The Nationals have yet to find that perfect fit, and so for now the spinning wheel has landed on Rick Ankiel. At 32, Ankiel is not the long-term answer the Nationals are looking for. But they feel comfortable with Ankiel. He may have finished last year with lackluster offensive numbers, partly owing to two nagging injuries, but he remains one of the best athletes in baseball, the kind who other major leaguers gawk at.
His fellow players marvel at Ankiel’s transition from ace prospect to failed starter to power-hitting outfielder. His athletic ability alone gives him stature in the clubhouse. His work ethic backs it up. Ankiel is consistently among the group of Nationals taking extra batting practice, the 2 p.m. crowd during the season.
“He’s passionate about what he does,” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “He gets after it to work and find it. Tireless when it comes his craft, really.”
Ankiel’s best asset, and most revered, is his left arm. He has one of the best outfield throwing arms in baseball; former Braves Manager Bobby Cox once said he had never seen one as strong. Last year, it produced a miracle that the Nationals still talk about.
On Aug. 28 in Cincinnati, the Nationals were tied with one out in the ninth inning. Reds outfielder Dave Sappelt smashed a deep drive to right-center. Jayson Werth and Ankiel converged, Werth sprinting from right and Ankiel running from center. Werth leaped at the ball and missed. As the ball trickled away from him, he ended up leaning against the fence and watching Ankiel scoop it up.
“I went for the ball and didn’t catch it,” Werth said. “It hit off the wall. I had the angle where, I was looking straight and me, his release point and third base lined up all in a line. I’ll never forget it. It was the most impressive thing I have ever seen, and will ever see no matter what. The angle that I had, it was like I was looking through a scope, and I saw the bullet fire and get small and go right for the target. Man, it was awesome. Just to see where the runner was when he let it go, the whole thing, it was one of the coolest things, just to be in the perfect spot to see it.”
It was pointed out to Werth that it looked as if Sappelt had hit second base when Ankiel released his throw. Werth thought about that, and responded with a classic line.
“He was sliding into third when it left his hand,” Werth said. “It was amazing.”
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