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Strong finish has Stephenson primed for 2018

Rookie had 2.74 ERA and 9.5 K/9 in final eight starts of season
MLB.com @m_sheldon

CINCINNATI -- There wasn't an exact "a-ha" moment when Reds starter Robert Stephenson realized he could succeed in the Major Leagues. But it definitely came around the time Stephenson stopped worrying and started pitching.

Following his recall on July 22 after a six-week stint at Triple-A Louisville, Stephenson had a couple of tough starts for Cincinnati. Manager Bryan Price kept him in the rotation anyway.

CINCINNATI -- There wasn't an exact "a-ha" moment when Reds starter Robert Stephenson realized he could succeed in the Major Leagues. But it definitely came around the time Stephenson stopped worrying and started pitching.

Following his recall on July 22 after a six-week stint at Triple-A Louisville, Stephenson had a couple of tough starts for Cincinnati. Manager Bryan Price kept him in the rotation anyway.

"Bryan told me, 'Don't be worrying about looking over your shoulder. You're going to be here.' I just didn't trust that too much and kind of felt like I had to prove something to stay," Stephenson said during Redsfest. "Once I got the picture after a few rough starts, I was staying. I was able to relax a little bit more and just perform."

In 25 games for the Reds last season, including 11 starts, Stephenson was 5-6 with a 4.68 ERA and 1.58 WHIP in 84 2/3 innings. But over his final eight starts from Aug. 19, the righty went 5-2 with a 2.74 ERA with 34 hits, 25 walks and 45 strikeouts over 42 2/3 innings.

Catcher Tucker Barnhart felt he was witness to the moment Stephenson found himself. It came when the Reds were on the brink of disaster in a Sept. 5 game vs. the Brewers. In the fourth inning, Stephenson allowed a walk, a single and a walk to the first three hitters, loading the bases with no outs. But he steadied himself and struck out the side on his next three batters. The Reds went on to a 9-3 victory.

Video: MIL@CINL Stephenson fans Villar to leave bases loaded

"In the past where that inning would have spiraled out of control, he ended up punching out the side to take control of that game," Barnhart said. "For me , that was the point in the year where he started to figure it out. … It's a testament to how hard he is working."

Struggles in Spring Training, mostly with fastball command, prompted Price to put Stephenson in the bullpen to open the season. But the rookie also developed a strong slider in Spring Training that helped him improve.

"Not only is it a pitch he throws for strikes and puts guys away with, it also gets his mechanics back on line," Barnhart said. "A lot of times, when guys go haywire, you can go to a pitch where they have to execute the mechanics the best they can to make the pitch. The slider, for me, is the pitch for him."

"For the most part, I was able to trust my stuff more," Stephenson said.

Stephenson's stretch-run performance puts him in good position to compete for a 2018 rotation spot. Pitching coach Mack Jenkins would like to see the right-hander continue with improvements.

"He's worked really hard at making tweaks to his delivery. He's improved. I still think there is a ways to go, especially the ability to command his fastball," Jenkins said. "His slider and split are both really good pitches. The ability to locate a fastball is really important. He's got a ways to go to be average."

Video: NYM@CIN: Stephenson fans seven over six innings

According to Statcast™ data, hitters batted .309 with nine homers and a 16.23 percent whiff/swing rate vs. Stephenson's fastball. They batted .140 with no homers against the slider, with a 50 percent whiff rate.

The rotation competition is deep with young starters, including Luis Castillo, Sal Romano and Tyler Mahle, coming off good second-half performances. Veterans Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey and Brandon Finnegan will also be trying to return from injuries.

"I will be coming to Spring Training as prepared as I can be," said Stephenson, who turns 25 on Feb. 24. "I think that last year definitely put me a little bit of a foot forward. I will try to state a case to be in the rotation again."

Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Cincinnati Reds, Robert Stephenson