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Under Control

Four years after wildness derailed his career, Rick Ankiel is back in the bigs

The cardinals recalled former wunderkind Rick Ankiel, 25, from Triple A on Sept. 1, ending an odyssey that began nearly four years ago when his inability to find the plate threatened to cost him his career. Ankiel will be eased back into the bigs as a reliever over the final month of the season--he hadn't appeared as of Monday--with the hope that he'll compete for a spot in the Cardinals' rotation in 2005.

It was during the 2000 playoffs that Ankiel, who had been 11-7 as a rookie during the regular season, unraveled. Against the Braves he became the first pitcher in 110 years to throw five wild pitches in an inning. He was sent to the minors in early 2001 and struggled for two seasons before undergoing Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow in 2003. Concentrating on his physical recovery appeared to help him overcome the demons that had sabotaged his control. In 22 2/3 minor league innings this year Ankiel walked two and struck out 23. He was superb in his final outing, with the Memphis Redbirds on Aug. 29, when he allowed one hit in six innings and threw 44 of 53 pitches for strikes. "[In] '99 when I faced him, he was throwing 95 or 96 mph," Oklahoma RedHawks outfielder and former major leaguer Chad Allen said afterward. "He was probably 91 or 92 today, but he's got the stuff to pitch in the big leagues."

Ankiel is loath to reflect on his past, and the Cardinals have tried to shield him since he was called up. (Outfielder Jim Edmonds said things would get "ugly in here" should the press badger Ankiel about his past.) "After the surgery you have to relearn everything," says pitcher Matt Morris, one of Ankiel's closest friends. "That's a good thing for him. Forget about [control issues] and start fresh."