By Hal McCoy
‘Before this little gift was come
The little owner had made haste for home’
The quote above was, indeed, authored by Robert Stephenson — by Robert Stephenson the poet, not Robert Stephenson the Cincinnati Reds baseball pitcher.
But Stephenson the baseball pitcher did receive a gift this week after he was sent away from home plate in Great American Ball Park. Stephenson was optioned back to Class AAA Louisville last week, the after shock of a miserable spring training performance against Milwaukee.
THE REDS, THOUGH, needed a starting pitcher for Thursday’s Game 3 against the Philadelphia Phillies because they Reds have a complete starting rotation sitting on the disabled list — Homer Bailey, Michael Lorenzen, Anthony DeSclafani, John Moscot, John Lamb.
So Stephenson was presented a gift, a start Thursday, a one-start cameo appearance to see if he can make amends for his last spring training start and leave a lasting impression for when the Reds need a starter again.
“This is probably a one-start situation for Robert and he knows that,” said manager Bryan Price. “It is a great opportunity for him to get his feet wet in this environment. He is on the (40-man) roster, so we didn’t have to create a roster spot for him.”
OF REAL IMPORT, though, is that Stephenson was a No. 1 draft pick in 2011 and the Reds are pushing him to succeed as he ha slogged through every stage of minor-league ball — Rookie League, Low-A, High-H, Double-A and 11 games in Triple-A last season.
Price has had vast experience grooming, prepping and getting pitchers ready for their major league debut as starters. He did it eight times last year to varying stages of success.
“It is something I’ve been doing for however many years I’ve been doing this (as a manager and pitching coach),” said Price. “So much of it rests in the hands of the relationships between the pitchers and the catcher. There is no way to get over the anxieties. Even veteran pitchers have pre-game anxiety. There is certainly more anxiety involved in a young pitcher making his debut.
Price smiled as he leaned back in his leather swivel chair behind his desk in his Great American Ballpark office before Opening Day.
“I don’t know if there is anything I’ve learned greatly about pitchers making their debuts over the years to make it any easier,” he said. “If that was the case the results probably would have been a little bit better last year.
“What we want is for the pitcher to pitch the game that he is comfortable throwing,” said Price. “Don’t spend time attacking a hitter’s weakness or trying to make pitches he is not used to throwing. He needs to throw a familiar game plan that he is used to executing. As far as nerves, it emanates from the staff and the catcher and us telling him, ‘Just go out there and be yourself and have some fun. Just attack the zone because you have eight guys out there trying to help you. Work fast and throw strikes so the defense stays on its toes.’”
IN ESSENCE, DONT’T try to strike out every hitter. Throw quality strikes and make the opposition put the ball in play — as long as he doesn’t hit it too far.”
Can Stephenson do that? For a long time he was a two-pitch pony, a fastball and a curveball. He has worked diligently to perfect a spread-fingered change-up to become a three-pitch horse.
“All three of his pitches are above average major league pitches,” said Price. “His challenges are how he commands the zone, how he puts them inside and outside the zone. He has a put away strikeout split-finger, a really good fastball, a really good curveball. He has to harness the emotions and be more exact than he was against Milwaukee.
“The addition of his changeup, a spread-fingered fastball that gives it speed differential, is a difference-maker for him, if he keeps it down in the strike zone for some swings and misses. Finally he made an adjustment on the spread-finger that gave him a third pitch to make him a quality starter.”
Stephenson, after much trial, error, success and failure, is now confident with the third pitch.
“Overall, I’ve worked hard on it and I’m very happy with it,” he said as he dressed for all the pomp and circumstance of Opening Day. “I’ve worked very hard on it and it has come a long way since I was drafted. When I threw it a couple of years ago I had a tough time repeating it and throwing it for strikes. Now I’m very happy with its consistency.
“I’m very excited to be here,” he said. “I haven’t had a chance to walk around the streets and see what is happening and I know they make a big deal out of it. I’m extremely excited. I called my family and girl friend and told them they had to get on a flight from California and get here. When I was sent out, Price called me in and said to be prepared in case something happened and nothing was set in stone. There was a chance I would come up, so I was excited and on alert.”
AND WHAT KIND of mindset does it give Stephenson to know that after wearing a Cincinnati uniform Thursday he’ll back back wearing the purple of the Louisville Bats?
“We want these guys to be motivated to come up here and perform and force our hand to keep them,” said Price. “We like to create that soft space to fall. You know, you are young and it is all right to come up here and fail. No, we expect our guys to succeed, to instill in them that this is an opportunity. This is what they all dreamed of, what we all dreamed of, to come to the big leagues and pitch. Now go seize the opportunity. We want them to be comfortable, but we want them to take their natural aggressiveness out there. Do something instead of making whatever happens is OK.”
THAT’S THE MESSAGE the 23-year-old right-hander takes with him to that bump in the middle of the field where the pitchers stands tallest and is the boss — until he lets go of the pitch.
In 2007 Price was pitching coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks, sitting in the dugout when Johnny Cueto made his debut for the Reds.
“He didn’t want to leave the rotation, did he? And he didn’t,” said Price. “He gave up a solo home run to Justin Upton and that was it. Ten punch outs (strikeouts) in seven innings. That would leave an impression.
Now Stephenson gets a chance to be impressionistic and a Cueto-like outing would certainly do it.