Before each pitch, Robert Stephenson takes a deep breath, shrugs his shoulders and lets loose. No sign of smoke, no laser beams and no sound effects.
Still, the Cincinnati Reds’ top pitching prospect looked the part Friday at Sam Lynn Ballpark in his debut for the Bakersfield Blaze, touching 99 mph with his fastball and striking out five in a six-inning quality start against the Visalia Rawhide, who won 8-4.
“Physically, I felt good, but I wasn’t too pleased with the result,” said Stephenson, a 20-year-old right-hander the Reds took in the first round of the 2011 MLB Draft. “I just couldn’t get the ball down. My breaking ball, my fastball, it just wouldn’t stay down.”
The result was a mixed bag. At times, Stephenson flashed the kind of pure talent — a fastball clocked Friday between 94 and 99 mph and a hard-biting curveball — that made him the No. 2 prospect in the Reds organization, behind only former Blaze star Billy Hamilton. Some media members who follow the organization have written that Stephenson should be even higher.
“He’s got an electric arm, electric stuff,” Blaze pitching coach Rigo Beltran said. “He’s one of the guys you wait for.”
At other times, Visalia batters squared up hanging curveballs and fastballs that caught too much of the strike zone. The Rawhide dinged Stephenson for three extra-base hits that led to runs in the third and fourth innings, though the Blaze’s outfield defense didn’t do him any favors, either. Center fielder Juan Silva misplayed a line drive into a double in the third inning, leading to a run, and a triple in the fourth rolled past a late-diving Kyle Waldrop in left field.
Stephenson pitched six innings, allowing seven hits and two earned runs. He threw 81 pitches, struck out five and didn’t walk a batter in his high Class A debut.
“…The biggest difference at this level, in my eyes, is that the batters have better eyes,” Stephenson said. “They lay off the close pitches and battle a little bit more, foul off more pitches.”
For Stephenson, a Martinez native whom the Reds drafted out of Alhambra High School, this was a homecoming of sorts, too. He wore socks that mimicked the California state flag, and a group of family and friends gathered at Sam Lynn. Stephenson, who had back-to-back no-hitters as a senior at Alhambra, said even more likely will make the trip from the Bay Area to his next start in Modesto.
But other than that, Stephenson tried to treat his promotion as business as usual.
“It’s nice that they’re here, but it doesn’t change my approach here,” Stephenson said.
He also took a line drive off his right shin in the second inning, which brought oohs from the crowd and the Blaze trainer quickly from the dugout. Stephenson said he was fine, though, and stayed in the game.
“It actually got me a bit harder than I thought, but I was fine,” said Stephenson, who had the leg wrapped with ice after he came out. “It tightened up on me a bit when I was done.”
That had to be a relief for Reds brass, who already watched Stephenson sit out about a month at low Class A Dayton with a hamstring injury.
“We actually thought we’d see him quicker this year,” said Beltran, who watched Stephenson throw at Reds spring training in Goodyear, Ariz. “But he had the injury, and so he needed a little more time to figure out what he needed to figure out.”
As a team, the Blaze apparently needs more time. Despite Stephenson’s quality start and a two-run home run from shortstop Juan Perez, the loss Friday was Bakersfield’s sixth in a row and was brought on by the familiar combination of anemic offense, questionable defense and a leaky bullpen. The Blaze, which has not even had a lead during the losing streak, is 8-21 in the California League’s second half and 37-62 overall.
But Stephenson is here, and a year after Hamilton moved on to Class AA Pensacola, the Blaze again has one of baseball’s best prospects. And that alone is a reason to watch.
“He has so much potential,” Beltran said. “If he has his good command one night, we might be in for a nice game. If everything is there, this is the kind of guy where you could see a no-hitter. “He’s one of those guys you know is going to be in the big leagues. It’s just a matter of when.”