More than two years after retiring as a pitcher and deciding to try to make it back to the Major Leagues as an outfielder, one-time pitching phenom Rick Ankiel returned to the big leagues Thursday night as the starting right fielder for the Cardinals.
After swatting 32 home runs and driving in 89 at Triple-A Memphis this year, Ankiel -- says manager Tony La Russa -- is back to stay.
"He's going to give us a boost," La Russa told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "He's a big leaguer from now on to forever. He has the talent to pull it off."
It didn't take Ankiel long to prove it. Ankiel blasted a three-run homer in the seventh inning of his Major League outfield debut, helping the Cardinals to a 5-0 victory over San Diego.
Ankiel, who received a standing ovation at his first at-bat, got a curtain call after the homer.
"Unbelievable," Ankiel said after stowing the ball he hit in his locker. "You almost can't put it into words. I couldn't have written that any better. No way. It felt so good I can't describe it. It's almost ... euphoric."
After Ankiel was mobbed in the dugout by his teammates -- center fielder Jim Edmonds was out of the dugout celebrating almost before the ball even left the yard -- La Russa made his feelings clear. Next to winning the World Series, it was the "happiest I've ever been in this uniform," La Russa said.
"You don't see that very often," San Diego manager Bud Black said of the pitcher-turned-hitter success story. "Actually, you don't see that since Babe Ruth."
In his last big-league appearance on Oct. 1, 2004 Ankiel picked up a victory after hurling three innings of relief for the Cardinals. In his first Major League appearance against Montreal on April 23, 1999, current and former Cardinals second baseman Adam Kennedy was a teammate. Having Ankiel make it back, he said, is something special.
"Guys who have that kind of talent always seem to bring out that excitement," said Kennedy. "The electricity has always been there with him because he was an electric pitcher and now it's there because he's an electric bat. It's fun to watch a guy who is talented like that play."
The catcher that night for the Montreal Expos was current Padres catcher Michael Barrett, who approached Ankiel on Thursday night.
"I welcomed him back," said Barrett. "I can only imagine how humbling it would be to go through what he's gone through, especially as talented as he is as a player. I'm glad he's back in the Majors where he belongs."
Prior to his first at-bat, Padres pitcher Chris Young stepped off the mound to give the Cardinals fans a chance to applaud Ankiel in a moment that he was unsure how to handle. When asked to come out for a curtain call, though, he knew just what to do.
"I appreciate (the Cardinals) giving me a chance to start my career over," he said. "I'm happy to be home."
Berkman, Biggio awed by Bonds: Soon after learning of Barry Bonds' 756th career home run, making him the all-time home run king in Major League Baseball, several Houston Astros players expressed their admiration of the record-setting accomplishment.
"I think it's definitely a historic night for baseball," Lance Berkman told the Houston Chronicle. "It's definitely an accomplishment of breaking probably the most hallowed record in American sports, and certainly one that most people know about that follow sports in this country.
"So it's a historic moment and one that regardless of what plays out in the next month or years, people will remember and talk about."
Veteran Craig Biggio is amazed at what Bonds has been able to do during his career,
"The numbers that he has, they're unbelievable. I've played against Barry for 20 years, and he's the best player I've ever seen play the game," Biggio said.
"The years I go back to, his Pittsburgh years and his early years in San Francisco, offensively, defensively and on the base paths, he could beat you in so many ways. Late in games he's the last one you'd want to see up there."
Edmonds elated to see Bonds set mark: As someone who has competed against Barry Bonds for a lot of years, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Jim Edmonds has come to respect the Giants slugger, and when Bonds passed Hank Aaron on Tuesday night with this 756th career home run, Edmonds was watching on television and was glad to see it happen.
"When the count got full, I turned to (conditioning coach) Pete (Prinzi), and said, 'He's going to do it, this guy's going after him.' Next pitch -- whack," Edmonds told MLB.com. "It was pretty cool. I was jumping up and down. I'm real happy for him. It's real neat to see something like that."
Pierzynski, Guillen appreciate Bonds: Chicago White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski is counted among those happy that Giants outfielder Barry Bonds has passed Hank Aaron on the all-time home run list. As a teammate of Bonds in 2004 in San Francisco, Pierzynski says that Bonds is clearly one of the greatest hitters alive.
"He was the best teammate I ever saw when he stepped in the batter's box. I know that for sure, by far," Pierzynski told MLB.com. "Knowing Barry, I know he wanted to do it in San Francisco. So, I'm sure it meant a lot to him to have the home fans cheer him."
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen believes that fans can now look at Bonds' career and appreciate him for much more than a home run hitter.
"I think this home run chase makes people forget how good a player Barry was. Now people just think about how many home runs he has. People forget about Gold Gloves, MVPs and stolen bases," said Guillen.
"[For] People who know the game, Barry was a [great] ballplayer. There wasn't anybody better than him for 20 years. I think it was great."
Harris wins with the glove: Willie Harris made two big catches to help the Braves hang on for a 7-6 win over the Mets Thursday afternoon. Harris victimized Moises Alou in the first inning, saving at least two runs with his catch. And in the ninth, with the Mets having already scored three runs, Harris leaped over the wall and robbed Carlos Delgado of a game-tying home run.
"We were playing 'no doubles,'" Harris told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of the outfielders' deep alignment in the ninth inning, "because you don't want a guy to hit a ball over your head. So I was already back far enough just in case if he did hit it up toward the wall, I'd have a chance to catch the ball."
The victory gave the Braves a 2-1 series win over the NL East Division leaders. In 12 games versus the Mets this season, Atlanta is 8-4.
"We've been playing good against these guys all year," Harris said. "They have a great team, and we have a pretty good team ourselves. I think it's going to come right down to the wire."
Bootcheck has survived through ups and downs: Chris Bootcheck went from being a first-round draft pick to being released from the Angels' 40-man roster this past offseason. But no team claimed Bootcheck and he went to Spring Training with the Angels as a non-roster invitee. He won the club's long reliever role and has carved out an important place on the squad.
"I try not to look back on that," Bootcheck told the Los Angeles Times of the roster move. "When I made the team out of camp, that was water under the bridge for me. [Juan] Rivera got hurt, they tried to improve the team, and they had to make a move. It happened to be me."
Bootcheck, who is 3-2 with a 4.36 ERA this season in 32 games, has earned the respect of his teammates.
"He's been outstanding from day one, filling a couple of different roles," setup man Scot Shields said. "He's pitched long relief, the seventh inning of close games. ... He's working his way up the depth chart."
"When Chris is out there doing well, his job is just as important as Frankie's," reliever Justin Speier said, referring to closer Francisco Rodriguez. "He can allow Shields and Frankie a day off, so they don't have to pitch in situations they're not needed. He's done well in tight situations too. He's really coming into his own."
Part of the reason for Bootcheck's success this season is increased velocity. He has been consistently at 94 mph, up over his usual 90.
"I don't know, man, maybe it's confidence," Bootcheck said. "Regular work helps. Sometimes when you go a long time without throwing, you get back on the mound, and it's like you're starting all over again."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.