Progress of Thornton, Romano offers hope for Blue Jays’ pitching future

Trent Thornton chats with the media following the Toronto Blue Jays' blowout victory over the Houston Astros, in which the young pitcher debuted against the team that drafted him, and came away with the victory.

BOSTON — Trent Thornton’s father, Jeff, gave him a call Friday not long before he took the mound at Fenway Park in Boston to face the Red Sox. Jeff of course knew his son grew up a Red Sox fan, dreaming of one day pitching on MLB’s oldest grounds. So, he wanted to do his part to keep his son focused.

"He was like, ‘Hey, man, enjoy it,’" Thornton said. "’I know you’ve always wanted to do this. But don’t let the game speed up on you. Have fun. Go out there and pitch and show them what you can do.’"

What Thornton did was shut down a Red Sox lineup that came into the night with a .787 OPS, fourth-highest in the American League.

The Blue Jays rookie allowed only two runs on eight hits over 6.1 innings, striking out seven while walking just one. It was his second-straight stellar outing against a very potent offence after Thornton held the Houston Astros — second in the AL with an .812 OPS — scoreless over 6.2 innings his last time out.

"He was really good. He’s such a bulldog out there. I love watching this kid pitch," said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. "He’s in command, he’s not afraid. Even here — he plays with all that noise and stuff, he keeps fighting and making good pitches when he has to. He’s been really good."

The Houston start was particularly meaningful for Thornton, who was drafted by the Astros but couldn’t crack their loaded rotation, prompting his trade to the Blue Jays last offseason. But pitching before the green monster carried even more significance.

"Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve wanted to pitch here. So, I was a little amped up. I knew that I kind of had to slow things down and focus and breathe," Thornton said. "My walk out there was a lot slower than usual — just kind of looking around, like, ‘Man, this is pretty cool.’"

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Thornton now carries a 4.25 ERA through his first 16 starts in the majors. He’s battled consistency, as many young pitchers do, but he’s demonstrated encouraging strikeout numbers throughout, and now boasts a 9.5 K/9. Walks have been an issue at times, but he allowed only one free pass against the Red Sox, a team with baseball’s fourth-highest walk rate.

Interestingly, Thronton’s been relying on his fastball much more heavily of late, after throwing predominantly breaking balls earlier in the season. Against the Astros, he threw 72 fastballs or cutters and only 28 breaking pitches. Friday, it was 60 fastballs and cutters versus 42 breaking balls.

There were times earlier this season when those numbers were much closer to even. Thornton acknowledges the difference is purposeful, but wasn’t keen to elaborate on why he made the adjustment.

"Yeah, I’ve looked at some numbers and stuff," he said. "I don’t want to get too in depth into it. But, yeah."

Romano continues to impress

It was all going so well for Jordan Romano. Making only the fourth major-league outing of his career, the Markham, Ont. native was mowing down Red Sox hitters as he tried to keep a game tied in the bottom of the 9th.

He got Andrew Benintendi to swing through a 97-m.p.h. heater, J.D. Martinez to chase a 96-m.p.h. fastball above the zone, and Brock Holt to whiff on a 94-m.p.h. pitch at the end of a grinding, 9-pitch at-bat. Romano was all kinds of fired up as he walked off the mound after that one:

And he picked up where he left off when he returned for the 10th, striking out his first two batters on only 9 pitches. But after getting ahead of Marco Hernandez, 0-2, he clipped the Red Sox second baseman’s elbow with an inside fastball, extending the inning. Next up was Christian Vazquez, who Romano got ahead of again, but couldn’t put away. Then he left this fastball on the plate:

Not how Romano wanted to end his outing. But the way he pitched over those two high-leverage innings drew high praise from Montoyo, who could soon be considering Romano in a set-up role for Toronto’s closer, Ken Giles.

"He likes being out there in the tough moments. He was closing games in triple-A. Of course, it’s not the same. But now we know that he’s not afraid here either," Montoyo said. "He’s a power arm. He’s got a good slider and he throws 95, 96. He gets to 98. And he throws strikes. He’s got what it takes to pitch in the late innings."

Among the players Romano’s now struck out in his brief MLB career: Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, and Martinez. Those are some of the best hitters in the game. And he’s done it with an aggressive mindset, going right after them with his mid-to-high 90’s fastball

His slider’s been impressive, as well. Friday, he demonstrated an ability to throw it for strikes, both called and swinging. He used it early in counts, working backwards to hitters, and late in counts as an out pitch. It’s encouraging stuff, particularly when it’s happening in a stressful situation at Fenway Park.

"He was lights out. He’s a lot of fun to watch. He can pitch really, really well. His fastball’s electric," Thornton said. "He’s got all the confidence in the world right now — he’s striking out everybody."

Romano’s struck out 11 of the 19 MLB hitters he’s faced thus far. Only two of those 19 came away with hits. The problem is they’ve both been home runs — a solo shot by Justin Upton on Wednesday and Vazquez’s walk-off into the right-centre field bullpen. That’s the rollercoaster a lot of relievers ride, and Romano knows it well.

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He started learning big-league bullpen life when he auditioned for the Texas Rangers this spring as a Rule 5 pick. He was also a closer in college, pitching for Oral Roberts University.

But the Blue Jays had invested three years of development into him as a starter, and Romano had worked hard to develop a change-up to round out his repertoire. So when he returned to the organization after spring training, the Blue Jays gave it one last go.

That lasted only four starts, and upon moving to the bullpen in early May, Romano struck out 25 over 17.2 innings, earning his first major-league call-up. Romano’s experience as a starter was the reason why Montoyo was able to extend him to two innings against the Red Sox, which was helpful on the eve of a planned bullpen day Saturday. The Blue Jays had Romano on a 40-pitch limit for the outing. His final pitch to Vazquez? It was Romano’s 40th.

"I felt pretty good. No one wants to get walked off. It’s a pretty bad feeling. But I’m happy with the way I pitched," Romano said. "My MO is I attack guys, I go after them. And I thought I did a pretty good job of that tonight. Unfortunately, just got beat on that last hitter there."

Montoyo repeatedly referred to Romano as "part of our future" when discussing him after the game, and it’s easy to see why he thinks so considering how confident the 26-year-old’s looked on the mound. With only a fastball and slider, Romano will need that aggressive mindset — not to mention his premium velocity — to be successful. And if his command isn’t fine, he’ll be susceptible to home runs.

But aside from the two long balls, he’s been outstanding. And considering his upside as a hard-thrower capable of striking very good hitters out in late innings, Romano will get plenty of opportunities to prove he belongs.

"I feel like if I keep doing that same thing, I’ll be okay. Just attacking hitters. Of course, I’ll get beat the occasional time, like tonight. But I feel like going forward, if I just stick to that plan, I’ll be okay," Romano said. "I like the biggest situations. … When we’re in the 8th, 9th, 10th at Fenway, every pitch you throw matters. It helps me focus a little bit."

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