A month ago, there were questions concerning Robert Stephenson's performance. Consider those questions answered.
The Reds' top prospect struck out 10 over seven scoreless innings Friday night before Double-A Pensacola fell to Mississippi, 1-0.
Stephenson, who did not figure in the decision, allowed three hits and a walk in his longest start of the season. He threw 66 of 97 pitches for strikes and faced four batters over the minimum in his ninth start for the Blue Wahoos. The 22-year-old right-hander retired nine straight Braves, a stretch that ended when Rio Ruiz singled with one out in the seventh.
"I think just getting ahead of hitters," Stephenson said. "Even when I was getting behind, just letting them get themselves out was the key to success, just being able to throw a pitch over the plate instead of nibbling. I think not walking guys is what really made me a lot more successful than a month ago."
Stephenson has found his way back after a tough start to his second straight season at Double-A. After giving up six earned runs and recording only two outs on May 1 at Jackson, he saw his ERA sitting at 8.31, an ugly number for any pitcher but especially for one considered the top pitching prospect in his organization.
The California native has turned things around, limiting Southern League hitters to a .196 batting average in May while recording both of his wins.
"I think it just goes back to work in the bullpen with our pitching coach [Jeff Fassero]," said Stephenson, who lowered that ERA to 4.47. "We've put a lot of work in there and got things straightened up and I'm feeling pretty confident about it."
In his last start, it appeared Stephenson had reverted to his form of earlier this year as he gave up two runs on one hit and four walks in the first inning against Jackson on May 23. Instead, the 2011 first-round pick limited the Generals to two hits over the next 3 2/3 innings and recorded a season-high 11 strikeouts. Everything hinged on a trip to the mound by Fassero.
"What our pitching coach told me when he came out to the mound was just to get my hand on top of the ball," he said. "When I got my fingers on top of my fastball I wasn't cutting balls and pushing them to the outside. It made both my off-speed pitches a lot better, too. Ever since then, we've made sure we worked on that. The other thing is slowing down my tempo so I'll be a lot more relaxed."
Stephenson exited a scoreless game, but the Braves got an unearned run on one hit against Kevin Shackleford (0-3) in the eighth to grab the lead.
Mississippi's Jake Brigham (4-2) was as good as Stephenson, limiting the Blue Wahoos to three hits while striking out five over eight innings. Tyler Jones pitched around two hits in the ninth for his third save.
Juan Perez had three hits for Pensacola, while Mallex Smith -- the Braves' No. 15 prospect -- drove in the game's only run with a fielder's choice.
Robert Emrich is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @RobertEmrich.