Stephenson up to big-league challenge Right-hander finds mound presence helps


July 27, 1996|By Jason LaCanfora | Jason LaCanfora,SUN STAFF

Garrett Stephenson nailed Albert Belle with a fastball Thursday and thought nothing of it.

The 24-year-old native of Takoma Park, making his major-league debut, was pitching high and tight to the major league's most volatile slugger. A month ago Stephenson wouldn't pitch inside to a Triple-A journeyman.

That's why he's an Oriole now, rather than in May or June.

"There's no chance I would've done that four or five weeks ago," Stephenson said. "One day it just hit me, I have to be aggressive. I have to go after hitters and pitch inside. In the past it took something to make me angry, for me to be aggressive. About the last month or so I've been real confident."

Stephenson, in the Orioles' bullpen for now, made this discovery in mid-June. The Toledo Mud Hens were in Rochester and Stephenson hadn't pitched well in three weeks. The Red Wings coaches were contemplating calling his pitches from the dugout.

Stephenson talked them out of it. He asked for one more chance -- and got it. Orioles reliever Keith Shepherd was with the Red Wings then and Stephenson went to him for advice.

Shepherd, 28, has spent four years in Triple-A and Stephenson was in his first year at that level. The veteran told the rookie to challenge hitters more and use all of his pitches. Stephenson said he went home and thought about what it would take to improve.

He began to throw breaking balls even when he was behind in the count. He stopped dabbling on the outside corner. He established a mound presence. He beat the Mud Hens with eight strong innings.

Stephenson's six-start slump was over.

"In just that one game he saw what it was all about," Shepherd said. "He became a pitcher overnight. He became aggressive to every hitter. He learned overnight."

Stephenson went on to throw three straight complete games, yielding just nine hits, walking five and striking out 19. He had a 1.44 ERA in the stretch of dominance that led to his call-up.

But Stephenson, who watched games at Camden Yards and Memorial Stadium growing up, was expecting an earlier call-up.

In May, the Orioles placed a telephone call to the Wings' clubhouse and the players overheard Stephenson's name mentioned as a strong candidate. The clubhouse was abuzz that Stephenson was one good start away from The Show. He gave up five runs in one inning and on May 21 Esteban Yan was called up.

"That was my worst outing of the year," Stephenson said.

The delay was beneficial. Stephenson learned how to pitch out of a slump. He gained confidence. And when the call to Baltimore was for him, Stephenson held up well against a tough Cleveland Indians lineup, giving up three runs in 4 1/3 innings.

Pub Date: 7/27/96

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