Like many kids, Steve Ascher was an avid collector of baseball cards. “I was a big-time collector,” he said, estimating he had about five boxes full of them.
Now there is no question which one is his favorite. Not a Willie Mays. Not a Hank Aaron. Not a Tom Seaver.
No, his choice would undoubtedly be more personal: a Steve Ascher.
That’s right. Earlier this summer Ascher enjoyed the thrill of seeing his first baseball card, which shows him pitching for the Princeton (W.Va.) Rays in a rookie league game. His left arm cocked, with a determined look on his face, Ascher is pictured on the card about to deliver a pitch. When he first saw the card, he must have stared at it for a while, taking it all in.
“It was awesome,” he recalled. “You never expect that to happen.”
The card is framed in Ascher’s Cutchogue home, which he is expected to return to soon, having completed his first season as a professional baseball player. Ascher, 20, a product of Mattituck High School and SUNY/Oneonta, was drafted in the 17th round by the Tampa Bay Rays and assigned to the Princeton team in the Appalachian League.
The 6-foot, 185-pound Ascher did well for himself as a reliever for the Rays, helping them reach the playoffs for the first time since 1998. He recorded the save that clinched first place for the Rays in their win over the Burlington (N.C.) Royals in the next-to-last-game of the regular season. The Rays went 40-28. It was the first time they had won 40 games in a season since 1994.
The Rays were swept in two games in their Eastern Division series against the Danville (Va.) Braves, 4-3 and 8-5, on Sunday and Monday. Ascher did not pitch in the first game, but worked an inning in the second one. He allowed two hits, a run, no walks and had a strikeout.
Ascher seems to have adapted well to his new baseball life. After undergoing physicals and taking part in an extended spring training, he joined the Princeton Rays for the start of their season in early June.
“I love it,” he said during a phone interview from the hotel in Princeton where the Rays players live. He described playing minor league baseball as “kind of like college without the schoolwork.”
Of course, the competition is different. It’s a step above.
“There’s no weakness in the lineups,” Ascher said, equating it as a pitcher to facing a lineup full of No. 3 hitters all the way through.
Still, he said, as with any level, it’s important for a pitcher to execute his pitches.
Ascher, who throws a fastball between 89 and 92 miles per hour, knows he cannot get away with just throwing fastballs any more. The hitters are too good.
“I never had a changeup; that’s really my go-to pitch now,” he said. He said he also switched his grip and improved his changeup. “It’s like a split changeup,” he said.
The results were good for Ascher this summer. During the regular season, he went 2-1 with a 2.35 earned run average and 3 saves. Over 23 innings, he allowed 21 hits and 5 walks, with 24 strikeouts. Batters hit .241 against him.
“I think I’m doing better than I expected my first season,” he said.
What has been most difficult about adjusting to a new level of ball?
“Whew!” he answered. “Just throwing every day. Being at the field, eight, nine hours a day. That’s just a grind.”
Ascher said the daily routine includes things like stretching, throwing, conditioning and fielding ground balls. It’s like a baseball school, he said. “I think it’s really developed me, definitely as a player.”
Now that the season is over, Ascher said, he will fly home and take a couple of months off from throwing, as the team recommends. He will follow pitching and workout programs. Ascher expects the club to call him in January to let him know if he is invited to spring training in Port Charlotte, Fla.
The most valuable thing Ascher said he has learned as a pitcher is the importance of having a short memory and not allowing disappointments to linger. He said, “If you have a terrible outing, you have to move on to the next outing.”