring, could start Saturday and would be the everyday second baseman if Hudson can’t return.
“I don’t want to go there yet because he means so much to the team,” Melvin said of Hudson. “We’re going to wait a couple of days to see where it all plays out.”
The Diamondbacks did upgrade their bullpen Friday, signing veteran reliever Bob Wickman. The 38-year-old right-hander, who was released by the Atlanta Braves last month, adds to an already strong relief corps but won’t be eligible for the postseason.
On Saturday, the Diamondbacks will square off against St. Louis starter Braden Looper (12-10, 4.45 ERA), who has thrown seven scoreless innings in each of his last two starts, including Sunday’s 3-2 win over Cincinnati. He improved to 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA in nine day starts—but is just 5-9 with a 6.05 ERA in 17 at night.
Looper—in his first season as a starter—has already thrown 153 2-3 innings, nearly double his previous career high of 86 in 2002 with Florida. However, he is 4-1 with a 2.11 ERA over his last six starts.
Looper is 1-2 with a 2.81 ERA in 27 career appearances against Arizona. His lone start against the Diamondbacks came on July 2, when he gave up three runs in six innings without getting a decision in the Cardinals’ 11-3 win.
The Diamondbacks counter with Micah Owings (6-8, 4.75), who is looking to rebound after allowing five runs and a career-worst four homers in three innings of Monday’s 10-2 loss to San Diego. The rookie right-hander is just 1-3 over his last nine starts, and the Diamondbacks have lost five of his last six.
Owings, who is making his first career start against the Cardinals, did double in the third to raise his batting average to .294. He has four homers, three doubles and a triple.