Braves come from 4 down to win in 11th
A decade later, and Rick Ankiel has a postseason memory to cherish, finally.
"You want to talk about things coming full circle?" said Chipper Jones, the face of the Atlanta Braves, relegated to cheerleading this postseason by knee surgery that could force the end of his career. "Rick Ankiel has come full circle, and then some."
And on Friday night, Ankiel carried the Braves’ 2010 postseason hopes with him.
Ten years removed from an October that left his career in limbo, Ankiel unloaded a mammoth home run in the top of the 11th inning that lifted the Braves to a 5-4 win against San Francisco at AT&T Park. He provided the finishing touch on Atlanta’s rally from a 4-0, second-inning deficit to a split of the first two games of the best-of-five NL Division Series.
"He’s good people and you like to see good things happen for good people," said Atlanta reliever and eventual winner Kyle Farnsworth, who was rushed into the game in the 10th when closer Billy Wagner suffered a strained rib-cage muscle. "You could see how excited he was. You know it meant a lot."
The blast off Giants reliever Ramon Ramirez landed in McCovey Cove, behind the right-field wall, where no player other than Barry Bonds had ever hit a postseason home run.
Frame that snapshot. Put it on the mantel. Embed it in the memory bank.
"It’s the biggest homer of my career, by far, and to be honest with you," Ankiel said, "I wanted to go from the batter’s box to the dugout I didn’t want to run the bases. I wanted to be with the guys. But what a cool way to win."
And what a cool way to erase the postseason nightmares that have haunted Ankiel for 10 years.
In 2000, he was a 20-year-old, left-handed phenom with St. Louis. The second-youngest player n the major leagues that year, he was 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA in 30 starts, striking out 194 batters. So impressed was St. Louis manager Tony La Russa that he selected Ankiel to start Game 1 of the NL Division Series against the Braves.
Given a lift by a six-run bottom of the first, Ankiel breezed into the third inning. He did not, however, get through the third inning. Eight batters came to the plate against him. He gave up four walks and two singles. He threw five wild pitches and allowed four runs. He retired only two — Rafael Furcal on a pop-up and Chipper Jones looking at strike three.
La Russa tried to revive Ankiel’s confidence in the NLCS against the Mets.
Ankiel started Game 2, managed to retire only two batters and was charged with a run on a hit, two walks and four wild pitches. Brought back in relief in Game 5, Ankiel walked two of the four batters he faced and threw two more wild pitches.
"I can remember it," said Jones. "I was in the batter’s box against him. You are in the game and you want to win, but the baseball player part of you feels sorry for him. No one wants to see him struggle like that. You feel for the guy. It’s a scary feeling. What do you do?"
What Ankiel did was battle demons on the field and off. He made only six big-league appearances, all starts, in 2001, and walked 25 batters in 24 innings, and didn’t get back to the big leagues again until 2004 when he made six relief appearances and then gave in to a painful left elbow that required surgery.
In his effort to speed the recovery, Ankiel later admitted, he used a human growth hormone, which he quickly points out was prescribed by a doctor, adding to the cloud that hung over his career.
At the age of 25, Ankiel decided to create a new life in baseball. He decided to make the conversion to the outfield, and by 2007 he was back in the bigs with St. Louis, proving he could be a solid player, even if the stardom that had been predicted for him on the mound would never be met.
Now, at the age of 31, he is smiling, on the field and off.
"What he’s been through," said Jones, "hasn’t been easy. The guy has a remarkable attitude and a big heart. He’s been through a lot and it took a while but now he’s back and he made an impact."
How big an impact? Time will tell.
But what the Braves know is that after being two-hit in a 1-0 loss to Tim Lincecum and the Giants in Game 1 on Thursday, they were able to rally from that 4-0 deficit, exploiting Giants closer Brian Wilson in a three-run eighth that allowed them to tie the game at 4-4.
And now they return to Turner Field where they compiled a best-in-baseball 56-25 home-field record.
And they owe their ability to split the first two games against the Giants, in big part, to Ankiel and Farnsworth, who began the season as teammates with Kansas City and then came as part of a July 31 package deal from the Royals in exchange for three prospects.
Ankiel provided the big blast, and Farnsworth provided the much-needed relief, getting the final five outs.
Rushed into the game after Wagner was hurt fielding an Andres Torres sacrifice bunt in the bottom of the 10th, Farnsworth loaded the bases when he hit Freddy Sanchez with a pitch and walked Aubrey Huff. But he escaped when he got Buster Posey to hit a ground ball to Troy Glaus — a surprising defensive insert at third base in the 10th — who started an inning-ending third-to-second-to-first double play.
"When he came off the field he said he was going to throw up," Jones laughed. "He said he had never gone into a game for defensive purposes before."
Glaus, however, handled that job as well as could be expected.
Same for Ankiel, whose July 31 acquisition came with a strong endorsement from Royals manager Ned Yost, a longtime aid to Cox in the Atlanta dugout.
"When we got him, Ned said, ‘He can carry your club for a period of time,’" Cox said. "We’ve been waiting for that. … (Friday) he had that game, offensively and defensively. We’ve seen that power in batting practice. You know it’s there."
Friday night, he showed it.
"This is what you play the game for," Farnsworth said. "You want that chance to make an impact."
Farnsworth and Ankiel made good on that chance against the Giants.