E.A. Sports Today

Stephens wins MLB debut

Former Oxford pitcher delivered on plans to ‘do what I did my whole life;’ first Reds rookie pitcher in 40 years to get two RBIs in his debut

By East Alabama Sports Today

CINCINNATI — Jackson Stephens pitched on the biggest stage he’s ever pitched on in his life and didn’t look the least bit intimidated by it.

The right-hander from Oxford made his major-league debut Saturday afternoon when his Cincinnati Reds took on the Chicago Cubs at Great American Ballpark and he challenged the hitters at every turn. He even proved he was pretty good with the bat, too.

Stephens won his debut and did something no Reds rookie pitcher had done in 40 years during Cincinnati’s 5-3 win. He pitched five innings, giving up six hits and striking out eight, and delivered a two-out, two-run single in the fourth that put the Reds up for good.

“Oh, man, it was unbelievable,” Stephens said. “Childhood dream and just going out there and just trying to compete; that was fun, man. It was fun.

“A lot of guys were like remember this moment. Don’t forget it; remember it. That was the main thing. I was trying to go out there and remember it. Hopefully I did good so I can remember it and didn’t lay an egg or nothing like that. I just want to go out there and compete and just remember it.”


As you would expect, there were all kinds of “firsts” for him in the game. He got his first strikeout against the very first hitter he faced (Jon Jay); of course, he got his first big-league win; and he got his first big-league hit, which turned out to be the game-winning hit.

“I said this kid is going to get some kind of beer shower or whatever because of his first win, first hit, first RBIs, all that stuff,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “I imagine he’s saturated in an assortment of different items in the shower right now; I’ll leave it at that.”

“That was an experience, let me just say that,” Stephens said.

Actually, this is Stephens’ second trip to the big leagues. He was called up earlier this season as an emergency long reliever on the team’s trip to Toronto. He warmed up in the bullpen one game, but never got on the field.

Price, who preferred at the time Stephens come up as a starter, announced Thursday the righty would be starting Saturday. Stephens watched intently Friday night as the three Reds pitchers stuffed the defending world champions on three hits and got “a good feel what they can do, what they can hit and can’t hit.”

He threw 91 pitches, 63 for strikes.

“I don’t want to think too much about it,” Stephens said before the game. “I want to go out there and do what I did my whole life. I just want to make pitches, get them out and get the team a win.

“I’m just going to go out there and be myself.”

Being himself was challenging every hitter with an adrenaline-fueled fastball that regularly hit 90 and a crafty breaking ball. He was the eighth Reds pitcher (11th player overall) and fifth starting pitcher to make their major-league debut this season. The other four starters — Rookie Davis, Amir Garrett, Sal Romano and Luis Castillo — were a combined 1-1 with a 4.76 ERA in their debuts.

Stephens survived two tough situations to get that win. He worked out of a first-and-third, no-out situation in the third thanks to a strikeout/throw out double play, and then bounced back with some of his strongest work after giving up two homers in a three-run third.

He had a strong first inning; he gave up a hit and struck out two on high heat. Leadoff man Jon Jay made him work (eight pitches), but Stephens eventually fanned him on a 95-mph fastball. He got reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant to fly deep to right, gave up a two-strike single to Anthony Rizzo, then struck out Willson Contreras with another hot fastball to end the inning.

Jay and Contreras would have their revenge later in the game.

In the second Stephens gave up a leadoff double to Ian Happ and a flare single to Addison Russell to put runners at first and third with no outs. But he struck out Javier Baez chasing a bad pitch, then got out of it with a strike him out-throw him out double play.

“That was huge for the team, not just for me, but the team in general,” he said. “I was just trying to keep a zero on there and if I gave up one I was like OK get the next guy and we’ll get out of this. But Tucker (Barnhart) did a great job of throwing him out after a strikeout. It was bang-bang. I got excited. Just helping the team keep a zero on there I just felt it gave confidence to the rest of the team.”

The Cubs got to him on his second run through the lineup. Jay hit a one-out solo homer on a pitch Stephens said he didn’t locate very well to open the scoring in the third and Contreras hit a two-run homer on a 93-mph fastball that ran back in on the hitter later in the inning.

He came back out and had his best inning in the fourth when he set the Cubs down in order with two more strikeouts.

“Typical Jackson Stephens,” said Oxford High coach Wes Brooks, who was sitting with the family behind home plate. “He proved that in the second when … he went back to his routine – release, relax and refocus – with 40,000-plus present here on the Fourth weekend, took a deep breath and focused on the next pitch and got out of it.

“In the big inning he gave up three and most 23-year-olds would think about how bad things are going, but he didn’t. He just kept focusing on the next page trying to throw a quality pitch and he did just that. Great day. Great first start. He belongs here.”

Stephens got to hit in the bottom of the inning and made contact, but grounded to the pitcher in his first big-league at-bat.

He came to the plate in the fourth with a chance to help himself. With bases loaded, two outs and down 3-2, he delivered his first big-league hit — a two-out, two-run single up the middle to give himself a 4-3 lead and chase Cubs starter Eddie Butler. He had five hits in the minors (5-for-43), including one this year.

“Bryan was like if that first pitch is there, swing at it, and I was like, all right,” Stephens said. “He just threw it right there and I got enough of it, just enough to get by Addi over there at short. I was just happy to get a hit and take the lead right there. The toughest part was just going out the next inning and trying to really buckle down and get a zero for the team. It was pretty cool.”

“I think he was more nervous about hitting today than he was pitching,” his father Jay said. “Daddy expects (him to hit) but I don’t think many others do.”

He’s the first Reds pitcher with two RBIs in a major-league debut since Paul Moskau on June 21, 1977. Moskau debuted against the Phillies and hit a home run that game, but was not involved in the decision.

About 40 family members and friends made the trip to the watch the game. Many have been documenting their experience on Facebook.

“Unbelievable,” Brooks said of the experience. “(Jay) turned around and looked at me before the first pitch and said, ‘This is awesome. Never stop believing your dream will come true.’”

First inning

Jon Jay strikes out: KFFBFFBK
Kris Bryant flies to right field: BK
Anthony Rizzo singles to center field: BBK
Willson Contreras strikes out: KBK

Second inning
Ian Happ doubles to right field: B
Addison Russell singles to short center field: BKKFB
Javier Baez strikes out: KBBK
Albert Almora strikes out, Russell thrown out attempting to steal: KKFK

Third inning
Eddie Butler flies out to right: BKK
Jon Jay homers: KBFFFB
Kris Bryant flies to center field: BBK
Anthony Rizzo walks: BBBK
Willson Contreras hits a two-run homer: KB
Ian Happ strikes out: KKBF

Fourth inning
Addison Russell grounds out to third: KBKB
Javier Baez strikes out: KK
Albert Almora strikes out: KBKFF

Fifth inning
Eddie Butler strikes out: BKK
Jon Jay singles up the middle: K
Kris Bryant pops out to first: KBK
Anthony Rizzo flies to center on first pitch

Cover photo: Jackson Stephens’ parents watch their son in his major-league debut Saturday at Great American Ballpark. (Photo by Wes Brooks)

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