July 20, 2004: Albert Pujols goes 5-for-5 with three home runs in Cardinals’ comeback

Even before Chicago Cubs left-hander Glendon Rusch threw the game’s first pitch to St. Louis Cardinals leadoff batter Tony Womack, tensions were high in Wrigley Field.

The previous night, the fireworks started when Jim Edmonds hit a two-run home run off Chicago’s Carlos Zambrano. The fiery Cubs right-hander felt that Edmonds spent too long admiring the ball as it flew over the right-field wall and shouted at the Cardinals center fielder as he rounded the bases. Tempers flared and the benches cleared before order was restored.

Four innings later, Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen hit what proved to be the game-winning blast, a two-run home run that broke a 3-3 tie. Zambrano responded immediately by hitting Edmonds with a pitch for the second time that game, earning ejections for Zambrano and Cubs manager Dusty Baker.

With those events fresh on everyone’s mind, it didn’t take long for matters to escalate.

Led by a pitching staff that included Greg Maddux, Kerry Wood, and Mark Prior and a lineup that included Aramis Ramirez, Moises Alou, and Sammy Sosa, the Cubs had entered the season as the National League Central favorites. However, they entered the day trailing the Cardinals by nine games, just half a game ahead of the third-place Cincinnati Reds. Ever since the calendar turned to July, St. Louis had been hot, winning 12 of their previous 14 games, including an eight-game win streak to open the month.

The Cardinals took a brief first-inning lead. Womack drew a leadoff walk and Edgar Renteria laid down a sacrifice bunt to move him to second base. Pujols, who came into the game batting .311, pulled a 3-2 curveball over Alou’s head in left field to give St. Louis a 1-0 lead.

Rolen, batting next, was hit on the arm by a 1-and-2 breaking ball. Though the circumstances made it unlikely that Rusch was throwing at the Cardinals’ third baseman, there seemed little doubt that a response was headed the Cubs’ way. In the bottom half of the inning, Cardinals right-hander Matt Morris delivered that reply by throwing a fastball that sailed behind Cubs center fielder Corey Patterson’s hips.

“I felt it was the right thing to do, to stick up for my teammates,” Morris said. “No one got hurt. In fact, it might have fired them up.”[1]

Indeed, while Morris retired the side in order in the first, he would not be so fortunate the next inning. He led off the inning by walking Alou, and fell behind Derrek Lee 2-and-0 before Lee homered to center field. Ramirez followed with a double, and Michael Barrett launched a line-drive home run over the right-field wall to make it 4-0.

Patterson added a two-run double over Edmonds’ head, and with two outs Alou hit an RBI single up the middle to give the Cubs a 7-1 lead and chase Morris from the game.

“I thought he hit a wall,” La Russa said. “He went out to the mound and it was like all of a sudden somebody punched him in the gut. He was having trouble breathing.”[2]

Pujols and Ramirez traded solo home runs in the third inning to make it 8-2, and in the sixth inning St. Louis began its comeback. After Pujols and Rolen each singled to lead off the inning, Edmonds singled into right field to score Pujols. Baker replaced Rusch with Francis Beltran, who immediately walked Sanders to load the bases, then walked Mike Matheny to score Rolen. So Taguchi reached on an infield single that scored Edmonds, and Ray Lankford hit a sacrifice fly that cut the Cubs’ lead to 8-6.

Pujols made it 8-7 in the top of the seventh when he greeted Kyle Farnsworth’s first-pitch fastball by slugging it over the left-field wall.

 

Farnsworth was still holding onto a one-run lead in the eighth inning when he fell behind Taguchi 3-and-1 threw a fastball down the middle of the plate. The diminutive Taguchi turned on the pitch and hit it into Waveland Avenue beyond the left-field wall. Afterwards, Pujols pointed to Taguchi’s home run as the biggest blow of the game.[3]

The teams were still deadlocked 8-8 when the Cubs turned to LaTroy Hawkins for the ninth inning. Renteria led off with an infield single to bring Pujols, already 4-for-4 with two home runs to the plate. Both of Pujols’ blasts had come on the first pitch, so Hawkins was cautious with his first offering, a low fastball. He was less cautious with his second pitch, a fastball out over the plate that Pujols hit the other way over the right-field wall.

