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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Ankiel helps power Cards

Ankiel helps power Cards
By Joe Strauss
Rick Ankiel dives
April 2, 2008 -- Cardinals center fielder Rick Ankiel dives for a fly ball hit by Colorados Willy Taveras for the first out of the third inning.
(Chris Lee/P-D)

Rick Ankiel accomplished something Wednesday night unseen in his three seasons as a major-league starting pitcher. He crafted a complete game.

Ankiel's outing, together with Todd Wellemeyer's five innings, right fielder Ryan Ludwick's three-RBI game and a passable bullpen effort helped hold off the Colorado Rockies 8-3 in front of an announced crowd of 39,915 at wind-chilled Busch Stadium.

Wednesday's crowd represented the first time new Busch has failed to sell out. The game offered a show of versatility by a 28-year-old center fielder appearing in only his 49th major league game as a position player. It also suggested further development within Ankiel's reincarnated career.
Cards 8, Rockies 3

"A complete game would be the perfect description," said manager Tony La Russa. "What else would you want to call it?"

Before the Cardinals ripped open the game with a four-run eighth inning, their still-developing center fielder allowed them to play from ahead.

Ankiel hit safely in each of the Cardinals' first three rallies, singling to open the second inning, turning on Rockies righthander Aaron Cook for a home run to begin the fourth and lining a third hit after his team had scored twice in the fifth.

Only slightly blemished by a

short-hop error, Ankiel had a night that contained equal parts subtlety and bash. Indeed, he did it all Wednesday night except stick around afterward to speak for himself.

"It's impressive to watch," said right fielder Skip Schumaker, Ankiel's teammate at Class AAA Memphis for much of last season. "Last year you wondered, 'Is he really going to do it?' This year there's no question with anybody in this clubhouse."

Effective but not necessarily efficient on 95 pitches spread over five innings, Wellemeyer held the Rockies to right fielder Brad Hawpe's bases-empty homer. Local sensation Kyle McClellan followed to get five consecutive groundouts before allowing a two-out RBI single in the seventh to make it a 4-2 game.

"He's tough enough," La Russa said about Wellemeyer's 12th major league start. "He's learning all the time. When he pitches we win a lot of the time."

Ankiel, who exhibited far greater plate discipline in spring training, extended his first inning at-bat by fouling four two-strike pitches before singling to center field. A dash from first to third on catcher Yadier Molina's single positioned him to score on second baseman Adam Kennedy's right-side grounder.

"He's as natural as it gets when it comes to playing baseball," Wellemeyer said. "His swing reminds me of an old-time swing."

Ankiel never threw a complete game in 41 career major-league starts as a pitcher. Wednesday he provided the definition of a total game by a position player. A talent who mixed 43 home runs with 131 strikeouts and only 38 walks between Memphis and St. Louis last season, Ankiel has so far hinted at a more controlled approach.

The Rockies might have tied the game if not for Ankiel's diving catch to rob center fielder Willy Taveras leading off the third. Instead, Todd Helton's two-out double brought the Rockies nothing.

"We talked about it in the outfield," Schumaker said. "He's getting better jumps than we are and he's only been at it for two years."

Ankiel resurfaced in the fourth inning to answer Hawpe's 416-foot homer with one of his own, again on two strikes. Last season, Ankiel batted .165 with 41 strikeouts in 79 at-bats with two strikes. He struck out eight times during spring training after entering camp focused on reducing a hack-and-slash tendency.

"It's one of the beauties of the game: The more you play, the more you improve," La Russa said.

"He's gotten much better at making adjustments," Schumaker said. "He's making adjustments at-bat to at-bat. I saw it some at Memphis but not as quick as he's doing it now."

Ludwick tripled to score Schumaker in the fifth inning. Third baseman Troy Glaus delivered his first RBI for the Cardinals on a fly ball to right. Frustrated for much of spring, Ludwick delivered three hits.

"I started feeling better toward the end of spring," said Ludwick, estimating he may have lost "five or six" home runs last month hitting into a pitcher's wind. "My timing started getting better. I started seeing the ball better. I put better swings on the ball."

Rookie infielder Rico Washington, 29, got his first major-league hit and first RBI on an eighth-inning double that short-hopped the wall in right-center. Washington waited 3,980 minor-league at-bats and more than 4,500 plate appearances for Wednesday's moment, ending up at third base and with the ball in the third-base photographer's pit because of an errant relay.

The Cardinals' dugout eventually retrieved the ball, and Washington came home when Ludwick yanked a double past left fielder Matt Holliday.

A career .199 hitter in the majors, La Russa avoided any comparison between himself and his nomadic infielder: "Comparing Rico to me is like comparing Alex Rodriguez to the bat boy," the manager said.

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