Former Madison Cub pitcher Ryan Thurston (in red) long-tosses with Southwestern sophomore Zach Cole during a workout at Southwestern High School on Monday. Thurston is planning to begin his second season with the Gary Southshore RailCats of the independent American Association this summer but the start of the season is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Staff Photo by David Campbell)
Former Madison Cub pitcher Ryan Thurston (in red) long-tosses with Southwestern sophomore Zach Cole during a workout at Southwestern High School on Monday. Thurston is planning to begin his second season with the Gary Southshore RailCats of the independent American Association this summer but the start of the season is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Staff Photo by David Campbell)
As he has done every April for the past 20 years, Ryan Thurston spent Monday afternoon throwing a baseball around. But rather than throwing off a mound getting ready for a game, it was some long-tossing on a soccer field just trying to stay in shape.

Such is life for the former Madison Consolidated High School star, who is expected to begin his third season of Minor League Baseball this summer. But like hundreds of others, he has no idea when that summer will officially begin.

“It’s been hard. You’re just not sure what’s going on,” Thurston said. “I’m just trying to stay in shape and trying to be ready whenever the time comes.”

After wrapping up a successful prep career at Madison in 2013, Thurston headed to Western Kentucky University where he quickly became one of the Hilltoppers’ top arms. He went undrafted after graduating from WKU but signed with the Toronto Blue Jays organization in 2018 and spent the summer with Dunedin of the Florida State League and Bluefield of the Rookie Appalachian League.

In a combined 13 games — four starts and eight relief appearances at Dunedin and a relief appearance at Bluefield — the left-handed Thurston was 1-2 with a 0.87 ERA in 31.0 innings pitched. He struck out 37 and walked eight with a .140 average against and 0.74 WHIP.

Despite those impressive numbers, Toronto released Thurston in the offseason but he signed with the Chicago Dogs of the Independent American Association. He pitched in two games for Chicago before jumping to the Gary SouthShore RailCats of the same league where he spent the rest of the season.

In 36 appearances for Chicago and Gary — all in relief — Thurston posted a 4-1 record with a 2.59 ERA and four saves. He struck out 49 batters and walked 28 in 55.2 innings.

“I was happy with the way the season went,” Thurston said. “I felt very comfortable and liked the way I was throwing.”

Thurston had already re-signed with Gary and was looking forward to the season when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all sports across the country. Although not affiliated with Major League Baseball, the American Association appears to be taking its cues from the bigger league.

“We usually report in the first week of May and the first games were set for the 19th. Now, we have no idea when things will begin,” Thurston said. “I’ll be ready whenever that is. Of course we’ll still need about two or three weeks to get ready. We can’t walk right into games. But hopefully by June we can get back out there.”

For now, staying in shape is Thurston’s biggest priority. He said he’s been doing his normal exercises throughout the spring while trying to get some throwing in here and there. But his usual routine has been thrown out the window.

“Usually I go to a gym and I have certain workouts I use but all of those are closed. I had been going to the school and throwing but it’s closed,” Thurston said. “Right now it’s usually me and my dad throwing the ball around in the street and whatever else I can find. It gets the job done.”

On Monday, Thurston and his father Dan, a former head baseball coach at Madison, met with Southwestern sophomore Zach Cole on the soccer field at Southwestern High School. There were no worries about social distancing; Thurston and Cole spent the 25-minute workout long-tossing the ball, starting at around 40 feet and eventually throwing from well over 100 feet.

“You just do what you can do,” Thurston said. “Whatever gets the job done.”

Like any player in the independent leagues, Thurston still has a desire to return to the affiliated leagues with the hopes of eventually reaching the majors. He had hoped to use this summer to showcase his skills, but now must wait to even get on a mound.

“Obviously every one of us out there wants to get into the affiliated leagues. That’s the ultimate goal,” Thurston said. “I’m not sure what to expect this year but I’ll see what happens.”