By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — Jackson Brown sang a song called, ‘Running on Empty,’ something Jackson Stephens knew nothing about Saturday afternoon in Great American Ball Park.
Jackson Stephens, a rookie making his major league debut for the Cincinnati Reds, and facing the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs, worked with a full tank all afternoon and won his first MLB start, 5-3.
Not only did he hold the Cubs mostly at bay for five innings, he used his bat for something other than a walking stick, poking a two-run single in the fourth inning that turned a one-run deficit into a one-run lead that the Reds never relinquished.
AS A MATTER OF FACT, his tank was overflowing when he began. The reports said he threw 91 miles an hour, tops. But that’s not what catcher Tucker Barnhart saw.
“Out of the gate, he threw 95, hit 96, and (pitching coach) Mack Jenkins and I were looking at each other after the first inning and saying, ‘Where the heck did that come from?’ He was at 91 in Triple-A, but he was blowing 94, 95 and even 96 today. It was impressive.”
ALLEGEDLY STEPHENS WAS a stand-in, a one-game fill-in starter — face the Cubs and go bak to Class AAA Louisville.
But after winning and holding the Cubs to three runs — all in one inning — and six hits with eight strikeouts, might he have gained a reprieve?
“A tip of the hat for a really great debut for a young guy,” said manager Bryan Price. “There a lot of balls up in the air on this one. What is most important is that he has an outing under his belt that says, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ He faced the world champs and they had Kris Bryant back in the lineup and Ben Zobrist on the bench activated. They looked a lot more like the team that won the World Series.
“He did a really nice job and I’ll leave it at that. I really enjoyed watching him pitch and if he stays in our rotation I’ll continue to enjoy watching him pitch,” Price added.
Said Stephens, “I feel like I belong, but that’s not my decision My thing is to go out there and compete and give my team a chance to win. That’s all you can do. You can’t control that other stuff. Give it your all and embrace the opportunity. That’s all I tried to do.”
STEPHENS GAVE UP TWO hits to open the second — two on, no outs. But he struck out Javier Baez. Then, with two strikes, Addison Russell ran on a pitch. Stephens struck out Albert Almora Jr. and catcher Tucker Barnhart threw out Russell to end the inning on a strike-‘em out-throw-‘em-out play.
Jon Jay led the third with a home run. Stephens walked Anthony Rizzo with one out and Willson Contreras homered for a 3-0 Cubs lead.
Stephens, though, didn’t blink and retired six of the seven he faced in his final two innings, three via strikeouts.
PRICE THOUGHT STEPHENS lost a bit of concentration and confidence after Jay homered, but Stephens insisted it wasn’t the case.
“I thought he got out of sorts a bit after he gave up th home run to Jay,” said Price. “”Then he gave up the two-run shot to Contreras and now it is a three-run ball game. It is what I saw in the aftermath of that three-run inning that made the difference. It said a lot. He threw strikes, which is challenging for young pitchers who sometimes try to overthrow and miss the bats. He didn’t. He challenged in the zone. He threw two more very strong competitive innings in innings four and five.”
That’s not the way Stephens saw it, though.
“No, the Jay home run didn’t bother me,” he said. “I didn’t locate that pitch very well and he got it. It really didn’t bother me. I just tried to pound the zone and that’s all you can do after a home run.”
OF THE OVERALL EXPERIENCE, Stephens said he had the normal flutters in his stomach, but nothing he couldn’t handle. And he added, “This was unbelievable, a childhood dream. It was go out to compete and have fun.”
The Reds staged their comeback against Cubs starter Eddie Butler with a four-run fourth that culminated in the two-run single up the middle by Stephens that turned a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead.
Adam Duvall’s run-scoring double and a bases loaded walk on a great at bat by Barnhart made it 3-2 and gave Stephens his opportunity.
“Brian told me, ‘If that first pitch is there, swing at it,’” said Stephens. “I was like, ‘All right,’ and he put it right there and I got just got enough of it to get it by the shortstop.”
PRICE SAID HE DIDN’T consider pinch-hitting for Stephens with two outs, the Reds down a run, with the bases loaded.
“In theory, baseball people are going to have their opinions of whether that was the right move or the wrong move, even though he got the hit,” said Price. “But the people who know best — the manager and coaches — know we’re down to a seven-man bullpen and it’s only the fourth inning.
“And we’re trying to see players, trying to see how this kid handles if after throwing 80 pitches in four innings,” Price added. “He really needed to go back out on the mound. We felt there was enough time left in the game to continue to add on runs.”
And they did. They added two more.
“The premium was really on Stephens going back out and pitching the fifth,” said Price. “That outweighed pinch-hitting with two outs.”
And so after a long losing stretch, the Reds have won four of their last five against the NL Central’s two best teams — two of three from the Milwaukee Brewers and two straight from the Cubs.