KENOSHA, Wis. – Former Warrenton standout pitcher Ben Stephens is making the most of his opportunity in the Northwoods League.
The esteemed summer collegiate baseball league, which was established in 1994 and is the largest of its ilk with 22 teams across the upper Midwest, has helped produce over 200 Major Leaguers, including perennial Cy Young contending hurlers Max Scherzer and Chris Sale.
Stephens, an Eastern Illinois University senior, plays for the Kenosha Kingfish and currently leads the squad in multiple pitching categories.
And pardon the “cod-awful” pun, but Stephens has been especially “fin-tastic” as of late, reeling off a stretch of 14 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run across three appearances.
His last start may have been his best of the season as the 6-foot righthander spun six scoreless frames in a 5-0 home shutout victory over the Battle Creek Bombers last Thursday (July 25) at Historic Simmons Field. The performance not only earned him Player of the Game honors, but also Player of the Night honors by the Northwoods League.
Stephens told a Kingfish broadcaster that he thought his fastball was the most effective pitch in his arsenal during the outing in which he struck out five batters while giving up four hits and a walk.
“My slider was sharp, but I got ahead of counts the whole night with my two-seam (fastball),” he said. “And that worked for me, just being ahead all night with it. I was able to get a lot of 0-2 and 1-2 counts. I wasn’t necessarily going for strikeouts, just trying to get swings in two-strike counts and it felt like everything was working for me.”
Stephens also benefited from some gutsy defense by his batterymate, catcher Luke Stephenson (Xavier University).
Stephenson withstood a monster collision at the dish after receiving a strong throw from centerfielder Brendan Hueth (St. Joseph’s University) and applying a tag to cut down a Battle Creek baserunner who was attempting to score from second base on a single in the sixth.
“Seeing that really fired me up,” Stephens said. “Luke ate that and took one on the chin. He literally had blood dripping down his chin after that. (Battle Creek) was starting to hit some balls hard off me that inning and he made a huge play to keep the shutout alive.”
Stephens’ scoreless streak has dropped his ERA to a season-low 2.38 with opponents posting a .193 batting average against him. He has a 3-3 record with 43 strikeouts in 45.1 innings of work.
And while Stephens has gotten hot so have the Kingfish, who’ve hooked nine wins in their last 11 games. They’re 26-34 overall and 13-12 in the second half of the Great Lakes East Division Standings, and were 7 1/2 games back of the first-place Traverse City Pitt Spitters as of July 29. Teams play 72 games scheduled from late May to mid-August.
“Our confidence is high all the way across the board,” Stephens said. “We have some ground to make up, but I feel like we’re playing some of the best ball in the Woods, honestly.”
The St. Louis Cardinals have several notable Northwoods alumni, including current shortstop Paul DeJong (Wisconsin Woodchucks) and former players Jeff Weaver (Dubuque Mud Puppies), Pat Neshek (Wisconsin Woodchucks), Allen Craig (Alexandria Beetles) and Jimmy Journell (Waterloo Bucks).