DAYTON, OHIO – Thursday night was one of those nights Jose Nieves really loved being at the ballpark. Not that the manager of the Dayton Dragons has many times he wouldn’t want to be there but Thursday night was a little bit more enjoyable.
That’s the feeling everyone associated with the Dragons has had recently when Robert Stephenson is on the mound.
Stephenson, the Reds’ No. 1 draft pick in 2011, allowed just one infield dribbling hit and struck out nine in 6 2/3 innings as the Dragons beat the Midwest League East-leading South Bend Silver Hawks 9-0 Thursday at Fifth Third Field. Stephenson didn’t allow the Silver Hawks, who came into the game leading the Midwest League in hitting, their first base runner until there were two outs in the sixth inning. He displayed an overpowering fastball, which at times can reach 100 mph, to go along with a change-up and curveball that left South Bend hitters flailing fruitlessly.
He picked a good time for the performance as Reds general manager Walt Jocketty was in attendance.
“You are short on words for a performance like that,” said Nieves. “You don’t always get that type of performance and you love to see that as a spectator and as a manager. You love it. You never know how long he’s going to be remaining at any level and he showed it tonight.”
Stephenson, 20, is just two years removed from high school. He’s got a ways to go before getting called up to the Major Leagues and the Reds are not rushing him. He began the season 0-3 and got hit around. He lasted just 2 2/3 innings against Great Lakes in his second start of the season, giving up eight hits and eight runs while he was out there.
He takes the blame for the poor start. The turn-around has been a process under the tutelage of pitching coach Tony Fossas.
“I would say I was stubborn before, just trying to do things that I was comfortable with but sometimes you have to push yourself out of that comfort zone,” said Stephenson. “When you’ve got a big league pitching coach (Fossas) and a guy who played for so long, he definitely knows something. I work with him every single start, every single bullpen. Last year I worked with him at Billings, too.”
Over his last five starts, covering 31 2/3 innings, Stephenson has an ERA of 1.14 and has struck 42 batters while walking only four. Two of those walks came in the seventh inning Thursday as he tired. Stephenson threw 89 pitches, 59 for strikes. He threw 50 strikes out of the first 72 pitches he had in the first six innings.
The Dragons are the low-Class A level farm club of the Reds. What Stephenson is learning here will carry on to the high-A Bakersfield, Double-A Pensacola, Triple-A Louisville as well as the Reds should he make it that far.
“My number one goal is to continue to teach him professionalism, to teach him how to go about his business on a daily basis whether you pitch good or you have a bad day,” said Fossas, who played 12 seasons in the Major Leagues with seven different teams. “You have to understand that as you get up higher you’re going to be facing better hitters but you’re also a better pitcher. The only difference is the hype. Don’t believe everything that you hear, don’t believe all that kind of stuff, just go out and compete on a daily basis and give it your best. The bottom line is going to be 26 or 27 starts in the minor leagues or 33 starts in the big leagues. That’s what you prepare yourself for.”
The lone hit Stephenson allowed against South Bend was a a squib shot up the first base line off the bat of right fielder Mike Lang. The ball initially hit foul but bounced back into fair territory, forcing Stephenson to field it and make an off-balanced throw to first baseman Seth Mejias-Brean. The throw beat Lang to the bag but was a little high and went off Mejias-Brean’s glove.
“When that kid has all three of his pitches working on the same night it’s pretty much unhittable,” said catcher Joe Hudson.
Hudson three times completed strikeouts with throws to first base. Stephenson’s breaking pitches were constantly down in the zone, purposely hitting the dirt and he kept getting South Bend hitters to chase.
“A curveball in the dirt is an effective pitch. It looks like a fastball out of the hand and breaks out of the zone and the pitchers know I’m going to block it,” said Hudson. “We’ll go over the scouting report, discuss how he feels and see what he’s got more confidence in, whether it’s the change-up or curveball. There are a lot of variables that go into it. Robert and I are good communicators. We talk well together and have good chemistry.”
The Dragons are finishing off May strong, having won 10 of their last 14 games, and are creeping back toward the .500 mark (23-30) after going 8-17 in April. The Reds promoted right-hander Nick Travieso, last year’s No. 1 pick, to Dayton on Friday from their extended spring training camp in Goodyear, Ariz., to give them an added boost.
For as long as Stephenson is going to be around Dayton, he’s enjoying it.
“(The Reds) haven’t talked to me about (promotions) and I guess it’s going to be a spontaneous thing,” Stephenson said. “I know they’re trying to move me slow since I’m young. I’ll just wait and see what happens… It’s the starts that don’t go as well that make you better. It’s been a good learning experience to work back from those first starts.”