After mowing down hitters in the Midwest League and occasionally touching triple digits on the radar gun, Robert Stephenson is back in California.
An Alhambra High graduate and the top pitching prospect in the Cincinnati Reds organization, Stephenson is living up to the expectations that come with being a first-round draft pick, recently earning a promotion that sent him back to his home state.
"I'd been hoping," said Stephenson, a right-handed starting pitcher who was the No. 27 overall pick in the 2011 draft, of his promotion. "But it's still really exciting."
The move to the Bakersfield Blaze, a Class-A Advanced squad, came after Stephenson posted excellent numbers for the Low-A Dayton (Ohio) Dragons. He made his first start for his new team on July 19, allowing three runs (two earned) in six innings against Visalia.
Except for a hamstring strain that kept him out of action for a month earlier this summer, the last two years in the minor leagues have been mostly smooth sailing for Stephenson.
"I think I've gotten a lot better," he said last week. "A lot of it comes from getting more experience, but I think the biggest thing for me was working with our pitching coaches, working on my offspeed stuff and throwing strikes with it."
As for his heater? That's never been a concern.
In fact, Stephenson's fastball has only become more devastating since leaving Martinez. He said he's hit 100 miles per hour multiple times this season with his velocity usually sitting in the 94-98 range.
And with an earned run average of 2.57 over half a season, including a miniscule 1.51 ERA over his last 10 starts, earning a chance to face higher level competition was the obvious next step in his journey toward the big leagues.
Stephenson's professional baseball career began when he chose to sign with the Reds out of high school instead of playing on scholarship at Washington.
His first stop was at extended spring training in Arizona in 2012. From there he headed to Rookie Ball in Billings, Montana, where he posted a 2.05 ERA in seven starts and sometimes endured 14-hour bus rides to away games. He was sent to Dayton later that season.
While pitching for the Dragons again this year, Stephenson lived with a host family in the Ohio countryside and enjoyed the sell-out crowds that packed the stadium on a nightly basis.
One of his most memorable games came against the Forth Wayne (Indiana) TinCaps' Joe Ross, Stephenson's friend and former travel ball teammate who attended Bishop O'Dowd High and was a first-round pick of the San Diego Padres.
The two friends each pitched seven shutout innings on June 8, then caught up with each other over dinner that night.
"I was rooting for him, too, and wanted him to do well," Stephenson said. "Neither of us gave up a run and I was happy about that. You want to do well, but it's nice to see your friend do well, too."