Ankiel gets best of Akin in matchup of top pitchers.(Sports)
Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
April 11, 1998 | Bush, JoeByline: Joe Bush Daily Herald Sports Writer
The perfect pro debut.
Peoria's Rich Ankiel may get another 5-run lead before he throws a pitch, but he'll never get another first professional start.
The 18-year-old from Fort Pierce, Fla., didn't seem overwhelmed by the scope of Friday's event in the first game of a double-header with the Kane County Cougars, but he's not a normal 18-year-old. He's a multi-millionaire.
St. Louis gave him $2.5 million to sign a contract last summer, but too late for him to pitch during the regular season.
"Instructional League and everything, that went well, but during the off-season, it went slow," Ankiel said. "It was a long spring, and we've been ready to get the season started. Today finally came, and it's past. I got that first one out of the way, so hopefully the next one will be better."
Pick, pick, pick. After his teammates presented him with a 5-0 lead, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound lefthander's first four pitches tickled the 90-mph range.
Two Cougars reached base, so he struck out the next two to end the inning. He finished the frame with a 73-mph curve for a called third strike.
Cougars second baseman Matt Erickson singled on a 2-0 pitch in the inning, the only hit Ankiel allowed in his 5 innings.
"That third pitch he was just trying to get one over the plate," Erickson said. "He left it up, right down the middle. He does have good zip on the ball. He's going to be pretty nasty someday."
Ankiel showed some athleticism in the second inning. Catcher Brandon Harper smacked a high-hopper up the middle which Ankiel leaped to knock down, then scrambled to throw to first for the out.
After he walked the next batter, Brett Roneberg, Ankiel picked him off.
"That's the first time I've seen him move that fast," Chiefs manager Jeff Shireman said of the groundout. "He'll be fun to watch. Hopefully, he can build a lot on this."
Nobody really gushed over Ankiel's 6-strikeout, 3-walk effort. Cougars right fielder Brett Roneberg even said Ankiel was "pretty decent, nothing above average."
Ankiel wasn't dominating, but he showed the ability to crank it up when necessary.
"He's got enough velocity, and he's left-handed, and he's got a hell of a curveball that he can fall behind and get away with it, moreso at this level," Shireman said. "The higher he goes, he'll have to get more consistent with command of pitches. If you ask him, and he told you honestly, I would think he'd probably tell you that he didn't have his best stuff out there."
"Mechanically, I was rushing," Ankiel said. "I wasn't mechanically sound. I just wasn't there all the way. I think I need work on everything. Hopefully as the season goes on it'll get better."
That's what Cougars starter and Florida's 1997 No. 1 pick Aaron Akin hopes, too. The hype of an Akin-Ankiel matchup lasted as long as it took Peoria to turn a season-opening error into a 6-hit, 5-run top half of the first.
Actually, Akin's season improved as soon as that inning was over. He didn't allow a hit over the next 3 innings, and retired seven straight at one point. He struck out one and walked three.
"I settled down," Akin said. "I was a little bit wild, but I pitched a lot better. Felt like I was pitching instead of just throwing."
By this time last year, Akin was more than halfway to an 11-0, 0.78 ERA season for Cowley Community College in Kansas. It's a different year, and he wasn't too put off by the start.
"I've got to work on making better quality pitches early in the count, not getting behind hitters," said Akin, whose off-speed stuff failed him in the first inning. "That's just stuff that comes. First outing, you've just kind of go out there and see what you can do, and then go from there.
"I'll try to work on release points for the slider and the changeups. They're all feel pitches, you've just got to feel for 'em. It may take awhile."
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