JUPITER, Fla. Rick Ankiel has been out of the major leagues since 2001, and he has been ineffective since the year before that.
Still rehabbing his left elbow, he is limited to playing catch every other day and won't be pitching competitively until August at the earliest.
Some might give up. Not Ankiel, who is just 24 and is convinced he can regain the form that persuaded the Cardinals to start him in their 2000 postseason opener.
''I think it has been forever,'' Ankiel said. ''The funny thing is I'm still young, but I don't feel like it sometimes.''
A former high school player of the year, Ankiel arrived in the big leagues in 1999 at age 19 with a fastball in the high 90s. He was 11-7 with a 3.50 the following season and struck out 194 in 175 innings.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa picked him to start Game 1 against Atlanta in the 2000 playoffs.
Then came disaster.
Given a six-run first-inning lead, he became the first pitcher in 110 years to throw five wild pitches in one inning of a major league game.
''Hey, I guess at least I set a record,'' he said then.
He threw four more in 1 1-3 innings against the New York Mets in the NL championship series and hasn't recovered.
Ankiel walked 25 in 24 innings during his first six starts of 2001, allowing seven homers and going 1-2 with a 7.12 ERA.
He was sent to the minors in May and hasn't returned.
Ankiel missed all of 2002 with an elbow strain, started last season 2-6 with a 6.29 ERA for Double-A Tennessee, then had reconstructive elbow surgery last July.
''There's a history with that surgery, so what you don't want to do is be impatient and push him,'' La Russa said. ''They've got a nice program, and the big thing is to get him 100 percent healthy so when he comes back he stays back.''
La Russa is looking forward to that day.
''I'd bet on Rick Ankiel,'' he said.
Ankiel has been injured so much, he worries about every little ache.
''The only problem is I have a tendency that every time I feel any little thing, I think, 'Oh, what is that?''' Ankiel said. ''I'm really feeling great, but I'm really paying attention to that. I'm out there and I want to throw it 100 mph. But I need to let time take care of itself. I almost feel like I don't have time. But I do.''
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