Stephenson better, but still a work in progress

By HAL McCOY

CINCINNATI — The re-invention or re-tooling of Cincinnati Reds pitcher Robert Stephenson still needs some tweaking and tinkering.

Stephenson, the team’s No. 1 draft pick in 2011, was summoned from Class AAA Louisville Saturday to make his first major league start of the season.

Stephenson made the Opening Day roster and pitch out of the bullpen, making 14 appearances, before he was dispatched to Louisville May 30 for an overhaul.

THE GRAND PLAN IS FOR the 23-year-old right hander to be part of the future rotation, but his start Saturday didn’t leave an indelible and positive impression.

He was better than is previous appearances for the Reds, did some positive things, but he knows there is more digging and scratching for improvement that needs to be done.

He pitched 5 1/3 innings and gave up five runs and eights hits to the Miami Marlins, with a pair of two-run home runs by J.T. Realmuto to push the Marlins to a 5-4 victory.

“Stephenson did look better,” said manager Bryan Price. “Realmuto was the guy who gave him trouble (two homers, a double, four RBI). Robert did make some big pitches to the rest of the lineup.

“It was certainly better — more in the zone, more ahead in the count, nice mixture of fastball and off-speed,” said Price. “It was a better showing than before and certainly. . .that’s about all I have to say.”

For those counting, the Reds have now lost eight of their last nine games since returning from the All-Star break and have buried themselves in the solid cement of last place in the National League Central.

“There were positives and negatives,” Stephenson said of his work night. “It was really hot out there and by the sixth inning I felt like I was getting real tired. I didn’t feel like myself.”

STEPHENSON GAVE UP A leadoff single to Dee Gordon and failed to hold him on so he stole second and third. He scored on Giancarlo Stanton’s ground ball to second.

The Reds took a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the first against wild left hander Chris O’Grady. Billy Hamilton beat an infield hit then O’Grady walked three in a row to force in a run. But with the bases loaded and no outs, the Reds scored only one more run and that came while Eugenio Suarez was bouncing into a double play.

THEN THE MARLINS GOT real with Realmuto. Justin Bour singled to open the second and Realmuto homered. Then came Instant Replay. Bour singled to open the sixth and Realmuto homered again.

After Realmuto’s first home run, Cincinnati’s Patrick Kivlehan homered for the Reds in the fifth, tying the game, 3-3, but Realmuto untied it in the sixth.

Both Realmuto home runs came on fastballs up in the zone, pitches that screamed, “Hit me, hit me.”

Said Stephenson, “Those middle three innings — the third, fourth and fifth — I felt like I got into a nice groove.” He gave up no runs and three hits in those innings.

“The first, second and sixth innings — the long balls — killed me,” he said. “I thought I had Realmuto with a third strike the first time, but I didn’t get it and the next pitch. . .” The next pitch was bye-bye baseball.

“There are points where I can improve from tonight,” he said. “I left a lot of balls up in the zone and I’m going to work on getting down in the zone. And a couple of times I got behind on guys and that really hurt me.”

THE REDS SCORED A RUN in the eighth on Scooter Gennett’s single to draw within one run. And the Reds had runners on third and first with no outs.

And, as so often happens lately, they didn’t score. Devin Mesoraco struck out and Kivlehan lined hard to first baseman Justin Bour and he stepped on first base for an inning-ending double play.

The Reds made one last desperation threat when Zack Cozart walked with two outs in the ninth and represented the potential tying run. But Joey Votto struck out on three pitches and is 4 for 29 since the All-Star break.

“They made some plays on us,” said Price. “We had some opportunities to do some things but didn’t have productive at bats. They really defended. We had those early opportunities against O’Grady and just didn’t cash in.”

THE REDS WERE VAGUELY familiar with Miami starter Chris O’Grady. He played college baseball at George Mason and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim selected him in the 10th round of the 2012 draft.

The the Reds obtained him for about five seconds. They selected him in the 2015 Rule 5 draft. When he did not make the roster out of spring training the Reds have to offer him back to the Angels and they took him.

He signed a minor league deal with the Miami Marlins on May 4 of this season. The Marlins promoted him to the major leagues on July 8 and there he was on the Great American Ball Park mound Saturday night, walking the world, but the Reds not able to take full advantage.

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