PITTSBURGH — For manager Tony La Russa, there is nothing alarming about Rick Ankiel's sudden offensive fade because when the outfielder swings the only thing he's missing is hits.
"Rick is making good contact. He just can't get a hit," La Russa said. "When he busts loose, a lot of hits are coming. He's getting the barrel on the ball a lot."
Ankiel's batting average has plummeted from .304 to .244 in the span of 25 at-bats, and the Cardinals' starting center fielder has hit .211 over the previous 10 games. In his first April as a major-league outfielder, Ankiel surged at the start, hitting three home runs in the season-opening home stand and providing needed pop for an offense craving production. That made him a regular in the middle of the order and a catalyst for rallies.
His skid, by contrast, has La Russa employing his tricks to prime a slumping hitter: Ankiel hit in front of Albert Pujols on Wednesday and got the night off Thursday.
"A guy gets hot, you ride him out," La Russa said Thursday. "He cools a little bit, and you save him some at-bats. You give him the at-bats he needs to get right but not to get (frustrated). Rick is not getting beat at the plate. He's just not getting hits."
To support that statement, La Russa points to the limited number of strikeouts in Ankiel's 25 at-bat decline. Ankiel has had two three-strikeout games this season, and a week ago he had as many strikeouts as the Cardinals had games played. But as he has gone three for 25 in the previous seven games, he has struck out only five times. Hitting in front of Pujols against Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Ankiel went 0 for four but stung three flyouts and grounded out.
La Russa chose Thursday to give him a second night off on this road trip and plans to play him against Houston's three scheduled righthanded starters this weekend. That day off came despite Ankiel's going three for three with a homer against Pirates starter Tom Gorzelanny. But that was last year.
Ankiel said this is not last year.
"I don't think I'm the same hitter that I was last year," he said. "I think that's apparent. ... I'm using the other way more and up the middle more. I think you go up there with a plan, and you try to stick to that plan."
Though he has been with the Cardinals longer than any other member of the roster — he debuted in 1999 — Ankiel remains a greenhorn hitter. Not yet 300 at-bats into his career as a big-league outfielder, he's only now seeing opponents for a second or third time. He said he's learning the pitchers, learning how they approach them, but he's not "making an assumption of what they're going to do." He has refined his approach at the plate — becoming less of a free swinger, not looking to pull so many of the pitches.
And he is more willing to drive the outside pitches he is so often getting, like he did in his 0 for four Wednesday.
"I don't think he has a hole," La Russa said. "He's still learning, but I don't think he has an obvious hole he has to fix. It's just a question of executing. All he can do is hit. He can't place the ball out there."