- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. Someday, perhaps soon, John Stephens may become a great major-league pitcher. He may win 20 games, he may be given a Cy Young Award and he may pitch in the postseason for the Baltimore Orioles.
Last night, he would have settled for three nondescript innings and a quiet exit.
They say you never forget your first major-league game. Well, Stephens won't have any trouble recalling the sordid details of last night's proceedings at Tropicana Field, no matter how hard he tries to block them from his memory bank.
Making his big-league debut against the majors' worst team, Stephens was battered, beaten and bruised by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays 10-3 before a crowd of 10,566 that actually had reason to cheer the home team for a change.
"That's his first time out in the big leagues, and he pitched like it," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said.
Twenty-four hours after surrendering 17 hits to the American League's least-imposing lineup, the Orioles again made the Devil Rays look like the '27 Yankees. After pounding the 22-year-old Stephens for nine runs and 10 hits in three innings, Tampa Bay's batters had themselves 27 hits in 11 innings against Baltimore pitching.
The Orioles' fourth straight loss, and seventh in their last eight games, leaves them seven games under .500 for the first time since they were a season-worst 4-11 on April 18. They've also lost eight of 13 games to the last-place Devil Rays this year.
"I've got no beef with our effort tonight," Hargrove said. "We played hard tonight. We needed to see that because we haven't seen that very consistently over the last week."
One of the crown jewels of Baltimore's pitching-heavy farm system, Stephens gave the club plenty of reason to believe he was ready to join the big-league rotation when Jason Johnson was placed on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis. A veteran of 5 minor-league seasons, the Australian right-hander thoroughly dominated the competition at Class AAA, posting an 11-5 record, 3.03 ERA and 118 strikeouts with Rochester.
A soft-throwing control artist whose fastball tops out at 85 mph, Stephens typically befuddles opposing hitters with an array of off-speed and breaking pitches, which when used correctly can make his fastball look like Roger Clemens'.
It didn't take long last night to realize the Devil Rays weren't confused in the least bit.
With a group of about 50 family members and friends in attendance at Tropicana Field his parents made the last-minute flight in from Sydney, and his fiancee, Andrea, goes to school in Tampa, Fla. Stephens took the mound in the bottom of the first inning to a surprisingly boisterous cheer.
Seconds later, Devil Rays leadoff hitter Jason Conti was racing around the bases following a double down the right-field line. The rest of the inning was likely a blur to Stephens, but needless to say, he watched a lot of Tampa Bay players run around the bases.
At one point, the usually in-control right-hander threw 10 of 11 pitches for balls, including an intentional ball four to Steve Cox that loaded the bases with one out. Toby Hall singled in the Devil Rays' first run of the night, but Stephens struck out Ben Grieve on a 69-mph curveball (he later threw one 59 mph) to give his faithful clan hope he might escape the jam.
No such luck. Jared Sandberg, Tampa Bay's .232-hitting third baseman, got a hold of a hanging 1-0 curveball from Stephens and deposited it into the left-field bleachers for his first career grand slam.
A double and another run-scoring single made it 6-0 and brought the top of the order back to the plate for another go-around. Only Geronimo Gil's perfect strike to second on Carl Crawford's attempted steal salvaged matters for Stephens, who needed 32 pitches to make it through his first career inning.
His second and third were not nearly as disastrous, though a pair of low-80s fastballs resulted in home runs by Aubrey Huff (who added another off Rick Bauer in the seventh) and Grieve.
When Stephens retired three straight batters to end the third, Hargrove decided to let the youngster leave on the closest thing there was going to be to a high-note.
"We went with him as long as we felt like we could," Hargrove said. "I didn't want to take a young kid out of the game that early and leave a bad taste in his mouth."
Suffice it to say, Stephens probably won't want to clip out his inaugural box score: 3 IP, 10 H, 9 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 3 HR, 27.00 ERA.
"Hopefully, it can only get better from here," Stephens said.
Note Injured right-hander Pat Hentgen (Tommy John surgery) impressed Hargrove and pitching coach Mark Wiley with six strong innings in a simulated game yesterday at the Orioles' minor-league complex in Sarasota, Fla.
It was the final prescribed element of Hentgen's rehab program from last August's elbow surgery, and Hargrove said he likely will start his 30-day minor-league rehab assignment within a week. "He's ready to go," Hargrove said.
If all goes according to plan, Hentgen will make his return to the Orioles' rotation in September.

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