Stephen Fife</I>

ABERDEEN, Md. — With the temperature near 90 degrees, Stephen Fife did some stretching in left field at Ripken Stadium prior to a New York-Penn League contest here Thursday afternoon.

About four hours later, as he took the mound in the last of the sixth inning for the Lowell (Mass.) Spinners, that hard work paid off for the former University of Utah right-handed pitcher.

Fife, 20, struck out the first three batters he faced in the sixth and also retired all three batters in the seventh. He was in line for the win, but Lowell blew a 3-1 lead and lost 4-3 against the Aberdeen IronBirds, a team owned by Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.

The third-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox has started his pro career in impressive fashion.

He agreed to terms with the Red Sox less than a week after he was drafted in early June. He then picked up a win in his pro debut for Lowell against an Astros farm club in mid-June. And he lowered his ERA to 1.12 here July 3 with two scoreless innings.

"When I finally got out there, it was pretty special," Fife said of his pro debut. "Lowell is a great atmosphere to play in. It is an eye-opener. You hear about Red Sox Nation, but you don't realize how big it is. All you see in the airport (in Boston) was Red Sox T-shirts. It trickles down all of the way to us, in low A. It is crazy."

Fife allowed just one earned run, four hits and one walk in his first eight innings with the Spinners, a low-level club in the Boston farm system.

"He has a chance to be a Major League pitcher," said Walter Miranda, the Lowell pitching coach. "He is going to be good. We did a good job of picking him in the draft."

Fife, a sturdy 6-foot-3, throws a two-seam and four-seam fastball and consistently hits the low 90s with his fastball. He said he touched 96 with a pitch this spring with the Utes. He also has a slider, curve and change-up.

"I feel I have four pitches that can last through the (opposing) lineup a few times," said Fife, who has been throwing two innings per outing every five days.

Miranda is impressed that Fife has four pitches he can throw for strikes.

"His movement on his fastball is impressive," Miranda said. "He has some idea how to pitch."

Fife has pitched out of the bullpen in his first four appearances with the Spinners. But Miranda said the Idaho product is "definitely a starter" and the Red Sox want to lighten his work load since Fife pitched 92 innings this past spring for Utah.

"I definitely prefer starting and knowing what to expect. There is no guesswork to it. Every fifth day you are on the bump. I prefer that," he said.

What has been the biggest adjustment to pro ball?

"I would have to say it is taking time off from the end of the college and then getting back in pitching shape," he said.

Fife said another change is seams on pro baseballs are lower than those on the balls used in college.

"For some reason it makes the ball move more," he said.

Drafted June 5, Fife flew to Boston about a week later and signed his contract after drug tests came back per Major League Baseball guidelines.

Some high draft picks sometimes hold out for more money.

"I felt it was time for me to get going," he said. "I didn't want to stall any organization by holding out. I got slot money. I wanted to get out and start playing. The progression I went through at Utah was very memorable. I really enjoyed my time. My teammates were fantastic. Each season there was unique in itself."

Now he is in a rookie league that has a 76-game regular-season that lasts until Sept. 6. "It is like a busy college weekend every day," he said.

NOTES: Fife played in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. during his youth in Idaho in 1999. Williamsport has a team in the New York-Penn League and Lowell is slated to play there Aug. 12-14. ... The Lowell manager is Gary DiSarcina, a former Major League infielder with the Angels.


Note: David Driver is a freelance writer in Maryland. He can be reached through his Web site at www.davidsdriver.com.