WTNYSeptember 16, 2004
As Good As It Gets
By Bryan Smith

News Flash: One of the best baseball stories of the year has happened in the last week, and youve probably barely heard about it.

This isnt your fault, but instead the fault of major media and blogging columnists. For a subject like this to sneak past writers searching for stories is amazing, and shows how apt we are to forget the human element in baseball. One of the most recent Monday Night Footballs best stories was the return of Mark Fields, a Carolina Panthers linebacker who had been sidelined for Hodgkins Disease.

Rick Ankiel was sidelined, but for what no one knew. More like, for what no one could understand. No one could understand that a professional athlete could wake up forgetting how to throw. No one could understand that such a bright prospect had such a fast burn out. No one understood Rick Ankiel, and his name has faded into oblivion since the ugly 2001 playoffs. A tarnished life, seen through a few ghastly pitches.

I guess I shouldnt be surprised that media wasnt swarming in San Diego upon Rick Ankiels return, but I was. A 25-year-old with ace stuff returned, after one of the worst implosions in recent memory. But I didnt hear much, a faint whisper of a few observant bloggers. One of which was Rich Lederer, who wrote the following after Ankiels first appearance:


St. Louis Cardinals 4, San Diego Padres 2. Rick Ankiel made his first appearance since May 10, 2001. Believe me, you didnt have to be a Cardinals fan to get caught up in the moment. Ankiel gave up a bloop single on an 0-2 pitch to his first batter, then retired the side with a combination of 94-mph fastballs, sweeping curveballs, and a circle changeup. The lefthander benefited from a spectacular, do or die play on a bunt that Scott Rolen barehanded and threw to Albert Pujols for the first out of the inning.

Ankiel has made one appearance since September 7, an inning against the Dodgers on September 12. Through the advent of MLB TV, a fantastic feature, I was able to watch the southpaws second performance. And to make things even better, I watched it alongside Vin Scullys commentary. One of the seasons best stories, spoken by the games greatest announcer.

Ankiel was described by Scully as having self-destructed with the spotlight on him. He spoke of Tony La Russas high praise, saying the Cardinals liked Ankiel not just as a player, but as a man. This all came during Alex Coras at-bat, a two-pitch sequence in which Ankiel showed a 90 mph fastball and sick 71 mph curve resulting in a groundout to first. His curve looks similar to Barry Zitos in Oakland, slow and sweeping. He shows a lot of confidence in the pitch, and would throw it nine times in 18 pitches that day.

During a second, eight pitch at-bat to Antonio Perez, Scully told the story of Ankiels disastrous NLDS. He noted that Mike Matheny wasnt catching that day, and said for all we know, maybe [Ankiel] wouldnt have gone through that baptism of fire with Matheny behind the plate. Finally, Ankiel struck Perez out on another curve. The last batter he faced was Tom Wilson, who also worked the 25-year-old for eight pitches. He was retired after Hector Luna made a nice play on a ball scorched to the hot corner.

So, contrary to what ESPNs box score says, Ankiel had an impressive 1-2-3 inning. UPNs gun had Ankiel between 89-91 with his fastball, but watching him I was more apt to believe Richs reading of 94 mph. His control was fantastic, as Matheny never had to extend his arm for a pitch. With Matt Morris and Cris Carpenter as free agents-to-be, you have to think there will be a rotation spot waiting for Ankiel next year.

I loved Vin Scullys closing line on Ankiel, theres a lot of tragedy behind that name, behind that jersey. But out of tragedy comes triumph, and in this case, even a Cub fan can hope for that.

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The game also gave me a chance to watch Edwin Jackson, who was my top rated pitcher before the season. Jackson has had a rough year, first being beaten up in a hitters stadium, then serving time on the DL. But hes gotten 13.2 Major League innings in, posting a respectable 3.95 ERA. I watched the second inning of his last appearance, in which Jackson yielded the go-ahead run that would lead to his first loss of the season.

In the 12 pitch inning, Jackson threw nine fastballs, showing a drastic preference for the pitch. He was between 91-95 mph on what Ive described as a slow gun, so probably even 93-97. Despite walking one batter, Jackson showed solid control of the pitch, never missing by too much. He also showed a decent curve, with solid downward bite at 82-84 mph. It looks like he has the tendency to leave his pitches up in the zone, which is probably the reason for the three home runs allowed this season. But overall, I like him, while admitting the ranking may have been a little high.

I love MLB TV. I love flipping through the channels, checking out games, becoming that much more involved in the NL Wild Card race.

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But, my MLB TV watching was not done there. I also made a stop at a couple of Atlanta games, where their top two pitching prospects Jose Capellan and Dan Meyer made debuts. Capellan started the Sunday, September 12 game against the Expos, and saw a possible win blown by John Smoltz. In five innings, the 23-year-old allowed four hits and three walks, while striking out four. Like Scott Kazmir and Jeff Francis, Capellans primary problem was the sheer number of pitches, 111 in five innings.

