VIERA, Fla. - It was only fitting that Rick Ankiel went yard last night. The pride of Port St. Lucie High School had to put on a show back in his old stomping grounds.
In front of a group of friends and some of his high school teachers, Ankiel smacked an opposite-field home run in his first at-bat against the Mets last night, sending a decent portion of the 5,021 in attendance at Digital Domain Park to their feet.
"It was his hometown and he gave them something to cheer about," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said.
Ankiel, who grew up about 15 minutes from the Mets' spring training stadium, is a member of the Port St. Lucie High School Hall of Fame. He went 11-1 with a 0.47 ERA during his senior season at PSLHS, striking out 162 batters in 74 innings pitched and earning USA Today High School Player of the Year honors.
Now a position player, Ankiel showed off his power last night, smacking a 2-0 sinker from Mets starter Dillon Gee over the left field wall for a solo homer in his first at-bat of the night. Ankiel also walked and stole a base before being replaced by Brett Carroll in the fifth inning.
"It was great," Ankiel said. "It's always fun to come home and play in front of the home crowd, so it's nice to do well here."
The hometown angle is all well and good, but the part of Ankiel's performance last night which will linger with both the center fielder and his manager is that Ankiel had success while following Johnson's requests that he relax at the plate.
Johnson has tried to get Ankiel to loosen up a bit while in the box this spring, instructing him to take a more casual approach to his at-bats instead of tensing up. The pay-off early on has been positive, as Ankiel has reached base in three of his four times to the plate in Grapefruit League action.
"It's always good to have results, especially with stuff you're working on," Ankiel said. "It just builds confidence with the stuff you're doing. It drives you that much more to stay committed to the approach.
"Sometimes, within the game, the game can speed up on you. It's the big league level, so sometimes it's hard to control the emotions and stay in that relaxed state. Anytime you're working on something, habits create that for you. So hopefully you get through that and you start playing the game within the game."
It also didn't hurt that Ankiel's homer went to the opposite field, indicating the veteran center fielder was locked in.
"It always feels good to go the other way," Ankiel said. "When I'm watching the game and you see somebody drive it the other way, you know that was probably their approach."
"I've liked what I've seen from Ankiel," Johnson said. "(Ankiel's agent, Scott) Boras kept telling me to tell him to use the other field, because when he was in high school, he was like a .580 hitter and he used the whole field. I said, 'Well, he kind of likes to hit the ball over the right field wall.' But he's been real impressive this spring."
Dan Kolko was named MASNsports.com's Nationals beat writer after spending the last four years covering the Baltimore Ravens for MASN and also serving as the Web site's deputy managing editor. A University of Delaware graduate originally from Silver Spring, Md., Dan grew up a die-hard baseball fan and is thrilled for the opportunity to cover the Nationals. Before joining MASN, Dan worked in production at Comcast SportsNet in Bethesda, Md., and also interned at the "George Michael Sports Machine" in Washington, D.C.
Follow Dan Kolko on Twitter: @DanKolko