CINCINNATI — When a season is going like the Reds — abysmally — you hope for a positive sign. You hope something that you can feel good about.
It looked for the longest time that Robert Stephenson might give them that Saturday. Stephenson was humming along after two rough innings. He was three outs from a quality start.
Then he left a fastball up to J.T. Realmuto. He crushed it, his second two-run homer of the night.
That pitch, which ended in the left field seats, ruined Stephenson’s return to the rotation. He went 5 1/3 innings and allowed five runs on eight hits. He walked two and struck out five in a Reds’ 5-4 loss to the Miami Marlins.
Stephenson, the 24-year-old right-hander and former No. 1 prospect, is going to get an extended audition in the rotation. The Reds are hoping that he finally lives up to his billing and wins one of spots in the 2018 rotation.
Reds manager Bryan Price saw Saturday as a step forward, despite the line.
“He was better,” Price said. “Realmuto was the guy who really gave him trouble. (Stephenson) made some big pitches to the rest of the lineup. He was more in the zone, more ahead.
“A nice mixture of off-speed and fastballs. It was certainly a better showing.”
Stephenson was making his first big league start of the year. He spent the last seven weeks with Triple-A Louisville. He did what the Reds asked to do: Sharpen up his breaking stuff and throw more strikes.
While progress is nice, this a results-driven business. Stephenson is going to have to do put up decent numbers going forward for the Reds to consider him for the 2018 rotation.
Again, Stephenson seemed to find himself Saturday after a rocky start.
He allowed a hit to Dee Gordon to start the game. Gordon stole second and third and scored on Giancarlo Stanton’s groundout.
The Reds took the lead on the bottom of the first, but Stephenson could not hold it. He allowed a single to Justin Bour to start the second. Realmuto worked the count full.
Stephenson thought he had Realmuto struck on the 2-2 pitch.
“I didn’t get it,” he said. “The next pitch . . . “
The next pitch was a 92 mph fastball up in the zone. Realmuto crushed it.
Stephenson put up zeros in the third, fourth and fifth, allowing the Reds to tie it at 3-3. Had he gotten through the sixth, you’d be thinking: The kid’s starting to figure it out.
But he fell behind Bour 3-0. Stephenson worked the count full giving up a single. Realmuto hit the next pitch out to make it 5-3.
“It was really hot out there,” he said. “I felt like the sixth inning I started getting tired. I didn’t feel like myself out there. The third, fourth and fifth innings, I really got into a nice groove.
“The first second and sixth, I made pitches that killed me. That’s what I’ve been struggling with.”
Price said before the game that the start was not a one-time thing, that Stephenson would be in the rotation for the foreseeable future.
Stephenson started the year with the Reds. His numbers overall were awful. He was 0-2 with an 8.03 ERA, but two horrible outings were responsible for nearly half of his ERA.
Stephenson was pitching in long relief, so he wasn’t getting regular work. The Reds sent him to Louisville to get regular work, stretch out so he could start and figure out a way to throw strikes on consistent basis.
Stephenson had 16 walks and 27 strikeouts in his 24 2/3 innings with the Reds.
His ratio was about the same in the his first four outings in Triple-A. He walked 12 and struck out 19 in 18 2/3 innings. But beginning with a June 28 start, he figured something out. Over his last four starts, he walked one and 26 in 21 2/3 innings.
Walks were not a problem Saturday. One of the two Stephenson allowed was intentional.
But in the majors, it’s not as simple as throwing strikes. You have to throw quality strikes. The pitches Realmuto were in the kind that a guy with 29 home runs in 1,280 at-bats can crush.
“”there are definitely points I can improve on,” Stephenson said. “There were a lot of balls that were left up in the zone. I’m going to work on getting down in the zone and getting ahead of guys.
“The times I got behind it really hurt me.”