TORONTO — As he warmed up in the Rogers Centre bullpen ahead of Wednesday night’s intrasquad game at Toronto Blue Jays camp, Jordan Romano tried to envision being somewhere else.
Maybe Fenway Park in Boston. Or Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. He imagined he was entering a real, live game that counts, pitching the seventh or eighth inning with a slim lead to protect and some of the American League East’s most intimidating hitters trying to take it away.
“It was all mental,” Romano said. “I just really wanted to be locked in and not treat it like an intrasquad.”
It couldn’t hurt. After all, those are the type of high-leverage situations the Blue Jays envision Romano pitching out of the club’s bullpen come opening day. While Rafael Dolis and Anthony Bass both have closing experience and are ticketed for late-inning work, Romano is in line to be right there with them, helping protect late leads and get the ball to closer Ken Giles in the ninth.
And he certainly looked the part Wednesday, striking out the side in his lone inning of work. Romano blew a fastball past Bo Bichette for his first strikeout. He got Ruben Tejada to look at a slider on the inside corner for his second. And he nearly made Lourdes Gurriel Jr. fall over chasing a 3-2 slider for his third. He was untouchable throughout, throwing nine of his 14 pitches for strikes.
“It means a lot to me,” Romano said of having the faith of Blue Jays coaches in big spots. “Last year definitely didn’t go how I wanted it to. I kind of used it as fuel. And I’m just happy they’re seeing the hard work I put in.”
Of course, Romano had put himself in great position to win a late-inning job in Toronto’s bullpen prior to MLB’s shutdown, featuring big-time velocity and a wipeout slider throughout spring training. The 27-year-old used an inertial sensor to more effectively track his workload over the off-season, helping him to avoid over-training as he had in the past. He also added 10 pounds to his six-foot-four frame, which helped increase the velocity on his already-firm fastball.
He also comes into 2020 with a new plan of attack, seeking to use his fastball more often up in the zone and let his big slider take care of the rest. Last season, Romano focused on attacking down with that fastball. But it wasn’t a particularly successful strategy, as the following zone breakdown showing the isolated power of opposition hitters against his heater indicates:
“After the season was done, I looked at pretty much all of the numbers. Where I got hit the hardest, what pitches I had the most success with,” Romano said. “And I was really getting hurt when I tried to go down with [my fastball]. So, I’m starting to work a little higher in the zone with my heater.”
Romano was drafted as a closer out of Oral Roberts University and began his time in the Blue Jays organization pitching in relief. But when he returned from Tommy John surgery that wiped out his entire 2015, Romano was shifted to the rotation and told to start learning a change-up. He continued on that path with mixed results until he was selected in the Rule 5 Draft last spring and brought to Texas Rangers camp to compete for a job in the club’s bullpen.
Romano didn’t win one and was returned to the Blue Jays, who put him back on the path to being a starter. But that didn’t last long, and by June he was making his big-league debut pitching out of Toronto’s bullpen.
He had success early, but over-use and nagging physical ailments caught up to him late in the season. As he tried to pitch through it, Romano’s stuff diminished. And his results suffered in turn. Romano finished the season with a 7.63 ERA over 17 big-league appearances, leading him to make some of the physical and workload changes he underwent this off-season. And so far, the results are impossible to ignore.
“Plus power with a devastating slider,” said Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. “He looks outstanding right now. He could end up being a big part of this bullpen.”
With the changeup no longer a focus, Romano was able to dive in on his slider this winter, using Rapsodo units and slow-motion footage captured with Edgertronic cameras to take strides with the pitch. He altered the way he grips it, looking to find a way to throw it tighter without losing effectiveness.
Now, Romano will shape the pitch differently depending on the count, taking away some break early in counts when he wants to get it over the plate, and adding some sharpness with two strikes when he wants to generate swing-and-miss.
That’s how he was able to use it for a called strike to Tejada and a swinging one to Gurriel. And that’s the way he envisions himself using it in late-game leverage on a mound at Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium this season.