Pujols’ three-homer game marked the first time a Cardinal had accomplished the feat since Mark McGwire on May 18, 2000.[4]

 

“As soon as I hit it, I knew it was out of the park,” Pujols said.[5]

With two outs, Reggie Sanders added a home run to center field to make it 11-8. After striking out Yadier Molina to end the top of the ninth, Hawkins got into an argument with home-plate umpire Tim Tschida and had to be restrained by Baker and four of his fellow coaches.[6]

“Do I regret it? No,” Hawkins said. “I talked to him like a man at first and it didn’t work.”[7]

In the ninth, Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen worked around two walks and a single to earn the save. It marked the Cardinals’ largest comeback since July 28, 2002, when they rallied from a 6-0, third-inning deficit to beat the Cubs.[8]

It was a strong showing for the Cardinals bullpen, which allowed just one run in 7 1/3 innings, including three innings from Eldred and two shutout innings from Kiko Calero. Ray King earned the win after retiring the side in order in the eighth.

“It just shows the character of this team,” Isringhausen said. “After our big win Monday, we could have been content to leave town with a split … but we kept plugging away, plugging away. That’s how we do it. This is just a great win for us.”

With the win, the division-leading Cardinals moved 10 games ahead of the Cubs, who were leap-frogged by Cincinnati and fell into third place.

“This is the happiest I’ve ever been after giving up seven runs in 1 2/3 innings,” said Morris, who optimistically noted that the Cardinals’ comeback would not have been possible if he hadn’t allowed seven runs in the second inning.[9] “It’s unbelievable. To win that game against that team, with the position we’re in, it’s just a snowball effect. It keeps getting bigger.”[10]

In the next day’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, columnist Bernie Miklasz compared Pujols’ performance to another classic Cardinals-Cubs showdown: the “Ryne Sandberg game” of June 23, 1984, in which Sandberg went 5-for-6 with two home runs and seven RBIs, helping to spur the Cubs to the 1984 division championship.

“Citizens of Cardinals Nation: We have a reverse Ryno,” Miklasz wrote. “Two decades later, the St. Louis-Chicago rivalry has crowned a new comeback king – His Majesty Albert Pujols.”[11]


[1] Dave van Dyke, “Rallying the best revenge,” Chicago Tribune, July 21, 2004: Page 4-1.

[2] Joe Strauss, “Cubs gum it up; Birds stick it to ’em,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 21, 2004: D1.

[3] Strauss.

[4] Strauss.

[5] Strauss.

[6] Paul Sullivan, “Losing it … again,” Chicago Tribune, July 21, 2004: 4-1.

[7] Sullivan.

[8] Strauss.

[9] van Dyke.

[10] Strauss.

[11] Bernie Miklasz, “In Sandberg’s yard, Pujols shows he’s second to none,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 21, 2004: D1.

August 9, 2007: Rick Ankiel homers in his return to the majors – as an outfielder

When Rick Ankiel arrived at Busch Stadium III on August 9, 2007, it had been almost seven years since he’d thrown five wild pitches in Game 1 of the National League Division Series and tied a 110-year-old record.

It had been almost three years since he’d been in the majors, and 2 ½ years since he had driven to the St. Louis Cardinals’ spring training complex, told manager Tony La Russa that he was retiring, and returned home to his couch, where three hours later he received a phone call from his agent, Scott Boras.

“Ank, you ready to go play?” Boras asked.

“Go play what?” Ankiel asked. He was beginning to wonder if Boras had been listening when he told him that he was exhausted from years battling the yips, the monster, Steve Blass disease, whatever you call it when a professional baseball player can no longer throw a baseball with any certainty where it’s going. “I’m done.”

“Outfield,” Boras responded. “For the Cardinals. I talked to Walt.”[1]

Walt was Walt Jocketty, the Cardinals’ general manager, and when Boras referred to the Cardinals, he actually meant the Swing of the Quad Cities in the Class A Midwest League. But that made little difference to Ankiel. After years as a professional pitcher who, for reasons no one could precisely pinpoint, was unable to pitch any more, the offer represented a life raft of opportunity.

In 51 games at Quad Cities, Ankiel hit 11 homers and slugged .514 before earning a promotion to Class AA Springfield. There, Ankiel continued to impress, hitting 10 more home runs and slugging .515 in just 34 games.

In 2007, Ankiel earned a promotion to Class AAA Memphis, where he had totaled 32 home runs and posted a .568 slugging percentage by August 8, when the team’s manager, Chris Maloney, tapped Ankiel’s shoulder in the Tacoma airport and told him that when their plane touched down in Memphis, Ankiel would have 270 more miles to go. He was expected in St. Louis the next evening, where he would take Scott Speizio’s place on the roster.[2] Spiezio was headed to drug and alcohol rehabilitation and would be placed on Major League Baseball’s restricted list.

