By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — Robert Stephenson was, well, absolutely poetic Friday night in Great American Ball Park.
That, though, wasn’t the poet who wrote, ‘Hail, Guest, and Enter Freely’ on the Great American Ball Park mound.
This Robert Stephenson was the rookie Cincinnati Reds pitcher and he certainly wasn’t hailing the Pittsburgh Pirates and permitting them to enter freely.
Stephenson nearly set a major league record by striking out the first six Pirates he faced and moved from there to craft a solid 5 2/3 innings as the Reds posted a 9-5 victory.
Stephenson threw 28 pitches to the first six batters, 22 for strikes. And five of the six strikeouts were swinging strike three’s and one was called.
THE MAJOR LEAGUE RECORD for most strikeouts to start a game is eight, shared by Houston’s Jim Deshaies against the Dodgers in 1984 and New York’s Jacob deGrom against the Marlins in 2014.
“I didn’t know that,” Stephenson said after his team completed the victory. “I was more confident in my stuff today that I have been, especially my fastball. When I feel confident in my fastball is the days I’m going to have a good game.”
Stephenson displayed a confident air on the mound and controlled aggressiveness and those are attributes manager Bryan Price has been looking for from his young pitchers.
“To strike out the first six against that lineup is not easy, but it speaks of getting ahead, having a variety of pitches and attacking the strike zone,” said Price. “The end goal isn’t to try to strike out every hitter, but that compilation of quality pitches leads to that scenario. That’s what we’re looking for in this stretch from our young guys. Let’s have some optimism going into next season that you are learning and getting better at this level so you can be a fixture on our staff next year.”
LAROSA’S GIVES FREE PIZZA to ticket holders on nights Reds pitchers strike out 11 opponents. Stephenson had the fans tasting pepperoni by the sixth inning — his 11th strikeout as David Freese with one out in the sixth. It was Freese’s third strikeout and Stephenson also struck out Cincinnati native Josh Harrison three times.
Stephenson’s night ended, though, in that sixth inning when he loaded the bases with two outs on two singles and a walk. As he walked to the dugout, the appreciative crowd near the Reds dugout gave him a standing ovation.
“I believe I got a standing ovation after my first or second start last year,” he said. “But it is pretty cool. This is fun because we’re a young group and we’re moving forward and we want to keep improving together (Stephenson, Sal Romano, Luis Castillo). Down the road we want to win a championship together. Some of the guys in this clubhouse are very talented and we can definitely put something together.
His line: 5 2/3 innings, two runs, seven hits, four walks, 11 strikeouts. Of his 107 pitches, 71 were strikes, nearly all high quality.
THE PIRATES DID THE REDS a favor by resting outfielder Andrew McCutchen, one of baseball’s biggest Reds slayer. He has reached base in 34 straight games at Great American Ball Park, but manager Clint Hurdle decided Friday night was a night of rest for the Pittsburgh superstar. He did pinch-hit with two outs in the ninth against Raisel Iglesias and struck out, ending the game and his streak.
Actually, though, even with McCutchen in the lineup the Pirates can’t beat the Reds this year. The Reds are 9-and-2 this year against the Pirates, making one wonder why the Pirates are six games ahead of Cincinnati in the National League Central.
THE REDS TOOK A 2-0 lead in the second inning against Pirates starter Ivan Nova on a double by Eugenio Suarez, a triple by Scott Schebler and a sacrifice fly by Tucker Barnhart.
The Pirates managed to slip back into a 2-2 tie by scoring a run in the third on a walk and two singles and a run in the fourth on an infield hit and a double.
An error by Pittsburgh second baseman Josh Harrison open the way for two Cincinnati Reds runs in the fourth. After the error, the Reds ripped three straight singles by Suarez, Schebler and Barnhart for a 4-2 lead.
The lead blossomed to 7-2 in the fifth when the Reds clubbed a pair of home runs, a solo rip by Adam Duvall, his 30tth, and a two-run shot by Schebler, his 25th.
THAT LEFT SCHEBLER WITH A triple, single and home run through five innings, just a double short of the cycle and he had his opportunity in the seventh inning. He was hit by a pitch so Eric Davis is still the last Reds batter to hit for the cycle — June 2, 1989 against the San Diego Padres.
The Pirates made it squirmy in the seventh when Josh Bell hit a three-run home run off Tim Adleman, cutting the Reds’ lead to 7-5.
Pinch-hitter Patrick Kivlehan took care of late business in the bottom of the seventh with a two-out, bases-loaded, two-run double to push the lead back to four runs.
AFTER THE GAME, PRICE announced that scheduled starter homer Bailey will be pushed back a couple of days and his start Sunday will be taken by Tyler Mahle, another rookie making his major league debut. Mahle, a No. 7 pick in the 2013 draft, has had an amazing run this year at Double-A Pensacola and Triple-A Louisville.
“He commands his fastball, throws a lot of strikes, he competes,” Price said of Mahle. “He has a good feel for pitching because he really dominated at the Double-A level and held his own at Triple-A. He didn’t skip a beat going from Double-A to Triple-A.
“Some guys when they advance at that level want to test the waters first, but he went right after the hitters,” Price added. “We don’t know how many starts he’ll get, but this is a chance for him to get his feet wet at the big league level and a chance to see him with our own eyes leading into spring training.”
Price insists that Bailey is OK after leaving his last start with a twinge in his back and said Bailey feels great and doesn’t need to be bumped back (to Tuesday).
“That was my decision to do that,” said Price. “We took him out of his last start for precautionary reasons. We have a day off (Monday) so it is a chance to push him back a little bit. It serves everybody well considering what has happened with him the last few years.”