By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — Robert Stephenson hears it a lot, people walking up to him and saying, “Recite me one of your poems.”
It is part of life when you have the same name as a famous poet/novelist. Stephenson, though, could easily point out that their last name is spelled differently, his with a ‘ph’ and Robert Louis Stevenson with a ‘v.’
And the Cincinnati Reds pitcher version has a different middle name than Robert Louis Stevenson. His is William.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to resist saying that what the Reds relief pitcher is doing these days is poetry in motion and something novel for him.
It is not a stretch to label Stephenson as the best pitcher out of the Reds’ bullpen right now, not bad for a guy called a failure a couple of years ago and for a guy who was the last pitcher to make the roster this season out of spring training.
So far this season he has appeared in nine games and is 2-and-0 with a 1.50 earned run average over 12 innings. He has given up six hits, struck out 18 and walked only one.
Control long has been a negative issue with the 6-foot-3, 215-pound right hander, a guy who once infamously said after several walks in a game, “Walks are part of my game.”
A No. 1 draft pick in 2011 out of Alhambra (Calif.) High School, where he opened his senior season with back-to-back no-hitters, Stephenson was projected as a starting pitcher. And not just any starting pitcher, but a top of the rotation guy like Washington’s Stephen Strasburg.
It didn’t work out. He didn’t make the majors until late in the 2016 season and he was 2-and-3 with a 6.08 earned run average in eight starts. It was more of the same in 2017 — 5-and-6 with a 4.68 ERA as he divided time between the rotation and the bullpen. It was no better last season — 0-and-2 with a 9.26 ERA in three starts and one bullpen appearance.
What to do with this guy, what to do?
Teams don’t like to give up on No. 1 draft picks, but Stephenson was hanging by the thumb of his baseball glove this spring.
But when the season began, it was as if somebody turned on an LED light in his head. He was so good early in the season that manager David Bell developed a trust and began using him in high-leverage situations.
A perfect example surfaced Tuesday night against the Atlanta Braves. The Reds led, 4-1, entering the sixth. But starter Sonny Gray ran into difficulty and gave up three quick runs. With the tying run on third and one out, Stephenson bolted from the bullpen and squashed matters, striking out both Dansby Swanson, Atlanta’s top RBI guy, and Tyler Flowers.
It appears that a pitcher who once thought his life in the big leagues as a starter has found life-after-near-death in the bullpen. And Stephenson is lovin’ it.
“I love what I’m doing, it is a lot of fun,” he said. “It is so nice to just have them believe in me. It makes it so much easier for me to believe in myself.”
So what has happened for Stephenson to morph from a staggeringly bad starting pitcher to a give-me-the-ball-and-I’ll-get-‘em relief pitcher?
“I’ve changed a lot, mostly my fastball grip, but mostly it is the confidence thing — them having it in me gives me the same confidence.”
Stephenson actually didn’t get much work this spring because they weren’t certain about his health and well-being.
“In the off-season, I had problems with my hip and my shoulder,” he said. “I did rehab on both of those and got both of those healthy. It is just a combination of things that has helped out a lot. My hip problems have been on-and-off the last couple of years and the shoulder was bad at the end of last season.”
And now Stephenson reminds manager David Bell of one of Stevenson’s poems: “A Good Boy.”
Bell wasn’t around when Stephenson was giving up walks, hits and runs in his earlier trials and tribulations. So he can judge only what he sees now and what he sees now is perfection.
What does he see that has transformed the 26-year-old Californian? It’s that same word Stephenson used over-and-over: confidence.
“It’s confidence,” said Bell. “You can see him pitching with confidence. He is comfortable and he knows we believe in him and he now believes in himself. He is pitching with conviction.”
“He is using his slider a lot,” said Bell. “It is a good one, but the only reason it is as effective as it is is because at times this year he has used his fastball with conviction. And it, too, is a good one.
“What is nice is to see that he always has a smile on his face and this is fun to see,” Bell added. “He is helping us a lot and we’re happy to see him enjoying what he is doing.”
What puts the smile on Stephenson’s face is the success he is having in high-pressure situations, like Tuesday night.
“Yeah, he has certainly responded,” said Bell. “On Tuesday he faces only two hitters and gets us two big outs with strikeouts. All this just adds to his confidence, having this under his belt, doing it in situations to help us win games.”
That leads to another Stevenson poem that Stephenson and Bell hopes apply. It is called, ‘Summer Sun.’