By Ernie Palladino
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The Mets had to do something about their outfield situation, so they went out and picked Rick Ankiel off the scrap heap.
Time, a lot of it, will tell whether this turns into the magic move that will energize an outfield whose .220 batting average has Collins emotional inches from looking like one of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” subjects. Considering Ankiel is 33 years old and just released after hitting .194 with five homers and 35 strikeouts in 62 plate appearances for an Astros team whose season has already hit garbage time, it’s a debatable subject at best.
The former Cardinal went 0-for-3 with a walk in the No. 7 slot and misplayed a seventh-inning fly into a double with a borrowed glove in Monday’s Mets debut in St. Louis. That triggered a three-run inning that led to their fourth straight loss, and sixth in the last 10 games. But let’s not use that single miscue as the litmus test. Ankiel is better than that.
He may not have become the greatest outfielder ever since early career wildness turned him from highly touted pitcher to position player. But, unless he’s completely lost it, he could provide a potential boost to an outfield that simply has provided zippo.
He’s a free swinger, and he hasn’t had a double-digit home run total since he hit 11 for the Cardinals in 2009. But if nothing else, know that Ankiel won’t give up easily. Struggle has been a big part of his career, and the fact he now works for this franchise simply underlines the character and irony of his professional life. It was challenging enough that they stuck him in center only two and a half hours after his arrival in St. Louis, his equipment still under the control of the Astros’ equipment manager. But then they slapped No. 16 on his back to boot.
Irony? That’s one of the Mets’ all-time numbers. Doc Gooden. Remember him?
Ankiel appeared at one younger juncture to be heading toward a pitching career comparable to Gooden’s. Hard-throwing, he went 11-7, 3.50 for the Cards in 2000, striking out 194 in 175 innings. His future was nothing but supernova bright.
Then it went off the tracks.
Unlike Gooden’s self-inflicted drug problems that finished him with the Mets, Ankiel’s issues lie between his ears. Steve Blass Disease, the inexplicable and prolonged inability to throw a ball anywhere near the strike zone, drove him from pitching and sent him back to the minors for a three-year course on playing the outfield. Ankiel was lucky he had some hitting ability, or his entire baseball career would have ended after his six horrible starts in 2001 and a handful of relief appearances in 2004.
He’s never set the league afire with his bat, but Ankiel has worked in the majors for all or part of every season since 2007. The BA hasn’t risen above .260 since ’09, and he’s done a lot of platoon and fill-in work, as he’ll do here with Juan Lagares.
For a team that started the season with nothing in the outfield, Ankiel at least has the potential to raise its level. Not by much, probably, but he’s cheap enough. And he’ll certainly try, and he might even overcome.
He has survived.
Perhaps he can help the Mets do the same.
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