|Josh Stephen, image- Jay Floyd|
Hailing from southern California, a hotbed for young baseball talent, Stephen was selected by the Phillies in the 11th round of the 2016 draft and joined an organization that included some familiar faces. Even before signing his first professional contract with the Phillies, the six feet tall 185-pound lefty batter had guys that he already considered teammates in the system.
Third base prospect Luke Williams, pitchers Kevin Gowdy and Bailey Falter along with first overall draft pick, outfielder Mickey Moniak are all individuals that Stephen competed with and against in his days playing youth baseball.
“It makes the transition of being drafted as an 18-year-old nice that there's people in the dugout, on the field, in the locker room that I've grown up with, I've known. It's kind of special,” Stephen shared.
After Stephen was drafted, he heard from pals Williams (3rd round, 2015) and Falter (5th round, 2015), who made sure their pal, who was committed to playing collegiate ball at USC, didn’t miss out on the opportunity to take the same path they had chosen out of high school. The pair boasted about the organization being a great place for young players with no college experience to learn and develop. They also told Stephen to play his ass off once he came aboard.
Stephen and Falter, a 6-4 lefty, hailed from the same city, so from the time they were 10 years old they were playing with one another and against one another. Gowdy (2nd round, 2016) would face Stephen in tournaments and showcases.
In a seemingly sly manner, when asked how he fared against those two hurlers in his teens, Stephen talked instead about how much fun it was to compete against them. Perhaps that is telling of those results.
Childhood teammates and opposition aren’t the only connections that Stephen has found beneficial to date in his pro career. Working closely with a pair of veterans that have competed at the highest level of the game has been key, according to the 20-year-old.
Prior to his death last year, two-time Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay worked with the Phillies as a mental skills coach and would often form bonds with minor leaguers who were on the same path that he took after being drafted by the Blue Jays in 1995.
“I was in extended (spring training) last year and I got to work with him quite a bit,” Stephen said. “That was very cool to work with someone that has gone through it. He was drafted as a high schooler. He went through an organization just like me or just like any other kid. So, I mean it was a really cool experience to be able to talk to someone who has been in our shoes and knows what we're going through and be able to help us through our journey.”
He also formed a great bond with Class A short-season Williamsport manager Pat Borders, who was the World Series Most Valuable Player in 1992 and helped the Blue Jays down the Phillies in the 1993 Fall Classic.
Stephen says he got close to Borders and picked up a lot from the man who played 17 seasons in the majors.
“I had a phenomenal time, a great learning experience playing for him,” Stephen stated. “I definitely learned a lot about myself, learned a lot about the game, how to go about stuff as far as like a mental standpoint, how to be a professional and I am very grateful that I got to play for him.“
Another key aspect of familiarity for Stephen is related to the opposition. Having faced many of the same pitchers and organizations at lower short-season levels over the past two summers, the adjustment to the full-season South Atlantic League has been somewhat easy.
“I know how they're going to pitch me. I know how they're going to pitch as a whole, as a team.” Stephen offered.
That comfort level and mindset is prevalent for Stephen, who has posted solid numbers to date. Through 10 games with the BlueClaws, Stephen sports a .321 batting average and has matched his previous career high in homers with two.
Being around big leaguers like new Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta, another Cy Young Award winner, during spring training this year also made a lasting impression with Stephen.
"Two years ago he's pitching in the World Series and you're like, ‘That just seems so far away, so unrealistic!'", Stephen expressed. “I watched this guy on TV in the World Series and two years later, I'm in the box facing him. And he's in the dugout with us, talking to us like we're (equals)."
With his sights set on a dream of reaching the top level of the sport, Stephen aims to use his inspirations and lessons from the bonds he’s formed in his time playing baseball to take steps toward making that happen along with his teammates.
“We go about our business every day and we're just one day closer and one day closer. That's what keeps me motivated. Doing it together.”