When he arrived at Busch Stadium, Ankiel found that the number 24 jersey he had requested was waiting for him in his locker, the jersey number freely given away by bench coach Joe Pettini.[3] La Russa called the warm welcome Ankiel received from his teammates “enthusiastic” and “moving.”[4]

“I walked into the clubhouse, and the men there stood and applauded,” Ankiel wrote in his 2017 autobiography. “Most of them I knew. Some of them I didn’t. They clapped me on the back. I laughed and shook their hands and asked where they kept the bats.”[5]

Ankiel didn’t have to wait long to get a warm greeting from the Cardinals faithful. Shortstop David Eckstein led off the bottom of the first with a four-pitch walk. As Ankiel stepped to the plate, Cardinals fans greeted him with a standing ovation. After taking the first pitch from San Diego right-hander Chris Young for a ball, Ankiel popped up to the shortstop.

It wasn’t the result he’d hoped for, but it was a start.

For six and a half innings, the game would be a pitching duel between Young and St. Louis starting pitcher Joel Piñeiro. With two outs in the fourth inning, St. Louis struck first. Scott Rolen singled and Chris Duncan walked before Yadier Molina lined the first pitch he saw into right field to score Rolen.

Ankiel and the Cardinals broke the game open in the bottom of the seventh. Duncan drew a walk to lead off the inning and Molina singled again, this time to left field. With runners on first and third, La Russa called upon So Taguchi to pinch hit for Piñeiro, ending the 28-year-old right-hander’s evening after 89 pitches. Over seven innings, Piñeiro had scattered just four hits with no walks and four strikeouts.

On a 3-and-2 count, Young threw Taguchi a slider that bounced into the dirt and away from Padres catcher Josh Bard, allowing Duncan to cross the plate and make the score 2-0. It would be the final pitch of Young’s evening, as Padres manager Bud Black brought in Doug Brocail as part of a double switch.

Brocail got Adam Kennedy to ground out to first baseman Adrián Gonzalez, who threw to third for the force out. The next batter, Eckstein, hit another grounder to Gonzalez and this time the Padres’ first baseman briefly bobbled the potential double-play ball, bringing Ankiel to the plate with two outs and runners on second and third.

With Pujols on deck, Brocail had little choice but to pitch to Ankiel. On a 2-and-1 pitch, Brocail threw a slider out over the plate and Ankiel turned on it, pulling the ball over the right-field wall to make it 5-0.

“We call that kind of swing ‘walking the dog,’ a low, easy yank of the wrists,” Ankiel later wrote. “Just leaned over it, hit it hard, felt the contact, heard the contact, lost my top hand a little, pulled it to right field, and what I thought was I got your ass. Nothing personal, but Holy shit, I got your ass.”[6]

As the Busch Stadium crowd erupted, even the normally stoic La Russa began to cheer, shouting and clapping his hands in appreciation. After the game, La Russa, who witnessed Ankiel’s pitching implosion seven years earlier, said that only winning the World Series topped Ankiel’s return among his baseball joys. “I’m fighting my butt off to keep it together,” he admitted after the game.[7]

Ankiel returned briefly to the dugout, where he was showered with his teammates’ congratulations before climbing the steps onto the field once more to tip his cap to the fans, who were still standing and applauding, even as Brocail made his first pitches to Pujols. The cheers were so loud, in fact, that a Dodgers player in town for the start of a series against the Cardinals the following day said he could hear the crowd’s roar and wondered what had happened.[8]

With the home run, Ankiel became the first player in 60 years to hit his first major-league home run as a pitcher and hit another home run as a position player. In fact, Clint Hartung and Ankiel were the only players who had achieved the feat since Babe Ruth.[9]

From there, the Cardinals’ bullpen closed out the game. Troy Percival retired the side in order in the eighth and Tyler Johnson worked around a one-out walk to complete the shutout.

“I set a goal for myself to get back here, so I feel good that I reached it,” Ankiel said. “I’m looking forward to reaching my next goal, which is staying here.”[10]

Two days later, Ankiel hit two home runs and made an over-the-shoulder catch in the outfield to help the Cardinals defeat the Dodgers 9-1.

