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After Ankiel hit the wall, is it now time to hit the road?

In what may have been his St. Louis swan song, enigmatic outfielder Rick Ankiel pinch-hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of game three of the National League Division Series Saturday night.

Not surprisingly, he struck out, the same outcome as in his ninth-inning appearance in game one. This time, it both ended his year and that of his team.

No one knows what the stoic Ankiel was feeling. Perhaps it was relief.

Getting punched out by opposing hurlers had become an alarming late-season habit for the free agent to be. From September 15 through the end of the regular season, Ankiel had 32 at-bats. He struck out in exactly 50 percent of them, 16, while collecting just six hits (.188).

To help put Ankiel’s recent rate into perspective, Arizona’s Mark Reynolds eclipsed his own Major League record for strikeouts with 223 this season. Reynolds did that in 578 at-bats, fanning 38.6 percent of the time.

Some people suspect that Ankiel’s bone-jarring May 4 collision with the Busch Stadium outfield wall caused a lingering shoulder injury that explains his decline. His stats would suggest otherwise.

At the time of his accident, the left-handed hitter’s line was .247/.326/.395 for an anemic OPS of .721. As a point of comparison, light-hitting former Cardinals outfield reserve So Taguchi has a career .717 OPS. Ankiel’s OPS in his partial 2007 season and in 2008 were .863 and .843, respectively.

So one might conclude that Ankiel had hit the wall even before he hit the wall.

It is fair to note that Ankiel did perform even worse once he returned, ending the season at .231/.285/.387. Though some attribute a loss of playing time to the presence of rookie outfielder Colby Rasmus, the numbers indicate that Ankiel played himself out of full-time duty.

His .672 OPS for the season was actually below that of former teammate Chris Duncan, whose .687 OPS with St. Louis in 2009 bought him a very bumpy ride and eventually a one-month ticket to Pawtucket.

Ankiel, labeled “The Natural” by some due to his considerable athletic ability and his transition from supremely-talented but troubled pitcher to power-hitting outfielder, is the longest-tenured current Cardinals player.

The left-hander signed in 1997, Tony La Russa’s second year with the organization, and made the majors just two years later. Through the ensuing years, Ankiel had a well-publicized meltdown, had to be talked out of quitting, dealt with a challenging position change then several serious injuries and waved off documents that directly connected him with PEDs. Yet the Cardinals and their fans stuck with him for the most part.

Represented by agent Scott Boras, Ankiel has been a free agent twice in the past, but rejoined the Cardinals each time. Perhaps it was partially a return favor for all that had been done for him through the down periods or maybe it was the most comfortable, easiest route to take.

Yet this time feels different. Ankiel is now an established, albeit badly slumping major league outfielder who may have finally worn out his welcome in St. Louis.

La Russa, perhaps Ankiel’s strongest supporter over the years, minimized the chance of the 30-year-old returning to the Cardinals in 2010, reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

As I said earlier, no one knows how Ankiel felt in his final at-bat or his view of his impending free agency, for that matter. He made sure of that.

Ankiel reportedly ducked out on waiting reporters at Busch Stadium on Sunday, putting an exclamation point on his Cardinals career. He told those assembled he would answer questions after loading his belongings in his automobile, but instead drove away.

Even to the end, La Russa praised Ankiel, closing a Sunday interview with this assertion.

“There’s nothing about Rick’s game that can’t be fixed.”

That begs the obvious follow on question. “Why wasn’t his game fixed, then?”

I don’t know who should be responsible for “The Natural” turning into “The Noodle” at the plate. Is it beleaguered hitting coach Hal McRae, assistant hitting coach Mike Aldrete or even the boss, La Russa?

Maybe the problem is the player himself. There have been whispers that Ankiel’s difficulties may have been exacerbated by an unwillingness to adapt his batting style to align with coaching suggestions. It is clear his past problems with pitching were not physical.

Whatever the reasons, it has probably reached the point in Ankiel’s career where it would be best for all involved for him to step out of the Cardinals’ protective cocoon and strike out on his own with another organization.

If Ankiel ever returns to Busch Stadium wearing another uniform, just as with former Cardinals like Taguchi, the vast majority of the fans will remember the good times and cheer accordingly.

Best of luck, Rick. We will never stop wondering what could have been.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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