Robert Stephenson gained some crucial experience Thursday in his march to the big leagues, namely learning how to survive pitching without his best stuff.
The Reds' No. 2 prospect struck out eight and allowed an unearned run on five hits over five innings, but did not figure into the decision as Double-A Pensacola fell to Huntsville, 2-1, on Thursday.
Stephenson walked three and threw 55 of his 94 pitches for strikes. The California native ran into some trouble in the third inning, allowing a single to Eric Patterson, who advanced to second on right fielder Yorman Rodriguez's fielding error. Jason Rogers followed with an RBI single, but was thrown out at second to end the inning.
The following inning, Stephenson found himself in the kind of situation that could have knocked him out of the game, loading the bases on the strength of a walk and two singles. He found his way out of trouble with three straight strikeouts, and ended his night by retiring the side in order in the fifth, fanning two more.
On a statistical level, the start would seem like a solid one, with his Southern League personal-best eight strikeouts and one unearned run allowed. But not according to Stephenson.
"Actually, things weren't going too well," the 20-year-old right-hander said. "I didn't have very good control over my fastball, I was all over the place with it. I got kind of lucky, having my curveball tonight, that kind of saved me. My catcher [Tucker Barnhart] did an outstanding job tonight, and without him, I would have given up a couple of runs.
"It's a good learning experience, especially learning how to deal with adversity. I think it's very important. I think it's a positive. It's nice to have success, but I think the struggles are where you learn a lot."
Just by reaching Pensacola, Stephenson put a check mark next to one of his goals for his 2013 season. And ultimately he hopes that outing can help him make next year's goal of reaching Cincinnati a reality.
"This year, I wanted to finish up in Double-A. Next year, I want to finish up in the big leagues," MLB.com's No. 19 prospect said. "I really need to work on being able to throw all my pitches for strikes. I think starts like tonight are what makes me learn a lot more and advance further, like how to be able to approach starts when I don't have my best stuff."
One thing the 2011 first-rounder is aiming to do before then is work on his fastball.
"I definitely want to find a feel for my fastball and look at video and see what's changed."
Loek Van Mil fell to 0-9 after allowing a run on three hits over two innings of relief for the Blue Wahoos.
Arcenio Leon retired the only batter he faced to earn his second win for the Stars. Casey Medlen tossed a perfect ninth for his eighth save.
Robert Emrich is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @RobertEmrich.