DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/Associated Press
Comparisons at the beginning of his career: Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax
Comparisons by the end: Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn from Major League
Yes, Rick Ankiel’s long tumble from the top is particularly depressing, mind boggling, and amusing in part because of how extraordinarily great he once was.
When he first came up with the Cardinals, Ankiel was the most promising young pitcher the league had seen in years. After a dominant 2000 season in which he compiled an 11-7 record, a 3.50 ERA, and 194 strikeouts in only 175 innings, Ankiel mysteriously forgot how to pitch at the worst possible time: Game 1 of the Cardinals’ first round playoff series against the Atlanta Braves.
ESPN’s Jeff Merron describes the colossal collapse:
[In the third inning of Game 1 of the NLDS], St. Louis actually staked Ankiel to a 6-0 lead over Atlanta when he suddenly and inexplicably lost all control: walk, foul out, wild pitch, wild pitch, walk, wild pitch, strikeout, walk, wild pitch, base hit, wild pitch, walk, base hit.
You counted correctly – five wild pitches in two-thirds of an inning.
And we’re not talking about the “aw-shucks-that-one-just-slipped-away-from-me” type of wild pitch. No, these were the rare and disconcerting “all-fans-in-sections-one-through-350-take-cover-or-leave-the-premises” variety.
All this happened in two-thirds of an inning. In two-thirds of an inning, the entire nation watched with eyes wide open and jaws dropped as one of the most dominant young pitchers in the history of baseball completely forgot the one thing he had ever known how to do. In two-thirds of an inning, Rick Ankiel began his miraculous fall from superstar pitching prodigy to a punch line of a Steve Blass joke.
For whatever reason, Ankiel couldn't regain form, and his enigmatic problems became so overwhelming that he was playing Rookie Ball by the end of 2001 and was out of baseball by 2002. Other than a brief Roy Hobbs-esque comeback as an outfielder years later, Ankiel never tasted the limelight again.