Dash's Stephens sinks into better mind-set

No. 13 White Sox prospect ties career high with nine K's in shutout

(Jody Stewart/Winston-Salem Dash)

By Mack Burke / MiLB.com | July 5, 2016 12:25 AM

Just under a month ago, a struggling Jordan Stephens adopted a new rhythm with a new pitch and a refined approach. He's learning as he goes, but hasn't slowed down to look back since.

The No. 13 White Sox prospect scattered three hits and matched a career high with nine strikeouts over six innings as Class A Advanced Winston-Salem blanked Myrtle Beach, 8-0, on Monday night at BB&T Ballpark.

"Tonight was just one of those nights where everything clicked," Stephens said. "The first time through, [catcher Brett Austin and I] started guys with fastballs. We did a good job of staying on the same page. The second time through, we'd go curveball or slider first pitch. I could spot it up and get ahead of most guys."

Stephens (4-7) retired Myrtle Beach in order through the first three innings before giving up a single to Rashad Crawford in the fourth. The center fielder stole second base and Stephens walked Ian Rice before whiffing Jason Vosler to end the frame.

The Rice University product ran into a dilemma about using his new sinker in his sixth and final inning. Stephens surrendered singles to Andrew Ely and Charcer Burks to start the inning and then walked Crawford to load the bases with nobody out.

He got top Cubs prospect Gleyber Torres to bounce into a double play -- on a sinker -- before striking out Ian Rice to escape the jam.

"The mound was messed up there in that inning, so I tried to move back to the first-base side, where I used to pitch from, and I started missing and they started hitting me," Stephens said. "I moved back into my normal spot on the third-base side and then I walked the guy. My catcher came out to the mound to talk with me. I was going to go first-pitch slider, but he insisted on throwing the sinker. Luckily, it got jammed and we were able to get that big double play.

"I think today, it was a good thing I got into that bad situation," he added. "It showed me that that sinker is a good pitch to get me out of [situations] instead of the slider. When I came in from that inning, [Dash pitching coach Jose Bautista] said, 'You were going to go with slider, weren't you?' And I said yeah. He told me it's a flyout pitch, not the pitch I needed there."

On June 10, one start before he adopted the sinker, the Houston, Texas native sported a 4.68 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP. In four starts since developing the new pitch, he's given up just one earned run on 17 hits in his last 24 2/3 innings to drop his ERA to 3.42.

"I've noticed a big change in my ability to locate lower in the zone," Stephens said. "I was throwing a lot of strikes in the middle of the thigh, in and out, but it doesn't matter where it is if it's at the thigh. [My instructors] said work up and down first and then side to side and start it low and let it dive straight down.

"I talked with [White Sox pitching coordinator Curt Hasler] and I told him, 'I'm trying not to walk anyone.' He said, 'Wait, you're trying not to walk people? You need to say you're going to throw strikes instead of just not throwing balls,'" he added. "Being able to throw more strikes low in the zone changes everything."

Despite his turnaround, the 23-year-old said he still needs to work on limiting walks. He's given up nine in his last four starts.  

"I'm just hoping I can continue it. It's a good streak, but I need to knock out those walks," Stephens said. "I think it would make my game a lot better by eliminating those pitches from walking guys. But tonight was an eye opener. It showed me I can use the sinker to get quick outs and while in jams."

Colin Kleven tossed three scoreless innings to secure his first save for the Dash.

Austin went 3-for-4 with two doubles and three RBIs while Cleuluis Rondon added a double and three RBIs.

Myrtle Beach starter Zach Hedges (6-7) gave up seven runs -- five earned -- on nine hits over 5 1/3 innings.

Crawford went 2-for-3 with a double for the Pelicans.

Mack Burke is a contributor with MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @macburke18_MiLB This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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