Like in the Futures Game, Capellan began the game throwing primarily fastballs. Its a great pitch, 96-99 mph, but without anything else caused some problems. In the first inning, Capellan allowed two hits, two walks and a run, pitches out of a bases loaded, one out jam. This was because Jose started to mix in his curve, a low-80s pitch with sharp, downward bite. Its a good pitch, and sees problems when he leaves it up in the zone. He finished the game well, retiring eight of the last nine batters he faced.

With thick thighs powering his fastball, Capellan is reminiscent of the Bartolo Colon, Livan Hernandez type pitcher. After watching the Futures Game, I speculated Capellan may be best out of the bullpen, but I think he could have a Colon-like career in starting. Bartolos career started as a 24-year-old in 1997, where he had a 5.65 ERA in 94 innings. Atlantas hoping that this seasons cup of coffee will bypass problems in 2005. Russ Ortiz, Jaret Wright and Paul Byrd are all free agents, and could conceivably be replaced by Horacio Ramirez, Capellan, and Dan Meyer.

Oh, what about Dan Meyer? Meyer made his debut Tuesday night, pitching the eighth inning in a 7-0 loss to the New York Mets. The 23-year-old southpaw had a solid season between AA and AAA, and will surely be a rotation candidate next season. Meyer had the advantage of facing Kris Benson, Gerald Williams, Jeff Keppinger and Cliff Floyd in his first big league stint, only surrendering a single to Keppinger. The MSG radar had him between 86-88, which is probably 1-2 mph off. He throws effortlessly, and showed what looked to be two breaking pitches and a change.

Good things are about to hit Atlanta, who have the advantage of their farm system opening up enough money to re-sign J.D. Drew. I think theyll retain both Drew and Jaret Wright, sending one of the three above away.

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So, thats where my TV watching ended. But, I want to report that Scott Kazmir out-dueled Pedro on Tuesday night, pitching six scoreless innings to drop the ERA to 4.09. Whats better, is the southpaw threw only 92 pitches in six innings, despite walking three and whiffing nine. Also on the same team, B.J. Upton played his fourth game at third base, where hes yet to make an error. An 0/3 night dropped his line to .286/.350/.438, which is of course fantastic for a 20-year-old.

In other prospect news, Jeff Francis won his second game in a row Saturday, both wins over the Padres. In those two starts, the 23-year-old has allowed two runs in 10.1 innings, though the ERA is still at 7.32. Gavin Floyds ERA sits at 2.65 after three starts, and the 21-year-old may be the most impressive of September call-ups. Minus Rick Ankiel, of course. Finally, if teams arent taking away something from the performances of Bucky Jacobsen, Terry Tiffee and Calvin Pickering, then theyll never learn. More on that for another time.

So, drop a line, tell me the most impressive youngster youve seen this year, or your opinion of Rick Ankiels future. And if you can, watch Jose Capellan tonight, and see if you agree with the Bartolo Colon comparison

Comments

I fully agree with your Atlanta offseason predictions. In regards to Ankiel, I remember Edmonds among others telling the media to basically stay away from Rick. I think this warning as well as common sense has prevented the media from making a bigger deal out of his return.

I get the Edmonds thing, but how does common sense play in?

I could be wrong, but I always thought all the media attention was a contributing factor in his fall from grace. If others in the media feel this way, I think it would be common sense to give the kid a little breating room and not shine the spotlight directly on him at first.

breating=breathing.

Nice article, Bryan.

One nit to pick: Ankiel self-destructed during the 2000 playoffs, not 2001.

Oh thanks Christian, I heard Scully say it and didn't even bother to fact-check. My bad.

Well, i must be bad luck. Capellan's line vs. the Mets today:

1 IP 6H 7ER 2BB 0K

Yikes. I was watching the game, and it appeared the Mets were passing on every offspeed pitch and waiting on the fastball. Jose have up two home runs, also known as twice as many as he gave up this season. Richard Hidalgo and Todd Zeile both crushed 400ft+ homers.

The MSN gun most have been wrong, because they had him at 90-93 mph, which was a joke if you were actually watching the pitches. I would estimate the gun was 2-5 mph off, which is pathetic. Can any Mets fans attest the Fox Sports gun is off?

It most definitely is Bryan. I never can believe the radar readings during Met telecasts.

Also, for Ankiel, I hope he makes it back. It was tough watching him during the 2000 NLCS against the Mets. You want to get a few runs, but that became unwatchable that I rooted for him to get out of it.

Ankiel was awesome yesterday, allowing just a walk over two scoreless innings, using a 91mph fastball and 66mph knee-weakening curve. Arizona infielder Alex Cintron said, "His fastball was running, and sinking hard. His curveball - I've never faced anything like it in my life." It was Ankiel's first appearance at Busch Stadium since 10 May 2001.