Austin Ross faced a difficult stretch in which it at least crossed his mind to explore his other option.
Ross, who pitched on LSU’s College World Series championship team in 2009 and was drafted in the eighth round by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2010, also was on the All-SEC Academic team three consecutive years, majoring in petroleum engineering.
And here he was in the lower levels of minor league baseball trying to bounce back from an injury and a setback.
“There were some testing times, especially being in your mid-20s,” said Ross, a 26-year-old relief pitcher with the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, who are wrapping up their series Sunday against the New Orleans Zephyrs at Zephyr Field. “All your friends who aren’t playing baseball are starting their lives and getting jobs and starting careers.
“Your friends you played baseball with are progressing through the system and getting to the big leagues, and you’re kind of sitting there spinning your wheels trying to come back from this injury. And there’s that unknown: ‘Am I going to be the same?’ ”
Ross appeared primed for a big season in 2012 with Brevard County, the Brewers’ Advanced Single-A team in the Florida State League. He’d been impressive in spring training. But in his third start of the regular season, he felt “a twinge” that so many pitchers have experienced, particularly in recent years.
It wasn’t the Tommy John surgery and the resulting rehab process that became frustrating to Ross. He’d talked to pitchers such as Rob Wooten, who’d had the surgery the year before and was in the Brewers’ system. They assured him he could come back even better.
“I came back in 2013 and thought I’d be ready in April or May,” he said, “but in spring training, I had a nerve issue. It set me back two months.”
After recovering, Ross had to go all the way back to Rookie League baseball to start over. He finished the season in Low A.
Ross has been making up for lost time since then. The 2014 season was huge. It was Ross’ first time healthy since 2011, he said. He began in Advanced A as a reliever, then became a starter, and at the end of July was sent to Double-A Huntsville.
“I threw the ball pretty well,” he said.
He went back to Double-A, the team now in Biloxi, to start this season, but as a reliever.
“I’ve been a starter most of my career, but right now, that’s where they see,” he said. “As long as you’re pitching, you get a chance to go to the big leagues. And that’s what they told me is my profile to do that.”
He was promoted to Triple-A on July 3, and in six appearances with Colorado Springs he has allowed two earned runs in 7.2 innings, striking out six and walking one.
“He’s really pitched well for us,” Sky Sox manager Rick Sweet said. “He’s come up and been aggressive, throwing strikes. He’s got good stuff. He was pitching really well in Double-A, and he hasn’t missed a beat.
Colorado Springs’ Fred Dabney, who was Ross’ pitching coach with Brevard County when he returned at the start of the 2014 season, said Ross has become what the Brewers thought he’d be in the way of development.
“For one, the fastball velocity is better, and just the life on his secondary pitches is better,” Dabney said. “His slider is really more consistent than it was at the lower levels, and obviously, the feel for the changeup.”
Like a meticulous engineer, Ross said he used the rehab period and journey back up to improve his mechanics. Time has allowed him to fine-tune them.
“I took the opportunity of all that down time to change a few things mechanically that I knew I had trouble with and would make me better down the road,” he said. “You take off 15 months, you don’t have that much muscle memory, so it’s easy to create a new pattern.
“I think I did a good job with that, on all of my pitches. And I also think I’ve grown up a lot, pitchingwise in just talking to other guys and pitching to better hitters. I know how to approach hitters better, and I know what I’m good at, I know myself as a pitcher.”
Sweet said Ross has a lot of attributes. He’s an aggressive power pitcher with a tremendous mound presence who knows no fear. He showed a glimpse of that in the series opener against the Zephyrs.
Entering in the sixth inning, he allowed two one-out singles before getting Brandon Bantz to hit into an inning-ending double play. He then pitched a scoreless seventh, allowing only a two-out walk.
“The only time somebody is not in the big leagues, it’s the consistency of their games,” Sweet said. “(Ross) is still not as consistent as he needs to be, but he’s getting better and better, and it won’t be long to where he’s going to get an opportunity to get there.”