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Better Late Than Never After years of frustrating underachievement, Padres righthander Andy Ashby has joined the ranks of the National League's pitching elite

June 22, 1998
June 22, 1998

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June 22, 1998

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Better Late Than Never After years of frustrating underachievement, Padres righthander Andy Ashby has joined the ranks of the National League's pitching elite

His name doesn't resonate like Greg Maddux's, even though he and
Maddux are two of the four pitchers who shared the National
League lead in victories entering this week. And now that he's
30, the phenom tag has long since fallen away, forgotten among
stints on the DL and trips through the minors. When it came to
righthander Andy Ashby's career, people always seemed to be
checking their watches, as if he were constantly running late.

This is an article from the June 22, 1998 issue

It has been seven years since his major league career began, in a
season that included a scintillating sequence in which he struck
out the side on nine pitches. Nothing but smoke. It has been
five years since he came to the San Diego Padres as the player
to be named later in a five-man trade with the Colorado Rockies,
who, like the Philadelphia Phillies before them, had given up on
Ashby after pitching him in fewer than 25 games.

As a starter for the Padres from 1994 through '97, Ashby had a
very respectable 3.44 ERA in 109 starts, with nearly three times
as many strikeouts as walks. But victories? His 12-10 record in
'95 equaled the most wins he has had in any of his 12 years as a
pro and was one of only four times he had had more wins than
losses in a season.

"At the beginning of the year Andy told me, 'I am so sick of
losing,'" says Padres first-year pitching coach Dave Stewart,
who was a four-time 20-game winner for the Oakland A's. And now?
This is shaping up as the dream season that Ashby has never had:
nine wins by mid-June and an ERA that's threatening to dive
under 2.00. There was another happy ending for the 6'5"
190-pound Ashby on Sunday, which was one of those perfect
afternoons for baseball when the stadium is loud and full and
the game just crackles along, the innings turning over at
breakneck speed, and the opponent is one of the hottest teams
going.

The San Francisco Giants, winners of 11 of their last 12 when
they arrived in San Diego last Friday, began the three-game
series tied with the Padres for first in the National League
West. "San Diego opened the season playing about as well as you
can play," San Francisco catcher Brian Johnson said, referring
to the Padres' 12-3 start. "Lo and behold, we're still here."
The Giants' hope was to keep breathing down the Padres' necks
like a hot draft from hell. But by game's end on Sunday, Ashby
had the near-capacity crowd of 40,151 at Qualcomm Stadium
chanting, "Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!"

"What I'm trying to do now is not get too excited," Ashby said,
after exiting to a standing ovation with one out in the eighth
and San Diego leading 3-1. He gave up only five hits and got the
win when closer Trevor Hoffman chalked up his 20th save. Ashby,
standing at his locker with ice bags taped to his right elbow
and surgically repaired right shoulder, already had matched his
win total for all of last year, when he was 9-11, yet he
responded to most questions about these good times by
reflexively returning to the hard times: the shoulder injury
that exiled him to the disabled list three times in 1996; the
0-4 start in '93 with Colorado, which then unloaded him to San
Diego just nine months after having taken him in the expansion
draft; the broken right thumb that contributed to Philadelphia's
decision not to protect him in that November '92 draft; the
nights when he was struggling in the minors and doubted that
he'd ever make the big leagues, that he'd ever fulfill the dream
that "was all I ever talked about since I was eight," he says.

"Early in my career, especially, I would always hear, 'You're a
guy that's got great stuff, great stuff,'" Ashby said, "but it
got to the point, by the time Colorado sent me down in 1993, I
felt, What in the world is going on? It seemed I was always
pitching out of some jam, always one or two balls behind in the
count, always just trying to keep the game close--and by the
fifth inning I'd be out of there anyway. It was never the same
thing. Early in my career I was wild. Sometimes I'd pitch too
defensively. There were times I'd go, 'Oh, golly. Two guys on
base? I don't want to walk anybody else.' The second you think
something negative like that, it's going to happen. I was afraid
to let guys hit the ball."

It showed. When Tony Gwynn, the Padres' hitting star, would bat
against Ashby, he says, "you could tell he didn't believe in his
stuff. When the stuff hit the fan, you knew he was coming with
the heat. You could tell just by looking at him."

Ashby concedes that there were a lot of times when "I would just
throw--not pitch with a purpose. Just throw. I think it was a
maturity thing. I remember being up with Philadelphia and
talking on the bench the whole game, until [two-time National
League MVP] Dale Murphy finally turned to me and said, 'Ash.
Watch the game, watch the game. That's how you learn.' He was
right. I had to start listening to the guys I should've been
listening to."

One of those guys is Stewart, whom Ashby now seeks out almost
daily. One of Stewart's first goals as pitching coach was to get
all the Padres starters thinking like pit bulls. He told them to
be selfish about pitching a lot of innings and wanting wins. He
insisted they pick up the pace on the mound, move the ball
around more, pitch inside--all to great effect. The Padres' 1997
ERA of 4.99 was the highest in team history; through Sunday,
Stew's Crew was fifth in the majors at 3.54.

Ashby already had a cut fastball, a curveball and a change, so
Stewart helped him add a forkball. "Something to give him a
pitch with movement, because previously Andy just threw
everything hard, hard, hard," Stewart says. "Before he just
looked nice out there. Now he's busting guys inside, moving the
ball outside and back in. That forkball's becoming an out pitch."

For seven-plus innings on Sunday, the Giants couldn't do much
with any of Ashby's pitches. When the game was over, the Padres
and the Giants agreed that even if it was only June, the three
games had had all the electricity of a pennant-deciding series.
The total attendance of 155,330 was a San Diego record for a
three-game set. The Padres' sweep was accomplished despite
Gwynn's making only one plate appearance--he was bothered by a
strained left calf--and ace Kevin Brown's not getting a chance
to pitch.

Gwynn was so anxious to beat San Francisco that he persuaded
manager Bruce Bochy to let him pinch-hit in last Friday's
opener, even though he wasn't supposed to appear in a game until
early this week. Gwynn gave the crowd a thrill by launching an
RBI sacrifice fly that just missed being a grand slam. Brown,
who was 6-3 at week's end and owned a 5-0 career mark against
the Giants, against whom he threw a no-hitter last year, should
get his turn this weekend when the two teams hook up again for
four games in San Francisco.

As good as Brown is, Ashby is having the better year. It may get
even better, as Bochy hinted on Sunday when he said, "Andy
actually said he didn't even have his best stuff today." Maybe
Greg Maddux's fifth Cy Young Award is no sure thing after all.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK [Andy Ashby]