A lot of pitchers swear they never set out to retire a batter on strikes. Jordan Stephens is not one of those pitchers.
"Every hitter, once I get to 0-1, I'm already thinking, 'Let's set this up and get this guy knocked out,'" he said.
The 11th-ranked White Sox prospect scattered three hits and a pair of walks while striking out a career-high 11 over five scoreless innings Tuesday as Class A Advanced Winston-Salem beat host Salem, 4-1.
The 23-year-old right-hander was coming off a 10-strikeout outing in his last start against Frederick on Aug. 24.
"I kind of figured out in the first inning of my last outing that I was always throwing my hardest when it's 0-2," Stephens said. "Throwing my fastball 0-2, I stay closed [with my front shoulder] a little more. It had never crossed my mind before. I'm just keeping my front shoulder closed a hair longer. ... Once I saw that that worked, I threw every pitch with full force."
"[Last outing,] I threw the hardest I've ever thrown -- I got up to 96 [mph], and I hit that four times. And [against Salem], I threw 97 for the first time in my life, and I hit that two or three times."
Stephens (7-10) lowered his ERA to 3.57, second in the Carolina League to Myrtle Beach's Trevor Clifton (2.72), but he leads the circuit with 147 strikeouts in 136 innings over 26 starts. The Cubs' Clifton, named the circuit's Pitcher of the Year on Aug. 27, is second with 129 whiffs after striking out seven over six scoreless frames Tuesday.
"It's kind of funny, because after last outing, I saw that he was three behind me, and I thought, '[Dang] he could go out there and have a good game and pass me,' and I walked off with 10," Stephens said." I tried to replicate that and I got one more. I'm definitely keeping my eye on that."
So it wasn't a coincidence that the first seven outs the Texas native recorded Tuesday were strikeouts.
"I wanted to go out there in the first inning and build on my lead in case [Clifton] had a freakish game," Stephens said. "I was able to get the three in the first and I repeated that in the next inning, and it kind of felt like I was able to cruise through."
Third-ranked Boston prospect Rafael Devers singled up the middle with two outs in the first inning, but Stephens said that didn't bother him, even when the speedy infielder stole his 17th base of the year.
"Devers had the bloop single, so that was a little traffic," the 2015 fifth-round pick said. "I knew he likes to steal, but I thought, 'I've been striking guys out. Even if he gets to third, he still won't score if they don't hit me.'"
Even after the leadoff batters reached in the next two frames, Stephens stayed locked in.
"I tried to block it out. It was more like, 'Traffic is traffic,'" he said. "There were a couple people on base, but I could still stick to my plan and just keep pitching."
In the fifth, Stephens struck out the first two, but surrendered a walk to Jose Sermo and a single to Deiner Lopez. Then he fanned Joseph Monge on five pitches.
"With [runners on] first and second, [the threat] was a little more real," Stephens said. "I knew they were watching my pitch count. I knew this was probably going to be my last inning, so I'd hate to ruin it with a ball in the gap and see them score one or two."
The Rice University product threw 56 of 83 pitches for strikes.
"The entire year, they've had me at 85, which I think has probably helped my arm," Stephens said. "If anything, I'm at my best right now, so I have to thank them [and the pitch limit] for that."
Alex Katz, Chicago's 27th-round pick last year, picked up his first Carolina League save by striking out one in a perfect ninth.
Toby Thomas belted a two-run homer for the Dash.
Salem's Matt Kent (10-7) allowed two runs on eight hits and a walk while striking out six over seven innings.
Josh Jackson is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB.