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.
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.