How a HS in Scottsdale helped the Brewers stay sharp

March 17th, 2022

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Brewers left-hander Aaron Ashby landed at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Feb. 1. It was a Tuesday. That meant it was a throw day, and with the MLB lockout ongoing, Ashby drove straight to North Scottsdale and laced up his spikes.

His destination was Notre Dame Preparatory High School, site of what became an unofficial Spring Training minicamp for Brewers players. It’s where the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, Corbin Burnes, and the three-time NL Reliever of the Year, Josh Hader, threw the live batting practice sessions they needed to stay sharp. It’s where former first-round pick Keston Hiura put into practice the revised swing he hopes leads to a bounce-back season. And it’s where Ashby threw his first Arizona bullpen, fresh off an airplane.

Fellow Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff heard Ashby telling his story and chuckled at the rookie’s exuberance.

“Hey,” Ashby said, “I had to get my bullpen in.”

Call it making the best of a suboptimal situation. Across MLB during the lockout, players devised strategies to stay sharp. New Brewers catcher Pedro Severino said he played pick-up games in the Dominican Republic with Juan Soto and Eloy Jiménez. Shortstop Willy Adames worked out at Grand Canyon University, just up the road from the Brewers’ Spring Training complex in Phoenix, with a group that included the Wong brothers (Kolten of the Brewers and Kean of the Angels), the Urías brothers (Luis of the Brewers and Ramón of the Orioles) and Aaron Hicks of the Yankees. Lorenzo Cain took swings at the University of Oklahoma, where his wife was once a collegiate gymnast.

Woodruff threw live BP with fellow Mississippian -- and Pirates pitcher -- Chris Stratton at nearby Northeast Mississippi Community College. Brent Suter pitched to slugger Kyle Schwarber at an indoor facility in Cincinnati. Josh Lindblom used his at-home pitching lab dubbed, “Swings and Things,” by his young son. Eric Lauer grabbed his left-handed catcher’s glove and knocked on the door of his neighbor in North Phoenix, Guardians right-hander Cal Quantrill. They went across the street to a park and threw bullpens.

As a result of those efforts and many more, the Brewers are ready to play a Cactus League game just one week after camps re-opened to players. They will play the Dodgers at Camelback Ranch on Friday afternoon with Adames and newcomer Hunter Renfroe among the hitters penciled into the lineup.

“I think we’re where we hoped to be without having communication and without having actual training sessions here at the complex,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “The players have done a great job. Everybody is on the schedule we want them to be on. It’s a good thing.”

The Brewers will be cautious with playing time as games begin. Lefty prospect Ethan Small is scheduled to start the opener against the Dodgers and go two innings. He’s built up after participating in the Brewers’ early camp for non-40-man roster players. Other Brewers pitchers will follow as the schedule unfolds, probably pitching multiple innings from the start to reflect the rapidly approaching Opening Day at Wrigley Field against the Cubs on April 7.

The majority of pitchers in camp were full-go as of opening week. Reliever Justin Topa is still rehabbing from last fall’s right flexor tendon surgery, and Angel Perdomo was set back a couple of days by a non-injury that emerged from his physical exam. President of baseball operations David Stearns was pleased with what he heard from the other pitchers and position players.

“I am, I also think we still need to be guarded,” Stearns said. “What we're putting guys through right now is a somewhat more rigorous version of what they were doing on their own. When we get into real competition, in front of fans against other players, it's a different animal. And so, that's where we'll find out -- as guys take it to that next level when they're playing against players with different uniforms.”

Said Kolten Wong: “I think a lot of people learned from the COVID year that if you don’t do anything and you come into Spring Training a little behind, you feel it.”

Wong was among the players who stopped by Notre Dame Prep. It became the Brewers’ unofficial lockout locale by chance; Brett Sullivan, the catcher who signed with Milwaukee in late November, happened to move into a house across the street. The baseball field was immaculate, so, one day in January, Sullivan walked over and identified Brian Fischer as the Saints’ head baseball coach.

It was as simple as that. Sullivan, who shares an agent with Burnes and Hader, introduced himself and asked if Brewers players might be able to use the field from time to time. Fischer and his young players welcomed them with open arms for bullpens and live batting practice on Tuesdays and Fridays for parts of three months.

In return for their hospitality, the young ballplayers at Notre Dame Prep got firsthand lessons about what it takes to be a professional.

“I think it showed everyone that, 'Hey, if this is the direction you want to go, this is what it is going to take to get there,'” Fischer said. “It was great for our kids. It was just good for baseball, everything about it.”

Said Sullivan: “It was the best thing for us. There were like 10 guys out there at one point, all Brewers. Getting at-bats, getting to know them, it was awesome.”

It was particularly important for a new catcher in Sullivan to be able to work with the likes of Burnes and Hader before the start of an abbreviated camp.

“Their stuff is so good,” said Sullivan. “I didn’t want the first time to be in a game. Now, being here, I feel comfortable. I feel like myself. It was perfect for us.”

The feeling was mutual for the staff and students of Notre Dame Prep.

“They talked to our kids after a hitting session on the field, sat them down and told them about their journey to get there. ... Their high school days and college days if they had them, and what round they were drafted and all of that,” Fischer said. “For some of the kids that like to talk a little bit, those are relationships they’re going to remember.”

Hader offered to tend to the mound after one of his early throwing sessions, but Fischer and his staff took care of all that. Notre Dame Prep’s pitching coach is a former pro, 12-year big leaguer Joe Borowski, who knew exactly what the Brewers would need to make the most of their field time. D-backs pitchers also made use of the mounds, and as word got around about the quality of the facility and the warmth of the hosts, players from other teams -- including the Astros and White Sox -- came by. The high school players watched it all and shagged balls in the outfield.

“They were great,” said Burnes. “The coaches were great. They let us do basically whatever we wanted, and they took care of the field. We tried to help out and they said, 'No, we're hosting you.' So it was good. They were first class.”

The Saints are the seventh-ranked high school baseball team in the state of Arizona by MaxPreps as of this week. Sullivan attended a recent game to show his support, and earlier this week, he met Fischer to donate a stash of new baseballs to the school.

Last week, when MLB and the MLB Players Association struck their agreement, the Brewers’ group text had been alive with plans to meet at Notre Dame Prep the following day for their usual Friday workout. Instead, the new collective bargaining agreement was set, and players reported to American Family Fields of Phoenix.

“I’m kind of disappointed,” Fischer said with a laugh. “Not disappointed that baseball started, because I want it to. But I can’t help but be a little disappointed they’re not here anymore.”