When 20-year-old southpaw Rick Ankiel made his major-league debut on August 23rd, 1999 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, he had already earned a reputation as the top pitching prospect in all of baseball. After going 11-1 with a 0.47 ERA in his senior year at Port St. Lucie (Fla) High School, Ankiel was taken in the second round of the June 1997 draft by St. Louis, turning down a University of Miami baseball scholarship to sign with the Redbirds. It took little more than a season and a half for Ankiel to shoot through the Cardinals’ farm system in a minor-league career littered with encomium (he was named Minor League Player of the Year in 1999 by USA Today and Baseball America and was the Cardinals’ Minor-League Pitcher of the Year in both 1998 and 1999).
Armed with a lively mid-90s fastball, a devastating sharp breaking curve and a developing changeup, Ankiel fanned 194 batters in just 137 2/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 1999. After posting a 3.47 ERA in 33 innings in his first taste of major league action that season, he won the fifth spot in the Cardinals’ starting rotation the following spring and went 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA to help St. Louis to an NL Central Championship, improving as the season progressed. Ankiel also flashed his talent at the plate, batting .231 with two home runs.
All that kept Ankiel from true dominance was an unsettling tendency to lose command of the strike zone. He yielded just 137 safeties while notching 194 strikeouts in 175 innings, but flirtations with wildness led to 90 bases on balls. The control problems plagued him in two post-season starts. Handed a 6-0 lead in Game Two of the club’s Division Series matchup with Atlanta, Ankiel endured a nightmarish second inning in which he threw five wild pitches — something no major-league pitcher had done in one inning since Bert Cunningham of the Players’ League in 1890. Given another start in Game Two of the NLCS against the Mets, Ankiel again couldn’t find the plate, allowing three walks and another two wild pitches before getting lifted with two outs in the first inning. Manager Tony LaRussa elected not to start him again in the playoffs, hoping to avoid damaging the confidence of his immensely talented young hurler, but Ankiel was summoned for a relief appearance in Game Five and promptly uncorked two more wild pitches.