Young baseball players dream of getting the call to play in the major leagues in their sleep. Jackson Stephens was asleep when he got the call.
The former Oxford High standout was sleeping on a bus at 6 a.m. Tuesday, en route back to Louisville from Pennsylvania, where the Triple-A Louisville Bats had just played an International League series at Lehigh Valley. He stirred and looked at his cell phone.
"I randomly woke up and saw that they called and called them back," Stephens said Thursday, his second day as Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher. "I called my manager back in Triple-A, and he told me.
"It's a rush ever since then."
Stephens was back in Cincinnati on Thursday after scurrying to join up with the parent team earlier this week in Toronto. The Reds began a home series against the Atlanta Braves on Thursday.
As he was in Toronto, he'll be in the bullpen, awaiting another call ... the one to go in a game and make his first major-league appearance.
It's the realization of a dream for Stephens, who helped Oxford High win a Class 6A state baseball title in 2012.
The Cincinnati Reds included the 23-year-old right-hander among players named to the parent club’s 40-man roster last fall. He joined right-hander Barrett Astin, right-hander Keury Mella, right-hander Nick Travieso, outfielder Aristides Aquino, outfielder Phillip Ervin and outfielder Jesse Winker.
The 40-man roster includes all players who are eligible for call-up to the 25-man active roster at any given time. All are signed to major league contracts.
Stephens was among the players the Reds chose to extend once their minor league contracts were up.
He spent spring training with the parent club then began the regular season with Triple-A Louisville, where he was 3-3 with a 5.79 ERA in 51⅓ innings over 10 starts.
Stephens was a multi-sport standout at Oxford and starred on Yellow Jackets’ 2012 Class 6A title team in baseball. He signed with the Reds out of high school.
He spent the 2016 season with the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos, going 8-11 with a save and 3.33 ERA in 27 appearances, including 26 starts. He struck out 131 batters with 41 walks in 151⅓ innings pitched.
In more than five seasons with five minor-league teams, Stephens is 29-36 with a 3.90 ERA and 399 strikeouts in 501 innings.
Stephens changed to a more high-intensity offseason training program between the 2015 and 2016 seasons and added velocity, notching up into the 92- to 93-mph range, hitting 95 at times.
That and the fact that he has just 133 walks in more than five seasons helped him make the 40-man roster with three other pitchers, some older than him.
The Reds have had a run of pitching injuries, with Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey, Brandon Finnegan, Amir Garrett and Nick Travieso on the disabled list. The club has struggled to find answers in the starting rotation, as evidenced by the Reds’ 17-2 loss in Toronto on Monday.
Stephens said he's not certain what's next, and for how long.
"I have no idea," he said. "They just told me, 'You're here. You're going to be a long-relief guy.’ And that's about it.
"I'm just going about my business and doing my job, and whatever happens happens."
So far, he's soaked in the moment. His father, Jay, an Oxford assistant coach, traveled to Toronto, along with Jackson's mom, Tara, two of Jackson's grandparents and his girlfriend, Brittani Booth.
Booth posted a picture of a giddy Jay on Facebook with a quote on top: "I am at a professional baseball game, and my son is in the bullpen. Pretty freakin awesome. -Proud Deddy.”
Friends and family made several congratulatory posts to Jackson Stephens' Facebook page. He called the moment he slid on his Reds No. 62 uniform "a big thrill, pretty awesome."
"Just growing up, you play the game and fall in love with it and dream of being there," he said. "I got the opportunity out of high school to play pro ball and took advantage of it and ran with it.
"I've just plugged and plugged and plugged. I've had my lows and my highs. Just getting here is pretty special."