His rise to the major leagues was as quick as his high-90s fastball, his fall more devastating than his disappearing curveball.
Rick Ankiel’s story was the mind-boggling sort; a rookie phenom with the talent to earn a start in Game 1 of the playoffs only to inexplicably split apart at the seams on one of baseball’s biggest stages.
After four years, though, Ankiel’s long journey back to the majors might be nearing its completion. Ankiel gave up one unearned run and one hit in six innings for Triple-A Memphis on Sunday in what could be his final start in the minors.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has said the team would consider calling Ankiel up to the majors when rosters expand for September.
Ankiel said he hasn’t heard anything about his possible call-up but thinks he would be ready if it happened. He said he hasn’t thought about the possibility of another postseason appearance with the first-place Cardinals.
“I’ll deal with it if it comes,” Ankiel said. “Right now, I’ve got to just worry about what I’m doing day in and day out, and that’s it.”
The Cardinals have a solid five-man rotation with Matt Morris, Woody Williams, Jason Marquis, Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan, each with at least nine wins. Ankiel said he preferred to start but would take any opportunity the Cardinals gave him.
Ankiel hasn’t thrown a pitch in the major leagues since May 2001, when he was demoted after a shaky start to the season, but his decline started seven months earlier in the National League Division Series.
After Ankiel’s stellar rookie year in 2000, La Russa picked Ankiel over 20-game winner Darryl Kile to start Game 1 of the National League Division Series against Atlanta. Staked to a 6-0 lead, Ankiel was in control through the first two innings, but then everything fell apart.
Ankiel, 21, walked Greg Maddux on four pitches to start the inning and then imploded with five wild pitches in the inning, tying a major league record set more than a century earlier. Ankiel left the game and would pitch days later. His dominance took much longer to return.
In the National League Championship Series, Ankiel threw four more wild pitches in 1 1-3 innings against the Mets. The next season, he made six starts and went 1-2 with a 7.13 ERA before being sent to the minors to clear up his problems.
In his first minor league start, he walked six and threw four wild pitches in three innings against Oklahoma. He eventually wound up with the Cardinals’ rookie-level team in Johnson City, Tenn.
Ankiel then missed the entire 2002 season with an elbow sprain. He returned last year to go 2-6 with a 6.29 ERA at Double-A Tennessee, but his season ended in July when a torn ligament in his left elbow required reconstructive surgery.
Ankiel, who turned 25 last month, started his comeback this season with the Cardinals’ Single-A affiliate in Palm Beach, Fla. He made another stop in Double-A Tennessee before joining Memphis prior to Sunday’s game.
His brief comeback tour has been a success so far. In seven starts at three different minor league levels, Ankiel is 2-1 with a 0.79 ERA, 23 strikeouts, two walks and one hit batsman in 22 2-3 innings. He hasn’t thrown a wild pitch.
On Sunday, he began the game with 15 straight strikes and threw only 53 pitches — 44 strikes — in six efficient innings. He allowed an unearned run in the first inning when Ramon Nivar reached second on Bo Hart’s throwing error and came around to score on back-to-back groundouts by Jeff Pickler and Chad Allen.
He allowed only one hit — a bunt single by Santiago Perez — and hit Jeff Waldron with an inside breaking ball with one out in the sixth. After beaning Waldron, he walked halfway to the first-base line, apparently believing Waldron didn’t try to get out of the way.
Ankiel didn’t return for the seventh inning. He said he was on a pitch count of 65 and coaches believed he had done enough.
Ankiel declined to talk about his comeback or events before the surgery that brought on the rehab assignment.
“I’m not here to talk about that,” Ankiel said. “If you want to talk about the game, we can, and that’s it.”
Ankiel said he had four main pitches, a fastball, sinker, curveball and change-up, working well and also had a slider he could use as a breaking pitch. Catcher Mike Mahoney said he tried to feature Ankiel’s fastball, a “ridiculously good” curveball and mix in a change-up against the Oklahoma hitters.
“He threw the ball tremendously,” Mahoney said. “He had a really good rhythm. He had outstanding rhythm. He was just repeating his mechanics and throwing the ball where he wanted to. As good as his stuff is, and it’s tremendous, his location was even better.
“When you combine those two, it’s going to make it tough on opposing teams.”