Small, Ashby flex Brewers' rotation depth

May 31st, 2022

CHICAGO -- At the dawn of the Brewers’ long day at Wrigley Field, Keston Hiura was asked whether he had any stories about Ethan Small, Milwaukee's top pitching prospect per MLB Pipeline. Small made his Major League debut in Game 1 of a Memorial Day doubleheader and showed in one 69-pitch package why he’s so highly regarded, and where he has work to do.

Small’s debut came to an early end when he lost his command in the third inning of what became a seesaw, 7-6 Brewers win over the Cubs in Game 1 before another young lefty, Aaron Ashby, helped make it a sweep while setting a career high with 12 strikeouts in a 3-1 win in Game 2.

“We’ve got a bright future ahead of us,” said Brewers closer Josh Hader, who pulled double duty with saves in both games. “Aaron right now is just dealing. It’s fun to watch him pitch and learn to use his pitches, attack different parts of the zone.

“And Ethan -- small sample size, but he’s got a lot of tools that he’s going to be able to use at this level. He’s going to get a shot again and be back up here with the rotation.”

Which circles back to Hiura, who was among the Triple-A teammates who have seen Small’s good stuff. Hiura spoke of May 12 in Jacksonville, when Small set a season high with nine strikeouts and picked up a win over the Marlins’ top affiliate. Their leadoff hitter was a third-base prospect named Charles Leblanc, who came into the day hitting .381 with a 1.079 OPS but struck out in the first inning against Small. When Leblanc batted again in the third, he bunted for a single. Hiura was shocked.

“He got to second and I asked, ‘You’re hitting .380. Why did you bunt?’” Hiura said. “He said, ‘You don’t understand. No one can see his changeup.’”

“It’s a lot of moving parts coming at you,” said Brewers utility man Mark Mathias, another of Small’s Nashville teammates. “He’s just really fun to watch. It’s 90-91 [mph], but guys are swinging right through it. It’s not overpowering like 98-99, but it’s got that ride and he’ll pull the string with the changeup.”

Small showed off both pitches in his big league debut during a scoreless first inning, fanning Willson Contreras on a 92 mph four-seam fastball and Patrick Wisdom on one of those nasty changeups. Through two innings, Small had four strikeouts, no walks and no runs allowed on 30 pitches. He described it as “all I could ask for.”

Then came the third, when Jace Peterson homered for a 1-0 Brewers lead that quickly got away from Small. He walked four batters in the inning, including three after two outs. Nico Hoerner hit a high fastball with the bases loaded for a two-run single and a 2-1 Cubs lead. Small walked the next batter, Clint Frazier, with pitch No. 39 in the inning. Brewers manager Craig Counsell was forced to make a pitching change.

“It’s kind of tough,” Small said, “because I feel like I was on cruise control through those first two, and then I got out there for the third and made a couple of bad pitches. And it just kind of snowballed and I ended up losing my breath a little bit and I could never get it back. It turned into one of those ugly, long innings that I don’t ever want to have.”

Still, it was a memorable day. Small left 21 tickets for friends and family on hand for his debut.

“It still doesn’t seem real,” he said. “It’s something I’ve dreamed about since I was a little kid. Tough result at the end of the day, but I’m happy we got to experience it all together.” 

Said Counsell: “Look, we saw his stuff work in the strike zone, no doubt about it. It’s just the next step of pitching. Your misses have to be better. Your full-count pitches have to be a little better. Your stuff doesn’t have to be better, but your misses have to be better.”

The Brewers rallied to win the opening game on Luis Urías’ three-run home run in the seventh inning and Hader’s 17th save in as many chances. Between games, the Brewers optioned Small back to the Minors and activated a fresh arm in right-handed reliever Luke Barker. But Small’s Triple-A ledger suggests he will be back; he has a 1.88 ERA in his first eight starts for Nashville and held Triple-A hitters to a .161 average. He also had a 13 percent walk rate, the highest in the International League.

The same issue occasionally dogs Ashby, but not on Monday night, when he held the Cubs to one run on five hits and only two walks while pitching into the seventh inning for the first time in his career. His 12 strikeouts were one shy of the franchise record for a left-hander.

Ashby got assists from outfielder Tyrone Taylor, who made a highlight-reel catch against the wall down the right field line to end the sixth inning, and reliever Brad Boxberger, who wiggled out of Ashby’s bases-loaded, no-out jam in the seventh, then returned for the eighth. Hader closed things out in the ninth for the second time in about six hours.

“Some guys did some special things, without a doubt, but it was a great team day,” Counsell said. “Going into it, you know it’s going to be a tough day but it is satisfying to come out with two wins.”