Four weeks ago, Rick Ankiel was activated off the disabled list for the second time, this one from a left intercostal strain. He came back with an undefined position on the Nationals’ roster and a role that seemed to be continuously diminishing.
The manager had changed — and the new guy, Davey Johnson, had all but anointed Roger Bernadina as the team’s everyday man in center field. Ankiel found himself as a fourth outfielder on a bench stacked with left-handers. Finally healthy, though, after recovering from a sprained right wrist as well, teammates noticed a difference, a renewed focus.
He asserted himself quietly at first, excelling as a pinch-hitter and late-inning replacement, hitting .348 with two homers despite starting just 10 games from his activation through July 27. But he put an exclamation mark on his return Monday night. One month after rejoining the club, Ankiel led off the game with a home run and added another in the fifth to lead the Nationals to a 5-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves.
The night, one in which Ankiel hit leadoff for just the sixth game of his career, capped a stunning reversal of fortunes for Ankiel who spent his first three months of the season, when healthy, hitting .204 with a .217 on-base percentage, one homer and a paltry .276 slugging percentage.
“Obviously you don’t want to get hurt, but when you do, you take a long look at yourself sometimes,” said Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth and one of Ankiel’s biggest supporters on the team.
“You come back focused and ready to play. He’s definitely been more focused. Everybody wants to be here. This is the place to be. When you get it taken away from you a little bit, that can mean a lot… He’s just one of the many cogs we have on this team that makes this place go — but big night for him. Couldn’t be happier for him.”
Since July 1, Ankiel has hit .338 with four homers and 10 RBI. He’s slugging .593 and de’s returned as the team’s every day center fielder with Roger Bernadina, at least temporarily, optioned back to Triple-A. Still, he shrugged off any suggestion that he used the DL time to be introspective.
“My thought was just get healthy and get focused on the things I need to do when I get back,” he said. “You just go up there and look for a pitch to drive. Sometimes you get it. Sometimes you make it happen, sometimes you don’t. I’ve been getting good contact and good things have been happening.”
Monday night, his power-surge was the Nationals, and starter Livan Hernandez’s, bounty to build off of. He put them ahead early, sending Jair Jurrjens’ third pitch of the night deep into the right center field seats, and helped them build a cushion once that one-run lead had been relinquished with another solo shot to right for a 3-1 lead.
The Nationals added RBI-singles from Hernandez, in the second, Laynce Nix in the sixth and an RBI-fielder’s choice for Ian Desmond behind Nix to help Ankiel’s output. Six strong innings of work out of Hernandez, who rediscovered an effective sinker after two rough starts, helped them survive three shaky ones from their bullpen — that featured two solo home runs allowed. Survive they did, though, and the Nationals had their third straight victory.
“We’re playing good baseball,” Hernandez said, his lone mistake a sinker up to Dan Uggla that the second baseman hit for his first of two homers on the night. “We hit the ball good now, like before, and that’s it, let’s see what happens. Maybe we’ll win like 10 in a row.”
They can start by continuing to play the Braves tougher than they have any other team in their division. In the last two years, the Nationals are 15-13 against Atlanta and under .500 against every other team in the National League East. They play 30 of their remaining 54 games against division rivals — and nine of those against Atlanta. Their shot at a winning record this season lies in beating their closest neighbors.
“We’re up for our division and we need to play well against the team’s we’ve got to catch,” Johnson said. “I think everybody in that room feels the same way: ‘Bring ‘em on. Let’s test our merit.’”