“I don’t think he gets enough credit,” said Dodgers starting pitcher Derek Lowe. “It wouldn’t have mattered if he started off 0 for 16. To have started as a pitcher and all of a sudden say, ‘I’m a hitter’ and make it to the major leagues … you can’t just call this kid up as a feel-good story. I am amazed at what he has been able to do. It’s a phenomenal story.”[11]

Ankiel would only add to that story in the days and years to come, hitting 11 home runs in 172 at-bats in 2007 and another 25 homers in 2008. By the time he retired in 2013, he had totaled 76 homers and 251 RBIs for his career.

“Everybody’s happy for him,” Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds said a few days after Ankiel made his debut as a major-league outfielder. “I think a lot of people have heard about some of what he’s gone through, but I don’t think there are many guys here now who really know the whole story as well as some of us.”[12]


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[1] Rick Ankiel and Tim Brown, The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life (New York: Public Affairs Books, 2017), 216.

[2] Ankiel and Brown, 235-236.

[3] Ankiel and Brown, 239.

[4] Derrick Goold, “The lefty starts in right and homers,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 10, 2007: D1.

[5] Ankiel and Brown, 235.

[6] Ankiel and Brown, 240.

[7] Charles Krauthammer, “The Natural Returns to St. Louis,” TownHall.com, August 17, 2017, https://townhall.com/Columnists/charleskrauthammer/2007/08/17/the-natural-returns-to-st-louis-n804530.

[8] Ankiel and Brown, 240-241.

[9] “Cardinals Notebook,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 11, 2007: B4.

[10] “A Comeback Story,” Fort Myers News-Press, August 10, 2007: C1.

[11] Joe Strauss, “Encore! Encore!” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 12, 2007: D9.

[12] Strauss.

October 3, 2000: Rick Ankiel develops the yips

Heading into the game that came to define his career, 21-year-old rookie left-hander Rick Ankiel wasn’t nervous.

“I was not hurt. I was not afraid. I was not sick or distracted or particularly anxious,” he wrote 17 years later. “In game one of the National League Division Series, on a warm and sunny afternoon with a slight cross breeze, in front of exactly 52,378 people, including my mom, I stood on the mound at Busch Stadium, convinced I would be great. That it was my destiny.”[1]

Although Ankiel was preparing to face an Atlanta Braves lineup that won 95 games during the regular season and had future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux taking the mound opposite him, it was no surprise that Ankiel was confident. After all, the native of Port St. Lucie, Florida, had known nothing but success in his young career.

Just three years earlier, USA Today had named him its High School Player of the Year after he struck out 162 batters in 74 innings his senior season. He followed that success with Minor League Player of the Year awards from USA Today and Baseball America in 1999.[2] Ankiel entered the 2000 season as Baseball America’s No. 1-rated prospect and had lived up to expectations, going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA as a rookie. In 175 innings, he had struck out 194 batters.

Now he was headed to the postseason. During the final weeks of the regular season, the Cardinals’ pitching staff was wearing down. Garrett Stephenson was battling soreness in his arm. Andy Benes battled the same in his knee. Pat Hentgen was tiring. That left Ankiel and staff ace Darryl Kile to carry the bulk of the postseason pitching load.

As Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and pitching Dave Duncan examined the postseason schedule, they came to a decision that haunted La Russa more than any other in his managerial career.[3] By starting Ankiel in Game 1, the Cardinals could pitch the rookie again in Game 4 on four days’ rest. Kile could then pitch Game 2 and, if necessary, Game 5 on just three days’ rest, a challenge the Cardinals felt the veteran was better equipped to manage.[4] The Braves were using a similar strategy, lining up Maddux to pitch Games 1 and 4 opposite Ankiel and Tom Glavine to pitch Games 2 and 5 against Kile.

The downside of the plan was that Ankiel, who at age 21 was the second-youngest pitcher to start Game 1 of a playoff series,[5] would face the added pressure of pitching against Maddux, who had won 19 games during the regular season and was starting his 24th playoff game. The Cardinals had done everything they could to protect Ankiel from the pressure of the Game 1 start, even going so far as to send Kile to meet with the media the previous day, giving the impression that the veteran would start the opener.[6] La Russa called Braves manager Bobby Cox that evening to tell him that Ankiel, not Kile, was slated to start Game 1 for the Cardinals.[7]

Making Ankiel’s task even harder was the absence of veteran catcher Mike Matheny, who 11 days earlier cut his hand on a Bowie knife his brother sent him as a birthday gift. Instead, Carlos Hernandez, who was battling back tightness that led to surgery after the season,[8] was behind the plate.

