Baseball: Ascher says pitching arm ‘never felt better’

Steve Ascher said his pitching arm "never felt better" before heading to Florida for spring training in the Tampa Bay Rays system. (Credit: Garret Meade)
Steve Ascher said his pitching arm “never felt better” before heading to Florida this week for spring training in the Tampa Bay Rays system. (Credit: Garret Meade)

It wasn’t what Steve Ascher said so much as the way he said it that made an impression. Asked how his pitching arm felt, his reply bursted with confidence and enthusiasm.

“Awesome!” he said. “It’s never felt better. I’m really excited.”

The explanation may lie in the rest. Following his first professional season last year in the Tampa Bay Rays’ system, Ascher, 21, did something he said he had never done before: He gave his arm an extended rest in the off-season, as recommended by the Rays.

Ascher said he started throwing three days a week in January, as proscribed by the Rays, and began bullpen sessions in the beginning of February. He followed a schedule of pitching on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, and sounded delighted by the results.

“I’m excited to really get it going,” he told The Suffolk Times on Friday. “Going into the spring, I never really felt this good.”

Ascher packed up and left his Cutchogue home Sunday to drive to Port Charlotte, Fla., for spring training. The reporting date for pitchers and catchers is Friday. Ascher expects to undergo a physical on Saturday morning. Position players don’t report until March 10. Full-squad practices will commence later next week.

Ascher said he hasn’t heard anything about the Rays’ plans for him, but he hopes to be assigned to the club’s Class A team, the Bowling Green Hot Rods (Ken.).

A product of Mattituck High School and SUNY/Oneonta, Ascher was drafted in the 17th round by the Rays and assigned to the Princeton team in the Appalachian League for rookies. The 6-foot, 185-pound left-hander was happy with how he did. He went 2-1 during the regular season, with a 2.35 earned run average and 3 saves. Over 23 innings, he registered 24 strikeouts, allowing 21 hits and 5 walks. Batters hit .241 against him.

“I couldn’t be more excited about it,” he said. “I tried to look at it as just baseball, but it was really good to go in there and throw as well as I did.”

Ascher learned the value of the off-speed pitch. He throws changeups and curveballs in addition to fastballs.

The Rays had sent Ascher into the off-season with a booklet that included information on nutrition, throwing and workouts. He said he trained and ran this winter, and has been helped with his stretching by Scott Czujko of North Fork Physical Therapy in Cutchogue. This month he threw 40 to 50 pitches per session in the Mattituck High School gym, with Tuckers catcher Mike Onufrak on the receiving end. He said he also did some work with former major league pitcher Neal Heaton.

The Mattituck High School coach, Steve DeCaro, has been impressed by what he has seen from Ascher.

“He looks great,” DeCaro said. “It’s a pleasure to see a pitcher throw the ball where he wants to all the time. The catcher gives him a target and he hits the target.”

Although Ascher doesn’t yet know at what level he will be playing, he expects to be used as a relief pitcher, something that was alien to him before last season. That is an adjustment for Ascher, who describes himself as a creature of routine.

What quality comes in most handy for a reliever?

“Honestly, patience,” Ascher said. “But you just have to be able to get ready quick and not be nervous, handle pressure well.”

Ascher has come to understand the business side of Major League Baseball. The daily life can be a grind, with not too many days off, but he noted: “It’s fun. You’re playing baseball.”

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