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11/05/2001 - Updated 02:51 PM ET

Copyright 2001 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc

Baseball's head cases often proved baffling

By Seth Livingstone

While there is every reason to believe Rick Ankiel's postseason control problems were just a brief bump in the road, major league history is filled with players who suddenly lost it. Now a broadcaster for the Pirates, Steve Blass went from World Series MVP in 1971 and one of baseball's most successful pitchers in 1972 to one who couldn't throw strikes in 1973. He tried everything from psychotherapy to transcendental meditation, but he never regained his winning form.


A right-hander with a herky-jerky motion, Blass was 103-76 in 10 big-league seasons. He went 19-8 with a 2.49 ERA in 1972. He pitched a three-hitter and a four-hitter to help the Pirates capture the 1971 Series.

In '73, however, instead of pitching ahead in the count, he often threw behind batters and ended up 3-9 with a 9.81 ERA. The next season he pitched one game for the Pirates, walked seven in five innings and punched his ticket to Charleston, where he walked 93 more in 56 2/3 innings.

CHUCK KNOBLAUCH: The Yankees second baseman has been working out in Tampa since mid-January, watching tape and focusing on mechanics in hopes of curing the throwing problems that have plagued him for three seasons.

Knoblauch was a Gold Glover in 1997 when he committed 11 errors . He began to throw erratically in 1998, and the problem became so severe that he was replaced for defense in the postseason.

At first, the problem was attributed to elbow tendinitis. As time went on, it became apparent his problems were more complex. He committed 26 errors in 1999, and by the end of last season he was reduced to a DH role. Things became so bad that he even considered retirement.

MACKEY SASSER: The Mets catcher seemed to have a world of promise in 1990 when he hit .307 in 100 games.

Defensively, Sasser had little trouble firing a strike to second base. His problem was throwing the ball back to the pitcher.

He would hesitate and double-pump, unable to trust his release point. His trouble became so severe that Brett Butler once stole a base on one of his lobs back to the mound.

Psychological intervention did not help. Sasser caught just 86 games from 1991 until the end of his career in 1995.

DAVE ENGLE: A .305 hitter as a 26-year-old for the Twins in 1983 and an AL All-Star the following season, Engle came up as an outfielder but was converted to a catcher.

His troubles appear to have begun during batting practice one day when one of his throws glanced off the top of the protective screen and broke his pitcher's nose. Engle began lobbing his throws with a pronounced arc.

Like Sasser, Engle was embarrassed by a runner (Alfredo Griffin) stealing a base on one of his tosses back to the mound. He remained in the majors from 1985-89 but caught just 38 more games. ASTROLAND NOTE:   Engle got a job with the Tuscon Toros as hitting coach in 1991.

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MARK WOHLERS: The Reds are paying Wohlers $1.5 million this season, hopeful the hard-throwing reliever can regain the form which enabled him to post 97 saves from 1995-97.

During that time, Wohlers struck out 282 and walked just 83 in 2111/3 innings for the Braves. But his control left him after an injury in 1998. In his first appearance of '99, he issued four walks in two-thirds of an inning. In his second game, he was unable to make a throw to first on a sacrifice bunt.

Since being traded to the Reds, he's been treated for anxiety and had Tommy John surgery on his elbow. He pitched 20 innings with 17 walks and a 4.59 ERA in 2000, posting his first major league victory since 1997.

STEVE SAX: The NL Rookie of the Year in 1982, Sax suddenly lost his ability to make throws to first base on the easiest of plays in 1983. He said he felt like a "prisoner."

As Sax worried about his grip and his arm angle, his throwing became so bad that fans behind the first base dugout began donning batting helmets.

Sax, who committed 30 errors in 1983, battled his way back to defensive respectability and went on to lead AL second basemen in fielding percentage and double plays in 1989. His career already had rebounded in 1986, when he put together a 25-game hitting streak and finished the season at .332, missing the NL batting title by two points.