Nuts at a loss against Blaze pitcher

Young Bakersfield starter needed no help in sparkling performance

bvanderbeek@modbee.comJuly 24, 2013 

Every season in the California League there are guys who have success because they threaten to hit triple digits on the radar gun.

Then you have the guys who have success because they can pitch with their heads.

A combination of the two — the smart, powerful control pitcher — is as rare at this level as a base stealer sporting an unstitched pair of pants.

Bakersfield has one of those combo guys in 20-year-old righty Robert Stephenson, who did everything he wished to the Modesto Nuts in his second High-A start as the Blaze pounded the Nuts 11-2 Wednesday night at John Thurman Field.

"It's always fun to strike guys out, but however I got guys out was the way I wanted to pitch them," said Stephenson, a first-round pick of Cincinnati in 2011 after his senior year at Alhambra High School in Martinez. "As long as I can get guys out quickly, I'm for it."

The final line on Stephenson's 31st professional start wasn't mind-blowing. The 6-2, 190-pounder gave up a run on six hits, with no walks and six strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings of work.

So here's the impressive part. He established his fastball early in the game and got five of the first six outs via the strikeout.

Then, as it became evident the Blaze was in control, Stephenson was able to switch to contact mode, preserving his bullets while enticing the Nuts to put his pitches into play.

There was no overthrowing, no nibbling into deep counts that is the bane of so many young power pitchers.

"He just comes after you and that's a sign of maturity," said Bakersfield manager Ken Griffey. "It's only the second time I've ever seen him pitch. He's strong and not afraid to throw it over the plate and that's the biggest thing.

"I don't think he believes anybody can hit his fastball so it might be just him being young right now."

Stephenson (1-1 with Bakersfield) finally gave up a run when Jared Simon launched a solo homer for the Nuts in the sixth inning.

Then, Stephenson shrugged, climbed back on the mound and went about his business of protecting what was left of 9-1 lead.

His last batter was Modesto shortstop Trevor Story to open the seventh, and after hitting 100 mph on the in-house speed gun on his 83rd pitch, he finished off Story three pitches with an 84 mph curveball.

Stephenson, who started the game in control, walked off the mound with the game in chains.

"He obviously has good stuff and velocity and control with multiple pitches," said Nuts manager Fred Nelson. "That makes it tough on anybody. We did hit some balls hard, but give him credit. He looked like he had command of his emotions and was out there to get a job done.

"But we let the ballgame get away from us early."

Yes, as sharp as Stephenson was, well, the Nuts were the opposite. Modesto let down starter Chris Jensen (3-6) by committing four infield errors — including two dropped throws by Harold Riggins at first base — that led to four unearned runs.

Two of the errors and three of the gift tallies came in the first inning, when Bakersfield grabbed a 4-0 lead. Another infield error paved the way for four more Bakersfield runs in the sixth.

The infield miscues made it easy on Bakersfield and particularly on a pitcher who on this night needed no help.

"He threw strikes, and that's the main thing, because that's something we don't see a lot in this league — a guy throwing 100 miles an hour who also throws strikes at a young age," Griffey said.

Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150 or follow him on Twitter, @modestobeek

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