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Monday, June 16
Ankiel can't seem to conquer 'The Creature'

By Jeff Merron
Special to

Rick Ankiel had one of his best outings of the season Saturday night. Starting for the Cardinals' Double-A team, the Tennessee Smokies, the one-time phenom pitched 4 2/3 innings and surrendered only three hits while striking out seven. He threw 100 pitches, the most he's tossed all season. He lowered his ERA from 9.40 to 8.91.

Rick Ankiel
Rick Ankiel is still searching for answers in the minors.

But against the Carolina Mudcats, there also was more of the wildness that has plagued him since October 2000. Six walks. A wild pitch. 51 strikes, 49 balls.

Ankiel's 2003 record now stands at 1-4. He has walked 42 batters and has thrown 10 wild pitches in 34 1/3 innings. Of the 178 batters he has faced, 83 -- or 47 percent -- have reached base.

After his notoriously wild performances in the 2000 playoffs, Ankiel's battle to regain control, once among the biggest national baseball stories, has virtually disappeared from the sports pages, except during spring training. Every March for the past couple of years, there have been hopeful reports, talk about the pitcher's effectiveness in structured sessions or game simulations, talk about the possibility that Ankiel may rejoin the Cardinals soon.

That fades with Opening Day, and now, more than 2½ years later, what was bizarre -- gross lack of control -- has become normal. And what was spectacular (in the way that a car crash is spectacular) -- wild pitches and walks in bunches -- has become mundane.

Ankiel is in convalescence. He was out all of 2002 with elbow problems. He began this season in the Smokies' bullpen, and moved to the starting rotation in early May. "He wasn't getting a lot of good work out of the bullpen," Smokies pitching coach Blaise Ilsley said. "It was hard to let him get a feel for pitching again. Putting him in the rotation has been a slow process, too, in terms of his pitch count."

That pitch count is going up. Before throwing 100 on Saturday, he threw 89 pitches in his previous turn, five days earlier.

Up and down and all around
Ankiel declined to be interviewed for this article -- he's simply not talking, said Tom Hart, the Smokies director of broadcasting and media relations. These days, Ankiel doesn't want the media attention.

But Ilsley says he's making progress. "At the beginning of the year he was just trying to throw strikes. Now he's throwing his curve more. Early in the year it was such a battle just to go out and throw strikes. Now he's pitching. He's setting up batters."

And, said Ilsley, Ankiel's having fun out of the spotlight. "I think he's enjoying it," Ilsley said. "He's been a wonderful guy to have on the team."

Ankiel hasn't reported any arm problems. He's throwing his fastball between 88-94 mph. "It could be more consistently in the 90s," Ilsley said. "At times he might not let it go 100 percent."

And at times -- as often as not so far this season -- Ankiel's just plain all over the place. He'll strike out the side on 13 pitches, as he did in the first inning last Monday against Greenville, and then struggle to get the ball over the plate, and struggle some more to just get batters out. It all adds up to very ugly numbers, and those numbers are delivered, in great detail, in the otherwise abbreviated game recaps on the Smokies' Web site.

'The Creature'
How Ankiel can be brilliant at times, dominating batters as he did during the 2000 season, then suddenly become wild and hittable, is not easily understandable.

Rick Ankiel
Starting pitcher
Tennessee Smokies
34.1 1-4 36 42 41 8.91

"I call it 'The Creature,' where the conscious mind and the subconscious mind can't deliver the right message to duplicate a delivery," said Tom House, the co-founder of the National Pitching Association. House has been instructing pitchers since his big-league career ended in 1978.

He's seen it many times before. "It happens to everyone. Some people, it just happens worse to. You can see it with the yips in golf, or shooting badly at the foul line in basketball."

Some guys never recover. Ankiel has been compared most often to Steve Blass, the excellent Pirates pitcher who suddenly lost his control in 1973 and never regained it. Blass had been an effective pitcher for eight seasons when he experienced his loss of control. He had won 100 games for the Pirates, but at age 30, pitching futility struck suddenly. Nobody knew what happened. Blass still doesn't know. But the fact of the matter is that what seemed reversible at the time turned out to be permanent.

After going 19-8 with a 2.49 ERA in 1972, Blass went 3-9 with a 9.85 ERA the following season. In 1972, he walked 84 batters in 249.7 innings. In 1973, he walked 84 in 88.7 innings. In 1974, at the age of 32, he hung up his spikes, and had a disease named after him.

Since then, we've heard about others with "Steve Blass disease." Chuck Knoblauch, a gold-glove fielder who suddenly couldn't make the throw from second to first. He never recovered the ability. In the early 1990s, Mets catcher Mackey Sasser became unable to throw the ball quickly and directly back to the pitcher. His hesitant lobs became so bad he lost his job.

But others have recovered. Mark Wohlers, one of the best relievers in the mid-1990s, got incredibly wild in 1999. He underwent Tommy John surgery and eventually worked himself back to consistency, though not to his previous talent level. Dodgers second baseman Steve Sax, like Knoblauch, suddenly lost the ability to make the easy toss to first base, and committed 30 errors in 1983. But he came back too, gradually reducing his errors and, with the Yankees in 1989, leading AL second basemen in fielding percentage and double plays in 1989.

Ankiel in the outfield? Not yet ...
There's been some talk lately that the Cardinals may give up on Ankiel's pitching and instead experiment with him as an outfielder. Ankiel's an excellent hitter, and he's done spot duty at DH in the minors. But because he's been in the news for years, it's easy to forget that Ankiel is still very young.

You cannot give up on that kind of talent. He might bang around (in the minors) for four or five years. But the kid is a pretty special athlete.
Tom House, pitching instructor

He won't turn 24 until July 19. And that is key to understanding the Cardinals' organizational optimism, their readiness to spend valuable time and resources on what might seem like a lost cause. "What everyone is rolling the dice with is that (Ankiel's control problems) will just be gone," House said. "You don't give up, because he's 23."

Ilsley said Ankiel's mechanics will sometimes just be off. "There have been times this year when his wrist locks up," Ilsley said. "If you watch him enough, you can see the difference. When he throws a good pitch and has a good inning, you can tell the difference (in his motion). One of the battles is to find his relaxed, controlled delivery."

House said that although he hasn't worked with Ankiel, he knows the problem, at a certain level. "His thinking mind and feeling mind aren't matching up. And that's why he's unable to repeat. That's why you'll see glimmers of perfection and then disaster. My guess is that he's wondering, on any given day, 'I wonder if The Creature will be here today.' "

And there's the rub, House adds: "Thinking about 'The Creature' wakes the creature up."

So what lies ahead for Ankiel, House said, is retraining. Ankiel has to retrain his mind, to work automatically, to stop wondering if this will be the day when he kills "The Creature."

"You cannot give up on that kind of talent," House said. "He might bang around (in the minors) for four or five years. But the kid is a pretty special athlete. There is no magic, but my guess is that one of these days, he'll walk out and 'The Creature' will be gone."

Jeff Merron is a regular Page 2 contributor.

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