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How Rick Ankiel helped Stephen Strasburg break through with his curveball

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BOSTON — There was a time when Rick Ankiel was Stephen Strasburg. Sure, he’s left-handed and he didn’t come with nearly the hype that Strasburg did, given the advancements in media from 1999, when Ankiel made his major league debut, and 2009, when Strasburg was drafted by the Nationals. But in a lot of ways, he was.

“Feels like another life,” Ankiel said Saturday afternoon in the visitor’s clubhouse at Fenway Park.

Ankiel, a second-round pick of the Cardinals out of high school, has a golden left arm. It’s on display often from center field now, but back then it was coming at you from the pitchers mound.

He could throw in the mid-to-upper 90s and had a curveball that made batters buckle. Tom Verducci called him “The Can’t Miss Kid” and Sports Illustrated splashed him across their pages at 19 — just like another Nationals player. 

“Temptation, thy name is Rick Ankiel,” Verducci wrote in a June 1999 issue of Sports Illustrated. “Temptation cannot legally buy a beer or rent a car, spends off days trolling the local mall and regards Hooters as fine dining. Temptation also has a 95-mph fastball with more late movement than a strip joint and a knee-buckling breaking ball that curves as sharply as Lombard Street. For a scout who has been in the game almost half a century, Temptation is like nothing he’s ever seen before. Temptation is the best pitching prospect in baseball.”

So the Nationals center fielder knows a thing or two about pitching, that’s for sure. And he loves watching Strasburg.

“When I’m watching him, I can live vicariously through him and have fun with it,” he said. 

Ankiel’s path from that point has been well documented, his pitching career lasting just three years in the major leagues. But in this life, the one where he’s a 32-year-old outfielder for one of the best teams in baseball, Ankiel has taken on a mentoring type of role, talking most noticeably with Bryce Harper on many occasions.

That mentoring spilled over into the pitching side recently, though.

After he struck out 13 Red Sox Friday night, Strasburg called what happened with his breaking ball something of a “breakthrough,” and pointed to a recent conversation he’d had with Ankiel about the pitch. 

“I think I have a tendency to almost try and throw it down in the zone, like throw a two-strike curveball in the dirt, and not really trust it,” Strasburg said.

He was slow, though, to turn to Ankiel for advice — a common feeling, Ankiel said, recalling how hesitant he was to approach guys like Darryl Kile, Pat Hentgen and Matt Morris on those Cardinals teams of his youth. But hitting coach Rick Eckstein and first base coach Trent Jewett urged Strasburg to go to him.

“They kind of pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, just ask him,’” Strasburg said. “He had one of the best curveballs in the game and he knew how to throw it, and he knew how to use it to his advantage.”

“I kind of felt that way sometimes, too,” Ankiel said. “Because you don’t know how receptive guys are. You don’t really want to be like, ‘Hey! Blah blah blah.’ You kind of pick your battles, maybe hint here and there and see where it goes. But it was good, and I’m happy we did it.”

Ankiel declined to go into specifics of what he discussed with Strasburg, though he made sure to laud the right-hander for going out and putting into practice some of the things they talked about. 

“When I was a rookie and people came to me and they give you advice, you hear it,” Ankiel said. “Sometimes it doesn’t always sink in, and it might be a month later when you’re like ‘Hey, I realize what they’re talking about.’ But it’s nice to give back. People gave to me when I came and I think part of going through it and part of being in this game, where you get older and see things, is you pass that knowledge along and hope that it helps.”

“(Our bench) has just been tremendous,” said bench coach Randy Knorr, including Ankiel. “Because we’ve got so many young guys on the team. I see them in the dugout, they talk to them all the time. Sometimes you get these veteran guys where they’re more on the selfish side and they don’t take that role. I think that hurts the club. I think we benefit from that, and that’s probably why we’re winning, because they pick the kids up and they’re not doing well and they get them back in and keep them focused. You couldn’t ask for a better group of guys on the bench. They’re outstanding.”

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