O's Stephens slowly makes his pitch

Despite a fastball that's average at best, pitcher eyes rotation

March 01, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - When John Stephens takes his last steps from the bullpen area tomorrow and pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers, hide the radar guns and just watch the ball.

See how it sneaks past hitters who must wonder how they're missing something that looks the size of a cantaloupe. See their heads shake as they return to the dugout, certain that they won't be fooled again.

His fastball might exceed 84 mph if he reaches back far enough and lets it rip. It's not exactly batting-practice speed, but he's a long way from the kind of heat most of the Orioles are packing this spring.

So how did Stephens strike out 130 batters in 132 innings at Double-A Bowie last year or 121 at Single-A Frederick the previous season? And what about the 217 at Single-A Delmarva in 1999?

How is he vying for a spot in the Orioles' rotation this spring with a fastball that's more Meg Ryan than Nolan Ryan?

"This guy's good," said Josh Towers, who won eight games as a rookie last year with similar stuff. "He just knows how to pitch."

Stephens, 22, most likely will be assigned to Triple-A Rochester, where he made nine starts. His status as a legitimate, take-notice prospect was sealed at Bowie that same summer, with recognition coming as the organization's minor-league Pitcher of the Year after going 11-4 with a 1.84 ERA. He didn't allow a run in 33 consecutive innings, culminating with a July 31 no-hitter.

Throwing with the same precision as Towers, Stephens issued only 21 walks last season. Catchers set their target and just wait for the ball. He'll work both sides of the plate, carving up hitters with a knife that might seem dull to the touch.

"He probably has better control than I do," said Towers, who once went 48 2/3 and 42 2/3 consecutive innings without issuing a walk in the same season. "My changeup and slider are probably the same speed. His changeup and curveball are nowhere near the same speed, and they're way off his fastball, which makes them a lot more effective."

Stephens appears to gain velocity after hitters get a few peeks at his looping curveball, which dips into the low 60s. "Sometimes he even gets that ball in the 50s," Towers said.

"It makes his fastball look like 100 mph," said pitcher Calvin Maduro.

Born in Sydney, Australia, Stephens signed with the Orioles as a non-drafted free agent in 1996. An injury two years later, sustained while diving for a ball, caused nerve damage in his arm that robbed a few more mph from his fastball. But he was named the organization's Pitcher of the Year for the first time in 1999, setting a Delmarva record with 17 strikeouts against Charleston.

Slow fastball, quick healer.

Now he's counting on the Orioles to be fast learners. They saw how Towers, named the American League's Rookie of the Month in June, could be effective in the majors by relying more on his location and wits. Why not Stephens?

"I've said a few times that he's helped pave the way for me to hopefully get up there this year," Stephens said.

"I hope that's true," Towers said. "I got passed up a lot even though I threw strikes and got the job done. They gave me an opportunity, and they finally put John on the 40-man roster. I hope that's part of the reason they're going to give him a chance now, because they saw what I did and said, `Why can't Johnny?' "

Manager Mike Hargrove has dropped Stephens into the competition at the back end of the rotation, along with more physically imposing rookies Sean Douglass, Rick Bauer, Erik Bedard and Steve Bechler. Veteran Maduro has a "leg up" on them all, Hargrove said, but at least Stephens has warranted an extended look.

"I just wanted to come in here and get the exposure," Stephens said. "I knew the fifth starter's job was open, and if I get it by some chance, that's great, but if not, I just want to give myself the best chance to get up later in the season."

Stephens still has something to prove at Rochester, where he went 2-5 with a 4.03 ERA. He struck out 10 and allowed only one hit in his Triple-A debut, and still lost - more an indictment of the Red Wings than Stephens.

"That was the biggest jump I've had so far," he said.

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