Reds prospect Robert Stephenson set the bar pretty high with his first full pro season in 2013. He nudged it a few feet higher with his first outing of 2014.
MLB.com's No. 19 overall prospect recorded a career-high 11 strikeouts, including seven in a row, over five innings of dominant relief Saturday night as Double-A Pensacola posted a rain-shortened 5-0 win over visiting Tennessee.
Drizzle fell throughout the game and the umpires called it before the bottom of the seventh. Rehabbing Reds right-hander Jonathan Broxton started for the Blue Wahoos and gave up a hit in the first before turning things over to Stephenson.
"It was just a nice way to start season -- a lot of fun," the 21-year-old right-hander said.
Stephenson (1-0) struck out as many as nine in a game on six different occasions, most recently for Class A Advanced Bakersfield on Aug. 10. The 11 punchouts tied him with J.C. Sulbaran for the second-highest total in the Blue Wahoos' brief history -- Tony Cingrani whiffed 15 on June 27, 2012.
The Reds top prospect, who was 7-7 with a 2.99 ERA and 136 strikeouts over 114 1/3 innings across three levels last year, had never come out of the bullpen in his 37 previous Minor League appearances. But he was comfortable taking over in the second, consistently threw his fastball in the mid-90s and hit 98 mph more than once.
"I got to work on that in Spring Training a little bit. I was never starting when I was there, so I had that little experience with it," said the 2011 first-round pick. "But it is a little weird. It changes your routine. It is nice to know what inning you're going to come in."
Stephenson also threw to Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco once in the Cactus League. Rehabbing an oblique injury, Mesoraco served as Stephenson's batterymate again on Saturday.
"It was awesome. He called a fantastic game and he's really fun to throw to. It shows why he's a big league catcher," Stephenson said. "It was a good experience to see the way he called the game, and it matched up how I think I would call a game. I hardly shook him off at all."
The strikeout streak began with the last out of the second inning. He admitted he made an effort to not think about the steadily growing number of K's.
"Obviously, I felt like it was going to end some time, but it's not something you're thinking about -- it is in the back of your head," Stephenson addmitted. "But I just wanted to keep making pitches."
Cubs prospect Charles Cutler was the lone member of the Smokies to reach against the California native, whacking a double in the second and walking in the fifth. Stephenson said the walk was not the result of being too careful against a hitter who'd got the better of him earlier.
"I didn't remember who it was in the lineup, so I guess it just happened to be the same guy," he said. "The first time, with the double, it was bad pitch selection and I didn't execute on my changeup. He hit that to the wall. I just missed with my fastball the second time, but I got back on track right after."
Stephenson also contributed a double and scored a run after his final frame on the mound.
"[Wahoos manager Delino DeShields] told me, 'You're going to be done, but go out and hit one more time,'" he said.
"It was the first hit for me in the Minor Leagues. It's nice to have that first hit, so I don't have to worry about that anymore."
Devin Lohman provided a spark at the top of the lineup for Pensacola with a two-run homer, a walk, a stolen base and two runs scored.