Outfielder Ankiel goes deep in first game of return to the majors

ST. LOUIS -- Rick Ankiel returned to the major leagues Thursday as an outfielder -- and quickly put on a power display.

After flopping in his attempt to rejoin the St. Louis Cardinals as a pitcher, Ankiel was called up from the minors and hit a three-run homer in the seventh inning off San Diego's Doug Brocail.

Ankiel drove a 2-1 pitch into the right-field stands to put St. Louis ahead 5-0.

Ankiel, who was greeted with a standing ovation before his first at-bat, drew another lengthy ovation and took a curtain call after hitting his third career homer. He hit two in 2000, when he was a phenom left-hander.

The timing of Ankiel's callup coincided with utilityman Scott Spiezio going on major-league baseball's restricted list.

Toting an equipment bag, Ankiel walked into a clubhouse that was closed to discuss the Spiezio matter.

"I set a goal for myself to get back here, so I feel good that I reached it," Ankiel said. "I'm looking forward to reaching my next goal, which is staying here."

Ankiel was hitting .267 with a Pacific Coast League-leading 32 homers and 89 RBIs in 102 games at Triple-A Memphis. He also struck out 90 times and had a .314 on-base percentage.

"He goes up there and takes a whack," manager Tony La Russa said. "He's aggressive."

Ankiel made his major-league pitching debut at age 19 in August 2000 when he faced the Expos in Montreal.

"I was young and I don't think I understood the magnitude of what was going on," he said. "That seems like a long time ago. It's ancient. I'm a different guy.

"I was so young then. I guess we all were," he said.

The hard-throwing lefty won 11 games and struck out 194 in 175 innings as a 20-year-old rookie in 2000 and was a surprise pick to start the Cardinals' postseason opener that season against Atlanta. But he became the first major-league pitcher to throw five wild pitches in one inning since 1890.

Ankiel threw nine wild pitches in four innings during the 2000 playoffs and was never really the same after that. He showed some promise at the plate in 2000, batting .250 with two home runs.

Now, the Cardinals want an extended period to gauge Ankiel's future and expect that giving him three weeks of playing time before major-league rosters are expanded will provide a clearer picture.

The team didn't recall him earlier because Ankiel has no minor-league options remaining and would have to clear waivers if he was brought up and sent back down.

La Russa said he planned on starting Ankiel the next "two or three days" and that he'd get plenty of playing time.

"We need to see Rick here and really assess how major league-ready he is," La Russa said. "It's going to cost somebody playing time."

La Russa didn't consider putting Ankiel into the lineup against Padres ace Chris Young to be an overwhelming debut, reasoning he would see good pitches to hit batting in front of Albert Pujols.

"A tough assignment is to have a year like that and not get an opportunity," La Russa said. "He's facing [Brad] Penny tomorrow, he would have faced [Greg] Maddux yesterday and [Jake] Peavy the day before. This is the big leagues."

Ankiel, who found out about the callup at midnight Wednesday, didn't mind.

"From everything I've read, I thought I would be called up in September," Ankiel said. "So, this is nice. I appreciate them giving me a chance to start my career over."

Ankiel was 1-2 with a 7.13 ERA in six starts for the Cardinals in 2001 and wound up back in the minors. He missed 2002 with a left elbow sprain, started 2003 in the minors and tore a ligament in his left elbow.

He returned to the majors in September 2004 and had a 5.40 ERA in 10 innings over five relief appearances with the Cardinals. After feeling a twinge in his elbow during winter ball in Puerto Rico, he announced on March 9, 2005, that he was switching to the outfield.

Following a 1-for-21 start, he wound up batting a combined .259 with 21 homers and 75 RBIs in 85 games split between Double-A Springfield and Class A Quad Cities, and he then spent the 2006 on the disabled list after hurting his left knee during a Cardinals intrasquad game early in spring training.

St. Louis, sagging after winning last year's World Series, hopes the left-handed hitter will provide a boost. Despite a 52-59 record, the Cardinals began Thursday just six games back of the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers.

"Some of it has to do with what your club needs, and is there an opportunity there," La Russa said. "Unless you really needed Rick, it would be nice to bring him up when the time is right."