PHOENIX -- Last March, MLB.com took note when Brewers pitching prospect Nathan Kirby made an exhibition start against the Korea Baseball Organization's LG Twins. Kirby, the 40th overall pick in the 2015 Draft, was coming off Tommy John surgery then, hopeful of a healthy year ahead and eager to face
PHOENIX -- Last March, MLB.com took note when Brewers pitching prospect Nathan Kirby made an exhibition start against the Korea Baseball Organization's LG Twins. Kirby, the 40th overall pick in the 2015 Draft, was coming off Tommy John surgery then, hopeful of a healthy year ahead and eager to face hitters wearing a different uniform for the first time in a year and a half.
At 24 years old and coming off a second straight lost season, Kirby did it all over again. This time, a Class A Advanced game against Rockies Minor Leaguers on a back field in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Saturday marked another unofficial stop on Kirby's long road toward health.
"I was telling one of the guys, it feels more weird feeling healthy than it did feeling sore all the time," Kirby said.
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One must look back to understand the meaning of Kirby's trip to the mound on Saturday, when he threw 41 pitches over three pleasantly uneventful innings, all the way back to 2015 and his days pitching for the University of Virginia in the College World Series. Kirby came back from a lat injury just in time to pitch the Cavaliers to a national championship, handling the final two innings of the clincher himself.
It was the highlight of his pitching life, but it came at a price. The Brewers renegotiated Kirby's signing bonus over health concerns, delaying Kirby's assignment to Class A Wisconsin. Five professional appearances later, he was shut down and sent for surgery. And after working all the way back to the start of 2017 Spring Training, Kirby developed more discomfort in that elbow and required another surgery, this time to remove a nerve.
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"The past two and a half, three years, I've been down," Kirby said. "But I feel like a lot of our paths in life, and especially in the Minor Leagues, are not straight."
Kirby feels like "the table has been completely flipped" from the past three frustrating seasons. There have been times this spring, he said, that he has had to take a step off the mound and tell himself to slow down.
"I get excited to wake up the next day and be able to straighten my arm with no pain," Kirby said.
Fellow pitching prospect Taylor Williams understands. He had Tommy John surgery three weeks before Kirby, and the two shared an apartment in neighboring Avondale, Ariz., while rehabbing together at Maryvale Baseball Park in 2016.
Those were long days.
"We spent a lot of our summer nights up in the press box here, doing the scoreboard and the music for Rookie League games," Williams said. "That was the rule if you didn't have any Double-A time. You had to come to home games."
Usually, Kirby ran the scoreboard and Williams handled disabled-list duty.
"You don't get a ton of fans, so it's more so to please the guys," Williams said.
Said Kirby: "I think we helped each other in a lot of ways. It was awesome to have someone to complain on the days we needed to complain and have someone understand what you're going through."
Kirby said Williams taught him how to listen to his body, when to push in the weight room and when to back off. Williams said he fed off Kirby's positive energy on the occasional bad day.
"I'm excited for him to get back out there," said Williams, who rose all the way to the Major Leagues last September. "A weight might sit on him that he's only thrown 12 innings and he was a supplemental first-rounder. But the talent that he has is unbelievable. I played catch with him almost every day throughout that process, and this kid's got life on his fastball, a nasty curveball, a nasty slider and a good changeup. And his makeup is what makes him most special. He's mentally tough. It's unfortunate how things have gone, but I think the future is bright for him."
Kirby has to fight the urge to make up for lost time.
"My biggest thing right now is not worrying about what happened yesterday or what could happen tomorrow," he said, "and focus on what's happening today."
Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook.