O's order up bloomin' Stephens

With Johnson put on DL, Aussie rookie will take place in rotation tonight

July 30, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Another rookie has cracked the Orioles' rotation. While the others were discovered in Mexico and the minor leagues, this one comes from Down Under.

John Stephens was recalled from Triple-A Rochester yesterday when Jason Johnson went on the disabled list with tendinitis in his right shoulder. The 17th Australian-born player in major-league history, the first with the Orioles, Stephens will make his debut tonight when he takes Johnson's turn against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

The move is retroactive to last Tuesday, and Johnson will miss at least two starts after a magnetic resonance imaging test confirmed the injury. Manager Mike Hargrove said Stephens, 22, will receive "at least two starts" with the Orioles.

Able to retire hitters with a mid-80s fastball and looping curveball, Stephens was 11-5 with a 3.03 ERA in 21 appearances at Rochester. He led the International League in innings pitched with 142 2/3 and ranked second in strikeouts with 118 against only 23 walks. He hasn't pitched since Thursday, so he'll be working on normal rest.

Stephens was named the organization's minor-league Pitcher of the Year in 2001 after going 11-4 with a 1.84 ERA at Double-A Bowie. Signed as a non-drafted free agent, he joins rookies Rodrigo Lopez and Travis Driskill in the rotation.

Rather than debut in the hostile environments at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park, Stephens faces the American League's worst-hitting team.

"It's going to be easier because I played against a lot of these guys this year at Durham," said Stephens, who pitched in the Triple-A All-Star Game and the Futures Game in Milwaukee.

Johnson is 3-8 with a 4.44 ERA in 13 starts. Eligible to come off the DL on Aug. 7, he has allowed 12 runs in his past two starts covering 10 2/3 innings. In those appearances, both against Toronto, Johnson has surrendered seven home runs while complaining of decreased velocity and an inability to control his breaking stuff.

The shoulder "was responding. This is their choice," he said. "It's probably going to be better because I'd rather come back 100 percent than 90 percent and end up getting tendinitis again because I didn't let it rest long enough. I definitely want to pitch, but I figure a little extra time will probably help."

Johnson did some long-tossing from 140 feet without pain and will throw in the bullpen today. The discomfort, which he describes as minor, is confined to an area behind his shoulder.

No matter how bitter Stephens' first taste of the majors might become, it can't be any worse than the stuff he keeps inside his locker.

Stephens travels with a jar of Vegemite, an odorous yeast extract that's popular in Australia but usually gets spit on the floor whenever one of his teammates samples it. Stephens smears it on bread like peanut butter. This guy has a lot to learn about clubhouse spreads.

"I haven't found anyone here who likes it," he said.

Orioles tonight

Opponent:Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Site:Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Time:7:15

TV/Radio:Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' John Stephens (no record) vs. Devil Rays' Joe Kennedy (5-8, 4.63)

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