With the absence of minor league baseball this season, Lookouts fans can find some solace with impressive major league debuts from a pair of former players who spent last summer in Chattanooga.
After being promoted to the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday, catcher Tyler Stephenson and pitcher Tejay Antone earned accolades for their performances in Monday night’s 8-7 loss to the Chicago Cubs.
Stephenson, the Reds’ first-round pick in 2015 and a product of Kennesaw, Georgia, became the first Cincinnati player in 70 years to hit a home run in his first major league at bat, adding a single and bases-loaded walk to his opening game box score.
Antone, chosen in the fifth round by Cincinnati in 2014, entered in relief with the Reds trailing 6-0 in the second inning.
The Mansfield, Texas native plunked the first batter he face, settling down to surrender only one hit – an Anthony Rizzo homer – over 4.1 innings while striking out five.
“I’m so proud of those two,” former Lookouts manager Pat Kelly said. “They are both very deserving. They were two of the hardest working and most improved of the 2019 Lookouts.”
Considered an excellent defensive catcher with a strong arm, injuries limited Stephenson to only 124 games combined during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. A strong finish last year in Chattanooga resulted in a .285 average with six home runs and 44 RBIs, batting .360 (27 for 75) over the final month of the season. That hot streak carried over into the Arizona Fall League, where he hit at a .347 clip and was named an All-Star along with winning the league’s Darnell Stenson Sportsmanship Award.
Stephenson entered Monday’s game as a defensive replacement in the top of the seventh inning, before driving a 1-0 fastball 415 feet over the center field fence with his first swing in the bottom of the frame. The moment was made even more special by the fact Cubs’ pitcher Duane Underwood Jr. was a member of Stephenson’s East Cobb summer league team in neighboring Marietta.
“After I hit it, I don’t know what happened. It’s just pretty incredible,” said Stephenson, who circled the bases with a huge smile on his face.
Antone was in the clubhouse getting treatment following his outing when Stephenson cracked his home run.
“I was freaking out in there,” Antone said. “Man, absolutely incredible. Tyler is an incredible worker, an incredible guy. I love him to death.”
Stephenson singled and later scored in the eighth, then came to the plate with one out in the ninth facing another familiar foe – Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel - with the bases loaded and the Reds trailing 8-6.
“I used to watch Kimbrel pitch for the Braves when I was a high schooler, so it was pretty surreal,” Stephenson said. “It was a crazy moment, but obviously you have to forget about those things, especially since we had a chance to win the game. I just stayed with my approach. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment especially against one of the best closers like Kimbrel.”
Stephenson coaxed a walk to pull Cincinnati within one, but the Reds failed to deliver a decisive blow.
Former Lookout Taylor Trammell, now a member of the San Diego Padres 60-man player pool after being moved at last year’s trading deadline, was thrilled about the feats of his longtime roommate and close friend from the Atlanta suburbs.
“Tyler deserves this. Yes, it was one game but I see much more from him in the future,” Trammell said. “He’s worked so hard to get to this point, I don’t see him letting up anytime soon. I’m unbelievably ecstatic for him. Only God knows what I would have done if I were present at that game.”
Antone missed all of 2017 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but earned a spot on the Southern League All-Star roster last summer before his promotion to Triple A Louisville in June. While with the Lookouts, he posted a 7-4 record in 13 starts with a 3.38 ERA while limiting opponents to a .227 average.
He went 4-8 with a 4.65 ERA at Louisville, but was named the International League pitcher of the week in September. After being named to the Reds’ 40-man roster last November, an impressive spring earned him a spot with Cincinnati’s 60-man player pool major league teams are forced to pull from with the uncertain impact of positive COVID-19 cases shuffling rosters.
His showing in his initial outing impressed Reds manager David Bell.
“How about Antone and the way he pitched and kept us in the game? Unbelievable job his first time out,” Bell said. “We lost the game, but it would be completely unfair without mentioning what an unbelievable job he did.
“This guy has really stood out to us, to his teammates, to this coaching staff – just how motivated he is. Not only to get to the Major Leagues, but to become a great pitcher here. Obviously that was step one. Really what allowed it was all of the work he’s done. He’s an extremely hard worker – he just continues to get better. Just confident, and you’d never know this was his first time in the Major Leagues.”
Atone was pressed into action quickly, entering in the second inning with the Reds trailing 6-0.
“They called down there and said get ready – so I got after it as quick as possible. Adrenaline took over and I got ready a lot faster than I was expecting,” Antone said. “I hit the guy – my first batter. I was a little nervous right after that, and I was like ‘Oh gosh, here we go’. But I got through that, and in the next inning I struck him out looking and I was like ‘OK, it’s the same game, same distance – nothing changes.’ I kind of settled in after that and was ready to go.”
Both players had dreamed of making their debut together, but missed the opportunity when Antone departed after the sixth.
“I was joking with Tyler when we got called up, ‘Hey, what if you got a pinch-hit late and I get to throw to you? We can debut together and be a battery together.’ We were kind of laughing about it, and it almost happened. We were one inning apart.”
Based on their performances on Monday, there will be plenty of opportunities for the former Lookouts to be on the field together. For now, their biggest challenge is trying to respond to the endless stream of messages that are blowing up their phones.
“This is the fulfillment of a lot of years to arrive at this point,” Antone said. “I certainly don’t take it for granted. I want to make an impact both on and off the field as long as I can.”
Paul Payne can be contacted by email at email@example.com or via Twitter @Paul_A_Payne