After COVID battle in '20, Ashby ready for '21

Brewers prospect struck out side in scoreless inning in Sunday's spring opener

March 1st, 2021

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Brewers pitching prospect Aaron Ashby remembers the date: July 4, 2020. It was one of the last days he really enjoyed a meal.

Ashby, the 22-year-old nephew of former Padres All-Star Andy Ashby and Milwaukee's No. 6 prospect per MLB Pipeline, contracted COVID-19 last summer. He’d gone to Manhattan Beach, Calif., to train while staying with former Los Angeles Clippers guard Landry Shamet, a friend from high school in Kansas City (Shamet plays for the Brooklyn Nets now), and they were planning to watch Independence Day fireworks later that night from the Manhattan Beach Pier with some friends. Shamet called to tell Ashby he’d tested positive for the virus.

Ashby went to get tested two days later, and he was positive, too.

“I didn't really have any symptoms for the most part,” Ashby said. “I lost my sense of taste and smell, which, you know, everyone says that they kind of have that. That was probably the weirdest part. Like Landry, my buddy, he lost his sense of taste and smell, and he was freaking out about it. I was like, 'Dude, it's fine. It's going to come back.'”

When they didn’t cook at home, Ashby ordered takeout from Hopdoddy Burger Bar nearby. In the halcyon days when he could actually taste his food, Ashby remembered liking the Thunderbird chicken sandwich: fresh ground chicken patty topped with pepperjack cheese, steakhouse bacon, seared poblanos, pico de gallo, guacamole, lettuce and chipotle aioli. It seemed like a reasonably healthy choice, so Ashby kept ordering it.

Slowly, some sense of taste returned.

“The weirdest part about it is I had the same chicken sandwich every single day, and for like a month after, everything else tasted like that chicken sandwich,” Ashby said. “No matter what I ate. A steak? Chicken sandwich. Green beans? Chicken sandwich.

“And it's still to this day weird. It's off. It’s not totally gone.”

Ashby considers himself fortunate that his symptoms were mostly limited to that relatively minor issue.

“I had a little bit of shortness of breath when I was working out and everything, but nothing super crazy,” Ashby said. “Just like, 'Oh, I'm a little sick.’ I can notice it sometimes, not when I'm working out or lifting, but when I run, I notice some shortness of breath. It's still kind of lingering. But when I'm pitching, it doesn't bother me.”

Ashby may have been assigned to the Brewers’ alternate training site earlier had he not contracted the virus, but he still made it there by the third week of August and got off the mound twice before that program was paused due to a positive COVID-19 test. Because it was so close to the end, a number of prospects, including Ashby, were sent to Arizona to prepare for the fall instructional program.

In Phoenix, Ashby finally got into a routine. He focused on a two-seam fastball/sinker, a new pitch added to a repertoire that already included four pitches: fastball, 65-grade slider (in other words, very good), changeup and curveball. Ashby had started working on the sinker in Spring Training and sent videos to coaches during the shutdown, but he found nothing beat in-person learning.

“I got a lot better in instructs, I think,” Ashby said. “I’m not sure if I got better than I would have if there was a season last year, but it wasn’t a wasted year, for sure.”

The Brewers drafted Ashby in the fourth round in 2018, out of the junior-college ranks after he posted eye-popping strikeout numbers at Crowder College, and a year later, he was Milwaukee’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year. In recent years, Ashby has become closer with his father’s brother, Andy, who pitched 14 seasons in the Major Leagues and was an All-Star for San Diego in 1998 and ’99, just as Aaron Ashby was born.

Like so many players with big league bloodlines, the most memorable lessons have been about the work it takes to make it as a professional baseball player.

“You definitely take it for granted, how lucky you are to be able to know someone or be in relation to someone who's been able to go through it,” Ashby said. “[In Brewers camp, I have been] learning from the veteran guys like [Corbin] Burnes, [Josh] Hader, [Brandon] Woodruff, [Josh] Lindblom, all those guys. I’m learning their routines in the weight room, how they carry themselves, things like that. I’m keeping my eyes and ears open.”

Ashby had his first opportunity to put those lessons to the test in Sunday's Cactus League opener, when he pitched the final inning of the Brewers’ 7-2 win over the White Sox. Ashby worked around a walk and an error behind him to pitch a scoreless inning, getting all three outs via swinging strikeouts while showing the varied deliveries he uses to deceive hitters.

“He got some funky swings from hitters,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “The first batter had three quick pitches. The last batter, he fell behind and threw a fastball by him 3-1, then struck him out with a nice slider. I thought Ashby’s appearance makes you take notice, for sure.”