Ankiel appeared to have routine playoff-debut jitters in the first inning. Fellow rookie Rafael Furcal led off the game with a single that just eluded a diving Jim Edmonds in the right-field gap. Ankiel struck out Andruw Jones on three pitches and Furcal was caught stealing for the second out, but Ankiel walked Chipper Jones and Andres Galarraga before finally getting Brian Jordan to hit a pop fly to first baseman Will Clark in foul territory.

The Cardinals’ lineup tried to provide Ankiel comfort in the bottom half of the inning. St. Louis’s first four hitters singled, Ray Lankford reached on an error, Edgar Renteria laid down a sacrifice bunt, and Hernandez received an intentional walk. With the bases loaded and one out, Placido Polanco singled through the middle, scoring Lankford and Renteria, and Hernandez scored on a throwing error after Braves catcher Paul Bako tried to throw Polanco out at second base. By the time Ankiel took the mound for the second inning, he had a 6-0 lead to work with.

Ankiel struck out Reggie Sanders on a high fastball to start the second inning, then benefitted from good fortune after Walt Weiss’s ground-rule double bounced over the right-field wall. Javier Lopez entered the game in place of Bako and lined a shot that appeared destined for left field, but Renteria dove to snag the ball and doubled up Weiss at second base.

Ankiel received no such luck in the third inning.

He walked Maddux to lead off the inning and jammed Furcal on an inside fastball to produce an infield pop fly. But on his 44th pitch of the afternoon, Ankiel threw a curveball that dove into the dirt, skipping past Hernandez and back to the screen.

“I held on to the ball too long. Tried not to hang the curveball. Didn’t exactly trust it. Rushed it,” Ankiel wrote in his 2017 autobiography. “Instead of flicking the outer inches of the strike zone, I launched the pitch too far right. It came out of my hand, off my fingers, all wrong. Hernandez lunged to his left. The ball bounced near Jones’s feet and past Hernandez’s shoulder, and Maddux loped to second base. The ball hit the backstop. Hernandez chased it. And I stood near the front of the mound and watched all of it happen, sort of curious.”[9]

On the next pitch, Ankiel and Hernandez got crossed up, forcing Hernandez to awkwardly catch a curveball. The pitch after that hit the backstop on the fly.

“Boy, all of a sudden things have come unraveled here for Rick Ankiel,” ESPN broadcaster Buck Martinez said.[10]

Andruw Jones walked one pitch later. He advanced to second when Ankiel’s fifth pitch to Chipper Jones sailed over Hernandez, who had leaped into the air in a desperate attempt to corral the pitch. Ankiel struck Chipper Jones out on a nasty inside curveball, but one pitch later Hernandez needed to leap out of his crouch to prevent another fastball from reaching the backstop.

With Galarraga at the plate, Ankiel uncorked another heater well over Hernandez’s head, plating Maddux with his fourth wild pitch of the day. After Galarraga walked, Jordan singled to left field on the first pitch he saw. Sixteen years later at a Cardinals fantasy camp, Ankiel embraced Jordan and told him that the hug was his way of thanking him for swinging at that initial offering.[11]

During the game, however, the rookie found no such humor. Ankiel threw his fifth wild pitch of the inning before walking Jordan to load the bases. After Weiss singled to left field to score Galarraga and Jones, making the score 6-4, La Russa mercifully emerged from the dugout to rescue him.

Within the span of 20 pitches, five had reached the backstop, making Ankiel the first pitcher to throw five wild pitches in an inning since Bert Cunningham for the Buffalo Bisons of the Players League on September 15, 1890.[12]

“I guess at least I set a record,” Ankiel said after the game.[13]

Mike James retired Lopez for the final out of the inning, then threw two more scoreless innings to earn the win. Edmonds led off the Cardinals’ half of the fourth inning with a home run over the right-field wall, and from there the game was placed in the hands of the bullpen. Mike Timlin threw one scoreless inning, Britt Reames threw two, and Dave Veres worked around an unearned run to earn the save.

The Cardinals went on to sweep the best-of-five series, scoring 24 runs across three games, but their prized left-hander was never the same. In Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets, Ankiel threw just 2/3 of an inning, walking three and throwing two wild pitches.

In Game 5, with the Cardinals already trailing 6-0, La Russa tried Ankiel again. He again recorded just two outs, walking two batters and throwing two more wild pitches.

