Ankiel thrives in new life as power-hitting outfielder

Sunday, September 2, 2007
Rick Ankiel tipped his helmet after hitting his first grand slam Friday night against Cincinnati. (Jeff Roberson ~ Associated Press)

ST. LOUIS -- As a pitcher, Rick Ankiel crumbled under pressure.

Reborn as a power-hitting outfielder, he appears to thrive on it.

Ankiel's first career grand slam, the go-ahead blow in the St. Louis Cardinals' 8-5 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, was the latest chapter in this wildly improbable, feel-good comeback story.

"It's really impressive," manager Tony La Russa said. "But there was no surprise. He's playing exactly to his ability. It's fun to watch, and he's given us a great lift."

The defending World Series champions, beset all year by distractions and injuries, were stumbling along at 52-59 and six games back in the National League Central on Aug. 9. Then Ankiel sauntered into the clubhouse toting his equipment bag.

That was the same day the team took its latest hit, placing utilityman Scott Spiezio on the restricted list to undergo treatment for substance abuse.

That night, Ankiel hit a three-run homer in his debut.

On Friday night, his grand slam diminished another blow, a season-ending eye injury to Juan Encarnacion earlier in the inning. Encarnacion was struck by a foul ball in the on-deck circle.

Even during his quiet games Ankiel has served as inspiration for the team, which had closed to two games behind the first-place Cubs after Friday's games. He can even be inspirational to the pitchers he victimizes.

"He's come a long way from where he ended up to where he is now," said Reds left-hander Eddie Guardado, who surrendered Ankiel's grand slam. "This game is a mental game and it can crush you, and I think he knows that. He's come a long way, he's beat it. I tip my cap to him because I think he's going to be pretty damn good."

Years ago, when he was still pitching, Ankiel's arm drew the respect of former teammate Mark McGwire. The one-time home run king was a great admirer of Ankiel's almost unhittable curveball when he first came up, nicknaming it a "snapdragon."

Now, Ankiel has a bat in his hand, staring at pitchers.

"Just see the ball, hit the ball," he said. "You look for pitches you think you can hit, and try to put good swings on them. Lately I've been able to do that."

Ankiel led the Pacific Coast League with 32 homers when he was called up, and has a smooth, natural stroke that he flashed during his pitching career with two homers and a .207 average. Two days after his debut, he hit two more homers, and totaled four long balls in his first seven games following the call-up.

Ankiel takes an aggressive approach to the plate, totaling 19 strikeouts in 61 at-bats. But he's also drawn five walks for a .373 on-base percentage. He's also been a big of an asset in right field with a strong, accurate arm.

"I think it's all cat and mouse whether you're a pitcher or a hitter," Ankiel said.

As for his first grand slam, Ankiel admitted it was special.

"I was so excited and it felt so good," Ankiel said. "When I hit it, I wasn't sure if it was gone, but I knew it had a chance.

"Once I realized it was a homer, especially a grand slam to put us ahead, there's no better feeling than that."

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