Friday, October 8, 2010

The Thrill of Rick Ankiel & The Agony of Billy Wagner

I have just finished watching Game 2 of the NLDS between the Atlanta Braves and the San Francisco Giants.

After being shutout in Game 1 by on 14 strikeouts by Tim Lincecum, the Braves were down 4-0 headed into the sixth. The Giants bullpen of Sergio Romo and Brian Wilson couldn't hold onto the lead.

First the agony. In the bottom of the 10th, Braves closer Billy Wagner came into the game. He had to leave the game with what appears to be either a hip or oblique injury after fielding a bunt by Andre Torres. As Wagner has announced his retirement at the end of the season this might have prove to be his last major league appearance. A rather painful way to end a career.

(In which case, I think Craig Kimbrell takes over as the Braves closer. Kimbrell has retired all seven hitters he faced in the NLDS, striking out five of them.)

So now comes the thrill. In the top of the 11th, Braves outfielder Rick Ankiel crushed a long homerun into McCovey Cove. It proved to be the game winner and the Braves have tied the NLDS at one apiece.

This had to be a satisfying moment for Ankiel. Ten years ago, Ankiel was pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS against (who else?) the Braves. Ankiel's pitching career imploded as he suddenly lost the ability to throw a strike. He threw wild pitch after wild pitch. It was painful to watch.

But Ankiel could always hit. In 2005, Ankiel made the decision to switch from pitching to the outfield. He went to the minors, reinvented himself and eventually returned to the Cardinals as an outfielder in 2007. After a career year in 2008 with 25 homeruns, Ankiel struggled in 2009. He would sign with the Kansas City Royals in the offseason. The Braves acquired Ankiel at the trade deadline. He hit only .210 with the Braves in the last two months of the regular season. Needless to say, with that homerun, Braves fans have now forgotten that .210 average. I also think the pain of the 2000 NLDS has been replaced with the triumph of the 2010 NLDS.

UPDATE: Wagner has been replaced on the Braves by Takashi Saito. Braves manager Bobby Cox says Wagner could return by the World Series. But first the Braves have to get past the Giants.

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