|Josh Stephen, image- Jay Floyd
A surprise to open the 2019 campaign at the Double-A level with Reading, the 21-year-old outfielder completely skipped the Class A Advanced Florida State League after spending last season with Class A Lakewood.
An 11th round draft selection by the Phillies in 2016, Stephen contributed steadily last year as a predominantly part-time player for the BlueClaws team that won their division in both halves of the season. Stephen would notch a .242 batting average with 17 doubles, two triples, four home runs and 25 RBI in 99 games for Lakewood in 2018.
Projected to be a fourth outfielder this year on a team that opened the season with three first round picks set to man the outfield spots, Stephen impressed enough in the spring exhibition season to earn an assignment to Reading behind Adam Haseley, Mickey Moniak and Cornelius Randolph.
"I jumped two levels and I wasn't starting right away, so I really had nothing to lose at that point," Stephen shared in the visitors dugout at Trenton's ARM & HAMMER Park over the weekend. I told myself, 'When you get your opportunity, play hard, play excited, play with confidence.'"
Haseley would see a promotion out of the Reading lineup by late May, which allowed Stephen to get more time in the lineup.
This year, Stephen notched a .271 average with 29 doubles, six triples, 12 home runs and 47 RBI in 113 regular season games. The output is something that the California native is very pleased with.
"I feel great about (my season)," Stephen asserted. "I came in with no expectations about what to expect or what was going to happen this year, but I'm super proud of how the season went."
The contributions of the six-foot 185-pounder aren't lost on the team's manager, Shawn Williams. The Reading skipper feels that Stephen has played a huge role, with clutch hitting and exceptional at bats, to help the Fightins reach the postseason.
"He has earned his way to playing everyday and has taken full advantage of it," Williams asserted. "I mean he is a big reason why we're at where we're at. The amount of big hits he's gotten, how he's been pinch hitting wise, obviously what he's doing when he's playing regularly. He's had a heck of a year."
With the Eastern League playoffs set to get underway on Wednesday, with a best-of-five series opening in Reading for two contests before the remainder of the set moves to Trenton, Stephen is considerably excited, as he feels the chance to do something great as a unit will ultimately be the most rewarding thing about 2019.
The end result of the postseason, according to the talented youngster, won't be a surprise. At least to Stephen.
"I'm looking forward to getting a ring."
Additional quotes from some of Reading's other key contributors on the upcoming playoff series...
It's exciting, especially when all us guys are realized that we got the team to do it. This is a really good team. We hit the ball, great pitching staff and we're all feeding off each other and are ready to get it going.
Spencer Howard commented on closing out the regular season with a four-game set at Trenton, then opening the postseason with the same opponent:
I think it's going to be interesting playing this team nine games in a row, or possibly playing them nine games in a row. But, I like it here. Love it at home. So, it should be fun.
It's gonna be great. I'm ready to go! It'll be fun and I'm trying to go chase a ring.
I'm very excited. With this group of guys, we came through the system together almost at every level and at every level we've won. At Lakewood we made a push for the postseason and missed it by a technicality or last year, in Clearwater, getting to go to the postseason and coming up short in the first series. But knowing this group of guys that has played together throughout the organization and won and now getting to do it at the Double-A level it's something that's really special.