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Pitcher Ankiel a Weapon at Plate

May 07, 2000|R.B. FALLSTROM | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ST. LOUIS — Back in Florida, they still marvel about the time Rick Ankiel hit a drive that cleared the center-field wall, 420 feet away, in the 1997 state playoffs.

The at-bat was his last in high school, and what a way to go out.

His three-homer game is a topic of wondrous nostalgia, too. His uniform No. 24 has been retired at Port St. Lucie High, where he holds the school record for homers, and there's a proposal to rename the baseball field in his honor.

Ankiel is now one of the major leagues' best young pitchers, with a 3-1 record and 2.90 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals. The 20-year-old left-hander has a biting curveball that Mark McGwire has nicknamed "snapdragon" and 25 strikeouts in 31 innings.

He has even hit two home runs. Who knows, the Cardinals might have another Babe Ruth on their hands.

"I don't think I'll ever see another one like him," said Tony Malizia, the Port St. Lucie High head coach who was an assistant when Ankiel was a schoolboy sensation.

Ankiel grew up with a batting cage in his back yard and used it every day.

Malizia remembers him as a player with power from both sides of the plate, although it's a well-kept secret. His high school coaches refused to allow him to bat right-handed because he'd put his left arm at risk.

"He's just as good from the other side of the plate," Malizia said. "God, yes. If he ever got hit there, that's just a chance you don't want to take."

Just like the Babe at the start of his career, Ankiel is a dominating left-handed pitcher. He's also not an automatic out.

It's a natural progression after his rapid rise through the minors. Last year he was a combined 13-3 with a 2.35 ERA and averaged more than 12 strikeouts per nine innings while breezing through Double-A and Triple-A.

"He doesn't quite throw as hard as Randy Johnson," Pirates shortstop Pat Meares said. "But he definitely runs the ball up there. He certainly has a bright future ahead of him."

Ankiel also knows much better than most pitchers how to help himself. He hit his two homers in his first 12 at-bats and also had a triple and five RBIs--a career for some hurlers. He was hitless with a walk and scored a run Wednesday as his batting average dipped to .462.

Manager Tony La Russa believes Ankiel could have made it to the majors as a hitter, and that's not just idle talk. Last week, he had catcher Mike Matheny, the eighth-place hitter, sacrifice with runners on first and second so the kid could drive them in, and Ankiel responded with his second home run.

"I think I could have given it a good shot, if I concentrated fully on it," Ankiel said. "You can be a hero with one swing."

Some Cardinals pitchers have theorized that Ankiel can still hit because it hasn't been that long since he was an everyday player, also spending time at first base and the outfield in high school. They're probably jealous.

"I knew he was a good hitter, but jeez, give me a break," said Darryl Kile, who was hitless in his first 13 at-bats. "He doesn't have to hit that many home runs, too."

Ankiel's secret? Well, there isn't one.

Batting coach Mike Easler said he just grabs a bat out of the rack and goes up there hacking. Case in point: When he connected off Steve Woodard of the Brewers last month, he was looking for a breaking ball to go the other way and ended up pulling it 404 feet into the right-field bullpen.

"He doesn't know what he's doing, he's just talented," Easler said. "There's no mechanics, no technique."

Easler said Ankiel compares favorably with the better hitting pitchers of the last 20-30 years, such as Don Robinson, Rick Rhoden and Rick Reuschel. He's the Cardinals' best since Bob Forsch and Bob Gibson, who hit 24 career homers.

"Robinson was a real good hitter, and I know Tom Glavine is a good hitter and Fernando Valenzuela was a good hitter," Kile said. "But I don't think they could hit the way he can."

La Russa batted his pitcher eighth the second half of the 1998 season to put more runners on base for the heart of his order and to give McGwire an advantage in his record 70-homer season. Ankiel, on the surface, gives him the perfect chance to innovate again.

Baseball purists can rejoice, because La Russa insists it's not going to happen. He would, however, consider using Ankiel as a pinch-hitter under the right circumstance. It nearly happened recently, before La Russa pulled him back at the last minute.

"If it's one of those days where you're a little bit short on the bench, maybe you use him early to save your position players for later," La Russa said.

La Russa also would consider using him instead of the designated hitter when the Cardinals play interleague games in American League cities.

"When you look at him swing, there's no surprise to him being successful," La Russa said. "He's got a great swing, he's got a quick bat and he can hit a breaking ball."

But pitchers will surely get tougher on Ankiel now they know the bat in his hands is not an ornament.

When he came to bat in the season-opening series against the Cubs, Rene Lachemann, a former longtime La Russa aide and now the bench coach in Chicago, pantomimed a swing in the dugout to remind his pitcher that this was no easy out.

No dice. Ankiel hit an RBI triple off the wall in right-center off Matt Karchner.

"They'll start respecting him, just not laying that fastball in there," Easler said. "But when they make mistakes, he's going to be right on them."

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