Martin finding his feet at Jays camp
It’s been a busy three days for 2020 first-round pick Austin Martin since he joined the Blue Jays in Toronto. There have been daily fielding drills at third base with infield coach Luis Rivera. Regular batting practice sessions with hitting coach Guillermo Martinez. And plenty of knowledge to absorb, like the lessons imparted by Dante Bichette, who had a long discussion with Martin at home plate after the club took batting practice Tuesday afternoon.
It’s been a whirlwind, and not only is it Martin’s first time in a professional baseball environment, but it’s his first time in a baseball environment of any kind since the NCAA season was halted due to pandemic in March. That’s why the Blue Jays are easing Martin in to camp and keeping him out of games for now until he has his feet under him.
“He hasn’t done anything since the college baseball season was over,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “So, we’re not going to rush this kid.”
Martin played only 16 games earlier this season for Vanderbilt, batting .377/.507/.660 over 69 plate appearances. Over his entire, three-season college career, he made 665 plate appearances, which is about the same amount he’d make in a full MLB season.
That speaks to how little experience, relatively, Martin has playing baseball at a high level. And how much work he still has to do in order to make the most of his sky-high potential. His first opportunity to face professional pitching will be a big step. But the Blue Jays aren’t yet saying when that moment could come.
“If at the end of this week or before we go (to Boston for exhibition games,) the trainers and everybody else think he can play an inning or two or five innings, whatever, you’ll see him in there,” Montoyo said. “But if you don’t see him in there, it’s because we don’t think he’s ready to play games.”
Anderson progressing but unlikely to be ready in time
Chase Anderson continued working his way back to the mound Wednesday, playing catch on flat ground from 60-feet. The 32-year-old starter suffered an oblique strain while warming up for a bullpen last week.
Although he’s making a quick recovery, it’s highly unlikely Anderson will be ready for the beginning of the season, with Toronto’s schedule getting underway in a little more than a week.
“You’ve got to be careful and not rush somebody,” Montoyo said. “So, right now, as of this moment, I don’t see him starting the season. But he’s progressing very well.”
That leaves a hole in Toronto’s rotation, with Hyun-Jin Ryu, Matt Shoemaker and Tanner Roark being locks for the first three slots, and Trent Thornton likely to claim the fourth. Montoyo certainly has no shortage of candidates, with Ryan Borucki, Anthony Kay, Shun Yamaguchi, Thomas Hatch, and top prospect Nate Pearson all in the running.
Asked which way he was leaning, Montoyo demurred.
“We’ve still got a week to decide that,” he said. “They all have a chance. They’re all competing. And they’re going to have a couple more starts before we start the season. So, we’ll choose from whoever’s doing well.”
And in the end, there may be more than one winner in that competition. The Blue Jays have 30 roster spots to fill for opening day, and could opt to piggyback starters their first time through the rotation if some aren’t stretched out enough. They could also, as they did 22 times last season, turn to an opener ahead of a bulk reliever.
“The opener’s always on the table,” Montoyo said. “But we’re building up enough guys that I’m not worried about that right now.”
Elsewhere on the injury front, infielder Travis Shaw took meaningful steps in his recovery from a groin issue, running the bases Wednesday afternoon and making two plate appearances at a designated hitter in that night’s intrasquad game. He walked his first time up against Ty Tice and flew out to right his second against Jake Petricka.
And Julian Merryweather, sidelined with an oblique strain, is expected to begin playing catch later this week. Considering Anderson is ahead of Merryweather in recovering from a similar injury yet isn’t expected to be ready for opening day, it’s fair to assume Merryweather won’t be with the Blue Jays at the beginning of the season, either.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to see an increased prevalence of soft tissue injuries like the ones Anderson and Merryweather are experiencing, as players rush through an abbreviated training camp after several months of inactivity. Obliques, hamstrings and calves will strain under the pressure and, in this season more than any other, the team’s that stay healthiest will have the best chances of success.