As the deadline to sign Draft picks approached last Aug. 14, there was still no guarantee first-rounder Robert Stephenson was going to put his name on a contract.
He was all set to attend the University of Washington and -- as midnight approached -- it was looking more and more like he would be playing in Seattle this year. Then the phone rang.
Fast forward 11 months, and the Reds' No. 3 prospect appears to have made the right decision.
Stephenson allowed one run on three hits while recording a career-high nine strikeouts over five innings to earn his first professional win Sunday as the Rookie-level Billings Mustangs beat the Grand Junction Rockies, 9-3.
"Honestly, the Reds hadn't offered anything until four days before the deadline," said Stephenson, who eventually inked a deal that included a $2 million signing bonus. "The entire summer there was zero communication between me and the Reds. That's why it took so long. They didn't really talk to me.
"I had a roommate set up [in Washington] and everything. I was ready to go to school. But since I signed I've been very happy. I don't have any regrets at all."
Against the Rockies, Stephenson (1-0) struck out the first six batters he faced and was perfect the first time through the lineup. Matt Wessinger homered leading off the fourth, but that turned out to be his lone misstep.
"I made one terrible pitch," Stephenson said. "It was 0-1 and I had thrown a changeup the pitch before. I should have thrown another changeup, but I left a fastball down the middle. It wasn't a great pitch."
The only other Rockies to reach base against Stephenson were Jeffrey Popick, who doubled in the fourth, and Max White, who singled an inning later but was stranded at third base.
"I think it just started in the bullpen and playing catch," explained Stephenson, who spent most of the fall in the Arizona instructional. "I felt like I had decent control of all of my pitches tonight. If things are working in the bullpen, it's easier in the game.
"It felt great to get that first win, but I was never worried that I wasn't going to get it."
Selected 27th overall last year out of Alhambra High School in Martinez, Calif., Stephenson induced five ground-ball outs and uncorked two wild pitches.
Through six starts as a pro, the 19-year-old right-hander leads the Pioneer League with 33 strikeouts over 25 2/3 innings. His 2.10 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and .200 batting average against all rank fourth in the eight-team circuit.
"My changeup was good and my curveball was OK. I commanded my fastball to both sides of the plate," said Stephenson, who was advised by Mustangs pitching coach Tony Fossas to drop the two-seam fastball he threw high school in favor of a four-seam offering.
"I was just starting guys off with fastballs inside and then using breaking balls and changeups later, depending on where they were in the order."
Stephenson knew beforehand he was only going to pitch five innings, no matter how well he performed. But he hopes his latest outing eventually will lead to a longer leash.
"Usually, I'm around 70 pitches," said Stephenson, who took part in rotator cuff and core strength exercises three days a week as part of the Reds' offseason conditioning program. "I hope I can get 80 [pitches] or more, but I didn't start getting a feel for my pitches again until Spring Training."
Bennett Klimesh followed Stephenson to the mound and worked around three walks by striking out two in 1 1/3 innings. After Nick Routt retired all five Rockies he faced, Erik Miller allowed two runs in the ninth, but Jimmy Moran fanned a pair to finish off the Mustangs' second win in three games.
Grand Junction starter Alving Mejias (1-4) lasted one inning and was charged with three runs on four hits and a walk. He struck out two.