Slow and steady, Stephens flying toward Baltimore
Posted: Tue Aug 21 18:50:44 2001 EST
+Slow and steady, Stephens flying toward Baltimore+
By Josh Goldfine SportsTicker Staff Writer BOSTON (Ticker) -- Numbers like John Stephens has put up throughout his career resembles that of a hard-throwing phenom with a fastball that overpowers even the best hitters in the minor leagues. But the 21-year-old Stephens is anything but a flamethrower. The minor league strikeout king in 1999, Stephens is up to his old tricks again this season and has shown that baseball is not all about speed, after all. "He's got a great understanding of what he can do," said one manager who saw Stephens several times last season. "He's like Bob Tewksbury." Stephens was signed by the Baltimore Orioles out of his native Australia as a 16-year-old on July 3, 1996 and has baffled hitters with his pinpoint command and looping curveball ever since. He held opposing batters to a sub-.200 average in each of his first two seasons before fanning a minor league-high 217 batters in 170 1/3 innings while with Class A Delmarva in 1999, his first full season as a pro. Stephens moved along to Class A Frederick last season and posted a mind-numbing 6:1 strikeout-walk ratio while posting a 7-6 record. Stephens, who issued just 1.6 walks per nine innings, had his season end a month early with a nerve problem in his pitching hand. Now 21 years old, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound righthander has had few problems bouncing back from his injury this year. All Stephens did was post a 1.55 ERA in four April starts in Class AA Bowie. He went to Class AAA Rochester for four starts before being sent back to Class AA ball in mid-May. Stephens won his first four starts after his return to Bowie, fanning a season-high 13 batters over 6 2/3 innings on June 8. Stephens then went a month between wins and emerged by tossing a league-high 33 consecutive scoreless frames over six starts between July and August 5. On July 31, Stephens achieved a career-first by tossing a no-hitter in the second game of a doubleheader against Harrisburg. "He doesn't work himself by walking many hitters," said Bowie manager Dave Machemer. "He doesn't throw that many pitches, which means that you'll see him in the seventh or eighth innings of some games, and his pitch count is only at 80. He usually gets ahead with his fastball, believe it or not. But sometimes, he'll throw a 62-mile-per hour curveball for a first-pitch strike, and they watch it go by. He makes hitters think, and they're usually not thinking along the same lines that he is." Stephens, the winner of the Class AA Eastern League's Player of the Month for July after going 4-1 with a miniscule 1.47 ERA in five starts (36 2/3 IP, 6 BB, 43 SO), made just one more start for Bowie before moving back to Rochester. His stint in Class AAA has been much smoother this time, as Stephens has yielded just four earned runs in 14 innings, striking out 16 batters and issuing just three walks. Stephens leads the organization with 12 wins this season, has struck out 167 batters in 169 innings and issued just 35 walks. "He knows his limitations," said Bowie pitching coach and former big leaguer Tom Burgmeier. "Once you know that, you're ahead of the game. It's all about throwing strikes and savvy. That's why it's called pitching." Stephens rarely gets his fastball into the upper-80s. Besides his terrific curveball, he also owns a slider and changeup and has excellent command of all four pitches. "People always say, 'Will John Stephens be able to pitch in the big leagues, because he doesn't have an overpowering fastball?' says Machemer. "I believe in this kid, and I believe he's going to pitch in the big leagues." With what Stephens has achieved in his career, and this season alone, why not?