In the years to come, the Cardinals attempted a variety of solutions to get Ankiel back on track, even sending him down to rookie ball. None of it worked. Finally, in 2004, Ankiel told the Cardinals he was retiring. A few hours later, after a conversation between St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty and Ankiel’s agent, Scott Boras, the Cardinals assigned Ankiel to the minors – as an outfielder.

Incredibly, Ankiel returned to St. Louis as an outfielder in 2007. In 190 plate appearances, he hit 11 home runs, then added 25 more in 2008. He played seven major-league seasons as an outfielder, where he played 536 of his 587 career games.


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[1] Rick Ankiel and Tim Brown, The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life (New York: Public Affairs Books, 2017), 6.

[2] “Rick Ankiel Awards,” Baseball-Almanac.com, https://www.baseball-almanac.com/players/awards.php?p=ankieri01.

[3] Buzz Bissinger, 3 Nights in August (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005), Location 1313 (Kindle Edition).

[4] Bissinger, Location 1319 (Kindle Edition).

[5] Michael Lee, “Ankiel’s wild ride in third historic,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 4, 2000: G4.

[6] Bissinger, Location 1324 (Kindle Edition).

[7] Ankiel and Brown, 99.

[8] Ankiel and Brown, 140.

[9] Ankiel and Brown, 24.

[10] ESPN game broadcast, October 3, 2000, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVN_OCQJjRw.

[11] Ankiel and Brown, 28.

[12] “Did you know?” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 4, 2000: D6.

[13] Mike Eisenbath, “Cards first-game starter tries to shake off forgettable mark,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, October 4, 2000: D6.

 

May 31, 2014: Oscar Taveras homers in his major-league debut

By the time Oscar Taveras made his major-league debut for the St. Louis Cardinals on May 31, 2014, it was almost impossible for expectations to get much higher.

More than a year earlier, St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak compared Taveras to Albert Pujols, prompting Sports Illustrated to write prior to the 2013 season that Taveras, then just 20 years old, “is the X-factor on a deep and talented St. Louis team that is loaded for another run in October.”[1]

Even an ankle injury that limited Taveras to just 47 minor league games in 2013 and postponed his promotion to St. Louis did little to dim evaluators’ excitement. Baseball Prospectus ranked Taveras the No. 2 prospect in the game prior to 2013 and No. 3 entering the 2014 season.[2] MLB.com ranked him No. 3 headed into both seasons.[3] In December 2013, Keith Law of ESPN ranked Taveras the fifth-best prospect in the game while comparing him to Vladimir Guerrero at the plate and in the field, where he gave Taveras’s glove the edge while preferring Guerrero’s legendary arm.[4]

A native of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, Taveras was an unheralded, $145,000 signing for the Cardinals in 2008.[5] Two years later, in his first season in the United States, the 18-year-old hit .322 with eight home runs and 43 RBIs in 211 Appalachian League at-bats. In 2011, he placed himself on the national radar when he led the Class A Midwest League with a .386 batting average. That performance was enough to catch the attention of Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.

“You play a full season and you hit .380, I don’t care if it’s tee ball, you’ve done something pretty special,” Matheny said during the 2012 spring training. “To see a 19-year-old that is doing the things that he’s been able to do … it’s legitimate.”[6]

Taveras successfully made the jump to the Class AA Texas League in 2012, batting .321 with 23 homers and 94 RBIs, and he was batting .306 in 2013 before ankle surgery cut short his 2013 campaign.

By the time the 2014 Cardinals entered May with a 15-14 record – already placing them 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the National League Central – fans and sportswriters were calling for Taveras to assist an ailing lineup.

“The Cardinals are willing to try anything except promote outfielder Oscar Taveras, their best hitting prospect since Albert Pujols,” wrote veteran St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz. “Any day now I expect to hear that the Cardinals have placed Taveras into a witness protection program.”[7]

Thirty days later, Taveras finally arrived in St. Louis, claiming the roster spot of injured first baseman Matt Adams, who was headed to the disabled list with a calf injury.[8] For his debut game against the San Francisco Giants, Matheny inserted Taveras into the sixth spot in the Cardinals’ lineup behind Yadier Molina.

The game quickly turned into a pitcher’s duel between the Cardinals’ 22-year-old hurler Michael Wacha and San Francisco’s Yusmeiro Petit. Petit retired the first five Cardinals he faced before Taveras came to the plate with two outs in the second inning. With storm clouds gathering, the St. Louis fans gave Tavares a standing ovation as he stepped into his first major league batter’s box.

