Stephens regains winning touch

Delmarva starter rebounds from neck injury, slow start

Minor-League Baseball

July 12, 1999|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

John Stephens saw the bunt looping toward him, lunged for it and nearly left his career sprawled on the ground.

A promising pitcher in the Orioles' farm system, Stephens was finished last season after only six games with the lower Single-A Delmarva Shorebirds because of a neck injury suffered in his futile dive. The resulting nerve damage has taken some of the zip off his fastball. It hasn't taken away his effectiveness.

Just ask around the South Atlantic League.

The Australia native won his fifth game in his past six decisions Friday, evening his record at 6-6 and moving him into the league's strikeout lead with 142. Having posted an ERA of 0.87 in four June starts, he has given up only one earned run in two outings for the Shorebirds this month.

Once stuck with a 1-5 record, Stephens tossed a three-hit shutout against Asheville on July 4 for his league-leading fourth complete game. In his next start, he limited Greensboro to one earned run and five hits in 7 1/3 innings, walking none and striking out eight. For the season, he has allowed 39 earned runs and 95 hits in 113 innings, with only 25 walks against 142 strikeouts.

Has any Orioles minor-leaguer taken a bigger leap forward this year while remaining with the same team?

"He was an excellent prospect until he got hurt last year," said director of player development Tom Trebelhorn.

Stephens never could blow the ball past hitters with tremendous velocity, but Trebelhorn marvels at how often he can make them wave at a fastball that comes in around 83-84 mph.

"John's come back strong and he demonstrates to everyone on the staff that if you mix your pitches and locate your fastball, you don't need to throw the ball in the 90s," Trebelhorn said.

"He has a knack for pitching and an understanding of the game that's impressive for a 19-year-old."

There were legitimate concerns within the Orioles' organization that Stephens never would pitch again after the injury, but he has quieted them with a sensational first half. And Trebelhorn said doctors believe Stephens' full arm strength will return by next season.

As if he needs another edge.

Triple-A Rochester

Though the Red Wings won six of eight games last week, they remain in last place in the North Division of the International League. Outfielder Eugene Kingsale hit safely in his first nine games after moving up from Double-A Bowie, batting .425 (17-for-40) with six RBIs and nine runs from the leadoff spot. After injuries short-circuited the start of his season, first baseman Calvin Pickering has picked up the pace. He hit safely in seven of eight games, batting .400 (12-for-30) with three doubles, four homers, nine RBIs and 11 runs. Four of his nine homers have come this month. Third baseman Ryan Minor, who will play in Wednesday's Triple-A All-Star Game, is third in the league with 18 homers. But he has also struck out 101 times in 317 at-bats. Going into the weekend, outfielder Howie Clark was batting .348 with 11 extra-base hits in 27 games at Rochester. Outfielder Derrick May was batting .343 with 15 extra-base hits in 33 games with the Red Wings. Right-hander Jim Corsi, acquired on waivers from the Boston Red Sox, struck out two in a scoreless ninth inning in his debut. Right-hander David Evans earned his first win and save last week, not allowing a run in four appearances covering seven innings. Heading into the weekend, the Red Wings had given up a league-leading 108 homers and hit 69, the worst differential in the league.

Double-A Bowie

Baysox closer Ryan Kohlmeier was selected for the Double-A All-Star Game, replacing left-hander Matt Riley, who pitched yesterday in the Futures Game in Boston. Kohlmeier entered the weekend tied for second in the Eastern League with 18 saves and had struck out 54 batters in 42 2/3 innings. Right-hander Josh Towers was named the league's Pitcher of the Week. He tossed a complete-game shutout against Akron on July 2, permitting four hits, striking out 10 and walking none. He retired 16 of the last 17 batters. Catcher Jayson Werth hit safely in six of his first nine games after being promoted from Single-A Frederick, batting .433 (13-for-30) with a homer, five RBIs and 10 runs scored. First baseman Brian Rust had an eight-game hitting streak going into the weekend, batting .536 (15-for-28) with four doubles, two homers and seven RBIs.

Single-A Frederick

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