GOODYEAR, Ariz. — It wasn’t Robert Stephenson’s big-league spring debut. But it was different this time.
He was pitching for the job.
“It’s a lot different than when you’re coming in the eighth, ninth inning as a reliever, as opposed to starting and competing for a spot,” the Reds' top pitching prospect said Wednesday.
Stephenson, a 23-year-old right-hander, went two scoreless innings in a 4-4 tie with the Cleveland Indians. He allowed a hit, a walk and struck out two. He walked Jason Kipnis with two outs in the first.
“The first inning was a little bit of first-game jitters,” Stephenson said. “I was glad to have that out of the way. The second inning went better. I talked to (pitching coach Mark) Riggins between innings about getting on top of the ball and being able to repeat my arm slot. I felt a lot more comfortable in the second inning.”
The Reds' No. 2 prospect, left-hander Cody Reed, pitched two innings and allowed two runs (one earned) on two hits. He walked none and struck out two.
For Reed, obtained in the Johnny Cueto trade, it was his first big-league spring game.
“I felt great,” Reed said. “I was nervous, for sure. I got out there and saw all those guys behind the plate. My nerves got to me, but once I got out there — I’ve played this game a long time, since I was 4 years old — it’s all the same game. You’re still 60 feet, 6 inches away.”
This is the third big-league camp for Stephenson. He pitched in two games two years ago. Last year, he had some soreness and was shut down.
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“This is really the first year where he can really feel like he’s got a shot to play in the big leagues,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “Realistically, he’s got a great opportunity. He should pitch in the majors in 2016 — if he makes our club out of spring training or he comes in during the season, this is definitely a guy who should be a part of this team sometime this year.”
That could be at the start of the season, so every outing this spring is big for Stephenson.
“I’m looking forward to each and every time he gets on the mound, because I look at him as a candidate to be in our rotation and a candidate to be in our bullpen,” Price said. “I’m looking forward to seeing him pitch for the first time with a realistic chance to make the ballclub, see how he competes.”
Eighty-eight of Stephenson’s 89 outings in professional ball have been as a starter. But he’s fine if the Reds put him in the bullpen as a way to get to the bigs.
“Obviously, I want to be up there any way I can,” he said. “I just want to help the team win.”
Reed, 22, worked a 1-2-3 third. Mike Napoli singled with one out in the fourth. Jesus Aguilar doubled in Napoli. Aguilar scored on Jose Peraza’s error on tough play up the middle. The Napoli at-bat was a learning experience for Reed.
“I was throwing pretty good sliders to him,” Reed said. “He’s not even flinching. Usually, I have guys coming out of their shoes. I get the full count. That’s a high-average count. The guy's been around for a long time. He made solid contact.
“But just getting my feet wet in my first big-league spring training game was definitely something to overcome for myself. Now, I feel fine. I’m ready for the next time out.”
John Fay is freelance sports columnist. This column represents his opinion.