“How good must that feel?” Fox Sports Midwest broadcaster and former Cardinals pitcher Ricky Horton asked on the air. “You don’t have a hit yet, no home runs, no runs scored, and you get a standing ovation.”[9]

Petit was less generous toward the rookie, greeting Tavares with an 84-mph breaking ball on the outside corner. Tavares fouled the next pitch down the third-base line before lifting the ball to left field and into the glove of San Francisco’s Tyler Colvin.

Wacha and Petit continued to trade scoreless innings until Taveras came to bat in the bottom of the fifth. To that point, the game’s only hits had been a double by Michael Morse to lead off the top of the second inning and a single by Matt Carpenter in the bottom of the fourth.

Taveras had just taken the first pitch of the at-bat low and inside when it began to rain. Petit’s next pitch was a curveball that started on the outer half before coming in over the middle of the plate. Using the smooth, left-handed swing that had scouts raving, Taveras deposited the 1-0 pitch over the right-field wall, becoming the 12th player in Cardinals history to homer in his major-league debut.[10]

“How about that for a debut?” Horton shouted into the microphone.[11]

“He’s got a good swing, you know?” Petit said afterwards in a tone far less enthusiastic than Horton’s. “He swings hard, and he pulls everything, so I tried to stay away and I missed with one pitch.”[12]

After accepting congratulations from his teammates, Taveras climbed the clubhouse steps once more and doffed his helmet for the home fans, who were still standing and cheering.

“Everybody knew it’s gone,” Taveras said after the game. “That’s a good swing right there. I’m so happy right there. Everything is happy.”[13]

As Taveras saluted the fans, the rain’s intensity increased, sending the grounds crew racing onto the field for a 47-minute rain delay. In the top of the seventh, rain delayed the action again, marking the end of the day for both Wacha and Petit. Wacha finished with seven strikeouts and three hits allowed over six innings. Petit exited with five strikeouts and just two hits allowed.

When play resumed, Cardinals left-hander Sam Freeman retired Hector Sanchez on a lineout and struck out Colvin and Brandon Hicks in a scoreless seventh. In the bottom half of the inning, the Giants turned to right-hander George Kontos, who allowed a leadoff single to Allen Craig before striking out Molina and Taveras.

As Taveras swung through an outside fastball for the third strike, Craig took off for second, sliding safely into the bag when the throw by Giants catcher Hector Sanchez skipped past shortstop Ehire Adrianza. Jhonny Peralta, who struck out in his first two at-bats, drove Craig home with a double into the left-field gap that made the score 2-0.

From there, the St. Louis bullpen maintained firm control of the game. Pat Neshek retired the side in order in the eighth inning, and in the ninth Trevor Rosenthal struck out Hunter Pence, Pablo Sandoval, and Morse in consecutive at-bats to earn the save.

Though the Cardinals’ four pitchers had combined for a three-hit, 13-strikeout shutout, the headlines all belonged to Taveras. In the next day’s paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an infographic comparing Taveras’s first game to that of Pujols (both players went 1-for-3 in their debut, though Pujols’s hit was a mere single). Miklasz wrote a column declaring that Taveras’s bat was “packed with danger and fully charged with hope. It was the bat that the Cardinals and their fans had been waiting for.”[14]

With Adams on the disabled list and a seven-game swing through two American League cities coming up, the Cardinals couldn’t help but express optimism that June would mark the beginning of a long, successful career for Tavares.

“I’m supposed to downplay it, right?” Matheny said. “We’re supposed to downplay it because we believe that it will probably give him the best chance of doing what he can do. But I’d be lying to say to you that I wasn’t excited for him. Hopefully this is an atmosphere that can launch him to the next level.”[15]

Taveras never got that opportunity. After batting .239 with three homers and 22 RBIs in 234 regular-season at-bats, Taveras played a reserve role during the playoffs. In Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, he hit a pinch-hit home run off Giants reliever Jean Machi to help lift St. Louis to a 5-4 victory. It was the final hit of his career.

On October 26, 2014, Taveras and his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, were killed in a single-car accident on the Sosúa-Cabarete freeway in Taveras’s hometown of Puerto Plata. In November, the Dominican Republic attorney general’s office disclosed that Taveras’s toxicology report showed a blood-alcohol content of 0.287 percent and that he was driving too fast for rainy conditions when he lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a tree.[16] He was 22 years old.

