The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Joe Strauss on the enigmatic Rich Ankiel, still trying to recapture the form he flashed a half decade ago.

By the first week of April the Cardinals hope to anoint Ankiel as part of their staff – either as the surrogate for rehabilitating starting pitcher Matt Morris or as a long reliever.

“He’s out of options. You’ve got to assume he’s going to be on your ballclub,” Duncan said. “The way I’m looking at it is, how’s he going to pitch, what’s he going to do? When I watch Rick pitch I’m trying to envision how he’s going to be part of our staff. I’m not thinking about anything else.”

“Everybody has a responsibility, and Rick is going to have a responsibility. There isn’t anything special about his responsibility. He’s got one-eleventh or one-twelfth of it,” assessed manager Tony La Russa, referring to the question of whether he takes 11 or 12 pitchers into the season.

Ankiel (above), now 25, threw 40 pitches to four hitters. Five were hit but only two left the cage. Only Gonzalez’s opposite-field swing on a too-high offering would have fallen for a hit.

A breaking pitch hit third baseman Scott Seabol in the foot but left no bruise.

“He looked good,” Duncan said, estimating that the lefthander’s mechanics looked to be in proper alignment for all but five pitches – an acceptable ratio in his first exposure against hitters this spring. “He got a little flat on a couple but otherwise it looked very solid.”

“Everything he threw was good,” said catcher Yadier Molina. “It’s exciting.”

Ankiel’s career has been stop and start since October 2000. Command problems, elbow issues and ligament replacement surgery have derailed a pitcher who teased the Cardinals with 11 wins before turning 22.

Returning last summer from surgery in July 2003, Ankiel worked 23 2/3 innings among Tennessee, Memphis and St. Louis.

He made five appearances for the Cardinals, doing nothing to quell anticipation for his return.

“I was excited to see him,” La Russa said. “He pitched just a few times, but watching his bullpen sessions, he showed what he’s capable of because he was pitching. He put a little on, took a little off, moving it around, showing two or three fastballs, a couple different breaking balls and a good change. That’s something to get excited about.”

What Duncan once lambasted as a media-induced “freak show” has dissipated. The only remaining obstacle is for Ankiel to become more comfortable throwing to bases.

Duncan sees improvement in the changeup that almost disappeared the past several seasons. The curveball is still knee-buckling. The fastball still climbs into the mid-90s.

Therre is no remaining margin for delay. Ankiel has no remaining options, meaning he must first clear waivers for the Cardinals to send him to the minors.

His breakout 2000 season and remaining potential make that virtually impossible.

“I’m excited, but who has a crystal ball?” La Russa asked. “He pitched a lot last year, his arm got sore; he’s just got to stay healthy. We’ll