Ankiel’s experience paying dividends with Nats’ phenoms

BOSTON - One of the Nationals’ team buses got stuck in some heavy traffic in downtown Boston today.

It just so happened to be the bus carrying manager Davey Johnson.

The skipper didn’t arrive at Fenway Park until sometime around 2:45, less than 90 minutes until first pitch. As a result, bench coach Randy Knorr handled today’s pregame session with reporters.

What a treat that must’ve been for him.

It was a little bit surprising to hear Stephen Strasburg say last night that he’s been working on improving his curveball with the help of outfielder Rick Ankiel. It’s not often position players help pitchers with their stuff, but I guess it’s also not often that you find a position player who had as much raw skill on the mound as Ankiel.

Formerly a top pitching prospect in the Cardinals organization, Ankiel reached the majors at just 20 years old thanks to his heavy fastball and fall-off-the-table curve. His pitching career took a turn for the worse due to control issues, but he still carries years of experience as a hurler.

“I watched him growing up,” Strasburg said last night. “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.”

Strasburg wasn’t sure if he should approach Ankiel and ask for tips on the curve, but at the urging of hitting coach Rick Eckstein and first base coach Trent Jewett, he did so. Ankiel understands that hesitation, but he’s glad the Nats ace asked for some pointers.

“I kind of felt that way sometimes, too, because ... you don’t know how receptive guys are,” Ankiel said. “So 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 specify exactly what he’s been working on with Strasburg, saying he preferred to keep that between the two of them. But his work with the power righty paid off in a big way, as Strasburg’s curve was dazzling all game last night.

ankiel-sitting-sidebar.jpg“The stuff you talk about, just feels and what you’re thinking about on certain pitches,” Ankiel said. “He said he went out and tried it and it felt great, and it carried over into the game.

“I think it’s just a feel thing. When you get that feel, you can throw it anywhere you want. You can backdoor it, throw it in, whatever it is you need to do, you can do. Once you get that, the game is yours.”

Not only has Ankiel been working with Strasburg, but he’s also constantly giving pointers to the Nats’ other young phenom. Look around the clubhouse on a given day and you’re likely to see Ankiel, now 32, chatting with Bryce Harper, providing information on opposing pitchers and even off-the-field baseball topics.

That’s a relationship that Ankiel said he had with guys like Jim Edmonds, Darryl Kile and Pat Hentgen when he first broke into the majors, and it’s something he enjoys carrying over now that he’s the veteran guy in the clubhouse.

“It’s great to give back, just like when I was a rookie and people came to me and they give you advice,” Ankiel said. “You hear it, 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 (up), 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.”

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