E.A. Sports Today

Stephens set

Arm issues behind him, former Oxford pitcher looking forward to spring training

Reds pitching prospect Jackson Stephens takes in an Oxford game every chance he gets when he's home. (Photo by Brant Locklier)

Reds pitching prospect Jackson Stephens takes in an Oxford game every chance he gets when he’s home. (Photo by Brant Locklier)

By Brant Locklier
For East Alabama Sports Today

It seems like it was just yesterday when Jackson Stephens and his Oxford Yellow Jackets were mobbing each other on the field in Montgomery after claiming a 6A state baseball championship with a victory over Fairhope in 2012.

It is also hard to believe Stephens is entering his fourth season in the Cincinnati Reds organization as he seeks the American dream of making it to the big leagues.

But here he is, about to head to Arizona for Spring Training looking to bounce back from a tough 2014.

The 6-foot-3 right-hander who throws in the 90s and can mix in the curve and slider felt pain his in elbow last spring. The good news was it was only a strained UCL and he did not have to have surgery. He rehabbed in Arizona and didn’t make his season debut until June 21.

He showed flashes of brilliance for the Class A Dayton Dragons with five consecutive quality starts at one point, but with little run support posted a 2-7 record with a 4.81 ERA. He gave up seven runs in his last outing to kick the ERA up a bit, but overall he pitched 67 innings in 14 appearances with 54 strikeouts and 22 walks.

“My arm is fine I am just pitching now and not worried about it,” Stephens said.

Stephens was drafted by the Reds in 2102. He packed up his things and took off for the Rookie League in Arizona after graduation and was indoctrinated into the world of professional baseball. He appeared in 20 games, pitching 21 innings, picking up two saves, striking out 22, walking just three and posting a 4.64 ERA.

The next spring, he showed up for Spring Training in Arizona, stayed on for extended spring training and then jumped to Low A ball with the Dayton (Ohio) Dragons. He started six games and ended the year 3-7 with a 4.59 ERA. He struck out 55 in 64 innings and walked 18 batters.

Life in the minors is a grind.

”It is tough being away from home,” Stephens said. “It is not easy for family to get to see you as they have to drive such a long way away. It is the same thing every day and it is mentally and physically tough on you and you have to stay in shape to make it.

“But it is fun and I am excited to be in the Reds organization. I am home right now just trying to stay in shape. They give you a program they develop for you and they expect you to do it.”

But while he’s home he tries to catch up as much as he can. He was a three-sport start at Oxford.

“Every time I can watch an Oxford game I come,” he said. “I like to see Coach (Wes) Brooks, (Joel) Van Meter and (John) Grass when I am back. It is great coming back.”

But soon he’ll be heading to Arizona for his third Spring Training, where it’ll be all baseball and all business.

“Everybody is there and it is cool to see big-leaguers like (Aroldis) Chapman and (Brandon) Phillips working out on the weight machines beside you and hanging out with you,” he said. “Most of the time they are in their own area of the camp and you do not compete against them. They may have a guy come down during the summer for a rehab assignment and play with us a few games.”

There is one part of the game he misses as he makes his way through the minors as a pitcher. Jackson was a good hitter for the Yellow Jackets and loves to hit, but he has not gotten that chance yet.

”They will not let you hit until you get to AA ball,” he said. “I have a ways to go yet as Double-A is in Pensacola and Triple-A is in Louisville and I am working hard to move up.”

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