NEW YORK -- Think Rick Ankiel was hanging his head the day after his second straight playoff walk on the wild side? Well, think again.
After the St. Louis Cardinals' workout Friday at Shea Stadium, the 21-year-old rookie left-hander was seen clowning around with teammates and making sport, complete with sound effects, of his complete lack of control in an outing that lasted only two-thirds of an inning in Game 2 of the NLCS.
"It's like any other time," Ankiel said Friday. "You put it behind you and move on."
Of course, this is not just any time. His meltdown is coming on the national stage.
Ankiel's wildness dug the Cardinals an early hole in a 6-5 loss that gave the New York Mets a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series heading into Game 3 Saturday in New York. So his latest display might be tough to shrug off.
His first pitch was a fastball that nearly beaned Timo Perez. Five of his first 20 pitches hit the backstop.
But he's not concerned he might become the next Steve Blass or Mark Wohlers.
"I'm not worried at all," said Ankiel, who has thrown seven wild pitches and walked nine in 3 1-3 postseason innings. "It's almost the same as a batter losing his stroke for a game or two or a month. The same thing happens to a pitcher."
Ankiel knows what he's doing wrong. He's not following through, except when he throws the curve.
"You can't throw a curve and not finish it," Ankiel said. "That's why I throw it for a strike. The other pitches, I don't finish."
But knowing the problem and correcting it are two different things. So the struggle continues for Ankiel, who led the staff with a 3.50 ERA and was a rookie-of-the-year contender with an 11-7 record.
Manager Tony La Russa is doing his best to shield Ankiel, the team's second-round draft pick in 1997 and one of the brightest young pitching prospects in the majors. La Russa blamed himself for putting the pressure on Ankiel, whose troubles began when he was named Game 1 starter in the division series against the Braves, and joked about the pitcher's mental well-being.
"He had his head against the curb this morning and he got drunk on the plane," La Russa said. "He had a pillow in his bag and he slept in the corner of one of the buildings."
"He's 21 years old, man. This kid's going to be all right. If we're all going to have Rick's problems, the rest of our life is made."
Still, if he pitches again in the postseason, it'll probably be out of the bullpen. He'll likely be available in Game 3 considering he threw only 34 pitches -- 14 of them strikes -- but that's almost certainly too soon.
A more likely choice for Game 6, if the Cardinals get that far, is another rookie. Britt Reames, 27, replaced Ankiel in Game 2 and allowed one run in 4 1-3 innings.
"What Rick needs to do is just go out there and have a nice inning and probably get back on track and he'll be fine," pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "Now, is that going to happen? Who knows?"
At least he still can talk a good game. Ankiel stood up to waves of questioners after the workout Friday, and he also held himself accountable.
"I respect (La Russa) because I think he's trying to in a way take the pressure off me," Ankiel said. "But come on, that's me out there pitching. Not him."
The Cardinals like that attitude. Ankiel didn't pout for long in the clubhouse, returning in an inning or so to sit with his teammates and watch the rest of the game.
"He handled it the way I'd like to see somebody handle it," Duncan said. "He didn't stick his head in the locker and hide from everybody. But at the same time he realizes he didn't get the job done and he's very realistic about it."
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