TORONTO – Ricky Romero returned to a big-league mound Tuesday night with a much different mind-frame than the one he had when he was last in the majors in early May, feeling much more like the pitcher he’s always been rather than the pitcher the Toronto Blue Jays urged him to become.
There’s little of great meaning to be gleaned from his two innings of mop-up work during a 12-6 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, during which he surrendered a run on two hits and a walk with a strikeout, but the calm demeanour he carried onto the field can’t be anything other than good.
Much of the debate after the left-hander was called up from triple-A Buffalo last week centred around whether this stint might undo some of the gains he made with the Bisons in this most trying of seasons.
But given how comfortable he looked Tuesday in his first appearance with the Blue Jays since May 8 at Tampa Bay, when the Rays bled him for three runs on four hits and two walks in a third of an inning, those concerns may be unfounded.
"The approach I've taken is almost, what have I got to lose at this point," Romero said in a brief interview. "Obviously my pride is still intact and you still want to go out there and do good, but one of the biggest things me and Steamer (Bisons pitching coach Bob Stanley) talked about down there is every pitch is like what do you have to lose, just let it go. That's the mentality I took, let it fly, and that's what I did. You don't want to give up a run in that situation, but it felt a little different, it felt like me.
"This felt good."
It looked good to others, too, despite the uneven results.
Romero went three-up, three-down in a 12-pitch seventh, but then needed to fight his way through the eighth, when Mark Trumbo followed Mike Trout's eight-pitch fly out with a line drive single played sloppily by Rajai Davis into an extra base. After Josh Hamilton flew out, Chris Iannetta walked before Kole Calhoun's single to right brought home Trumbo.
Grant Green grounded out to third on Romero's 38th pitch to contain the damage.
"Ricky looked good, he looked comfortable and relaxed," said manager John Gibbons. "I thought he threw the ball well. He should feel good about that."
Added Mark Buehrle: "His velocity was up (topped out at 94), he was throwing like the Ricky of old. Hopefully that continues."
All that aside, perhaps most important is the lack of mental struggle in Romero's mind.
In June when he abandoned the new mechanics the team foisted upon him after his demotion to single-A Dunedin at the end of the spring, he felt like his problems were more mental than physical.
Four months after trying things the Blue Jays' way, his head was much more at ease, despite some nerves.
"I'd say so," he said. "People are so quick to judge about me being up here and whatnot, but my head has been clear, there's been nothing cluttering in there, just go out there and let it fly, and have fun doing it. Go out there and you stay to that mindset, that mindset where before I didn't care, but I didn't care in a good way, like just go out there and let it fly.
"It's you against that hitter and that's what I felt like tonight."
How many opportunities Romero will get to build on that is uncertain, as the Blue Jays have just one game remaining with a team out of contention after this series with the Angels, a Sept. 23 makeup of a June rainout with the Chicago White Sox.
That would be the most logical point to start him without fear of unfairly impacting a playoff race with a pitcher trying to regain his footing, although he could be used out of the bullpen again the way he was Tuesday at any point.
Regardless of how that plays out, Romero appears to be benefitting from his decision to come up for the final month, a choice GM Alex Anthopoulos put to him during an hour-long discussion on the subject.
"We had a professional conversation, he said what he needed to say, I said what I needed to say and that was it," said Romero, who didn't hesitate when offered the chance to come up, believing it's something he needed. "Yeah, I think so, just to be around the guys again, and just the reception I got from Day 1 when I walked into the clubhouse, and today when I got out on the mound, it felt special, something I haven't felt in a long time."
Maybe Romero will continue to progress and feel that over and over again, or maybe he won't and that feeling will disappear. But the process is playing out exactly where it should be - on a big-league mound, the only place a decision on whether he will factor into the Blue Jays' plans again can be made.