“He was someone who became an identity for our organization to some degree,” Mozeliak said. “Think about how much was written about him … how much was said about him. He never really got to show it at the major-league level.”[17]

Indeed, the world never got to see whether the comparisons to Pujols and Guerrero were justified. But for one Saturday afternoon in May, Taveras’s infectious smile – and his incredible potential – were enough to cut through the rain and bring more than 44,000 baseball fans to their feet.


[1] Albert Chen, “Well-stocked Cardinals ready to make another run,” Sports Illustrated, March 27, 2013, https://www.si.com/mlb/2013/03/27/st-louis-cardinals-season-preview.

[2] Jason Parks and Staff, “Prospects Will Break Your Heart: Top 101 Prospects,” Baseball Prospectus, January 27, 2014, https://www.baseballprospectus.com/prospects/article/22670/prospects-will-break-your-heart-top-101-prospects/.

[3] Jennifer Langosch, “Taveras ranks third among top 100 prospects,” MLB.com, January 23, 2014, https://www.mlb.com/news/oscar-taveras-of-st-louis-cardinals-third-in-top-100-prospect-rankings/c-66987862.

[4] Keith Law, “Top 100 prospects (1-50),” ESPN.com, December 19, 2013, http://insider.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/10166140/byron-buxton-tops-2014-ranking-top-100-prospects-mlb.

[5] Derrick Goold, “He’s the guy who sells,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 18, 2012: C12.

[6] Goold.

[7] Bernie Miklasz, “Birds fight back,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 1, 2014: C4.

[8] Derrick Goold, “Taveras on the way: Grichuk already here as Cards tap minors,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 31, 2014: B5.

[9] Fox Sports Midwest game broadcast, May 31, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZX1UyDUGB0.

[10] Derrick Goold, “Taveras makes it rain with home run in debut,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 1, 2014: C1.

[11] Fox Sports Midwest game broadcast, May 31, 2014.

[12] Alex Pavlovic, “Cards prospect homers in debut,” Sacramento Bee, June 1, 2014: C6.

[13] Goold, “Taveras makes it rain with home run in debut.”

[14] Bernie Miklasz, “Rookie gets right into the swing of things,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 1, 2014: C1.

[15] Goold, “Taveras makes it rain with home run in debut.”

[16] Derrick Goold, “Taveras had high blood alcohol,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2014: A1.

[17] Joe Strauss, “Cards look for solace amid a lack of answers,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 28, 2014: B1.

 

What I’m Reading: “The Phenomenon” by Rick Ankiel and Tim Brown

Rick Ankiel’s story may be one of the most fascinating in baseball history.

In The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life, Ankiel writes a very personal autobiography alongside sportswriter Tim Brown. Like everyone else who competed at the highest level and suddenly found themselves stricken by Steve Blass disease, or the yips, or the monster, or whatever you choose to call it, Ankiel doesn’t really have any answers as to why he lost the ability to throw strikes, or why he forced poor Carlos Hernandez to chase baseballs all over Busch Stadium during Game 1 of the 2000 National League Division Series. But that doesn’t mean that Ankiel doesn’t dive deep into his childhood, the game itself, and his long, desperate bid to regain his previous comfort on a mound.

The Phenomenon is something of a spiritual successor to Darrell Porter’s 1984 autobiography Snap Me Perfect!, in which Porter describes his prolonged descent into drug and alcohol abuse. Just like Porter, Ankiel goes into great detail regarding his childhood, focusing particularly upon his father, whose anger and violence dominated Ankiel’s youth. Ankiel’s father comes in and out of Ankiel’s life but can never be relied upon, and in fact when Ankiel is melting down during his playoff debut, Ankiel’s father is in prison on drug charges.

Ankiel comes across as a pretty regular guy who imagined one life for himself and suddenly, inexplicably found that taken away. He makes for a very relatable narrator and it’s easy to see why his teammates like him so much.

After spending more than 200 pages inside Ankiel’s head as he battled to become the next Sandy Koufax, as had been predicted throughout his minor-league career, it was cathartic to see him embrace the opportunity to play the outfield and eventually make the major leagues.

For some Cardinals fans, The Phenomenon will bring back memories of Ankiel’s cringe-inducing difficulties in the 2000 playoffs. Others will recall his first game back in 2007, when he hit a three-run home run to break open a 5-0 Cardinals victory over the Padres, or the game in 2008 when he threw out two Rockies baserunners from right field.

Hopefully, many Cardinals fans will remember both, and can appreciate Ankiel’s incredible physical gifts and his long journey back to the major leagues.