How the Blue Jays lost Romano in a Vegas gamble, but won big in getting him back

Toronto Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano (68) throws the ball during the ninth inning of MLB action against the Houston Astros in Toronto on Sunday, May 1, 2022. (Christopher Katsarov/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

ARLINGTON, Texas — At the 2018 winter meetings in Las Vegas, the Toronto Blue Jays found a technicality in the Rule 5 draft eligibility rules and kept a spot open on their 40-man roster to place a big bet. Nearly four years later, the payoff from that gamble is not in pitching prospect Elvis Luciano panning out, but in avoiding the consequences of leaving Jordan Romano unprotected.

A reminder of what turned out to be extremely good fortune comes this weekend, when the Blue Jays visit Globe Life Park for three games against the Texas Rangers, who had the electric-armed right-hander from Markham, Ont., in the spring of 2019, but opted not to keep him.

Exactly how transformative a decision that would wind up being for the Blue Jays wasn’t apparent then. But a role change that year began his evolution from middling minor-league starter to all-star closer. At 31 saves and counting, the 76-60 Blue Jays — holders of the third wild-card spot — wouldn’t be where they are without him.

“It’s pretty cool,” Romano said after reaching the 30-save plateau a weekend ago.  “A couple of years ago, I wanted to be the closer, it was just so far away. But (30 saves) does mean a lot. A save means we won a game, so I'm happy I could just contribute to that many wins.”

Romano’s 31st save, closing out Wednesday night’s 4-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles, was the latest example of the end-of-game dependability interim manager John Schneider is becoming increasingly reliant upon. He was three-up, three-down with two strikeouts in that one and now hasn’t allowed a run in 10 straight outings, recording four outs or more three times while pitching on consecutive days four times over that span.

Though Romano made things interesting during the milestone save last Sunday against the Pittsburgh Pirates — when he struck out the side to escape a second-and-third, none-out jam and seal a 4-3 win — he’s by and large been automatic.

Underpinning that run of success has been a slight uptick his fastball velocity — going from 96-97 m.p.h. to 97-98 m.p.h. — and, perhaps more importantly, the way he’s manipulating his slider, which he’s throwing a bit more than half the time, and in all counts.

While earlier in the season the slider was generally sitting 85-87, he’s now more 87-89 with it, topping out at 90.9 m.p.h. Aug. 18 against the New York Yankees, a strategic change based on situational usage that’s demonstrative of his ongoing growth.

“My slider early in the count, I feel like it's more of a curveball, I can land it both sides of the plate,” said Romano. “But 0-2, 1-2, I want to throw that tight, hard one at the bottom of the zone. I feel like that's more of like a swing and miss one. That's what I'm trying to do for the put-away.”

In that way, the variations of his slider are almost serving as a third pitch, one he can use both to get ahead and induce early contact.

Part of his thought process there came from his extra-inning outing July 16 against the Kansas City Royals, when he surrendered a two-run homer in the 10th to Vinnie Pasquantino on a 1-1 slider. Though the Blue Jays rallied to win the game in the bottom half, Romano didn’t like the way he threw the pitch, feeling that while he was confident in the offering, he tried to place more than he should have.

“The next day, I was just like, you know what, I'm just going to rip it to a spot, have confidence in it and it played better than a lot of the other days,” said Romano, whose average slider that July 17 outing moved up one m.p.h. and put away two batters, including Pasquantino. “That's going to be my thing going forward, just rip it to a spot, don't try to place it anywhere and see what happens.”

Application of that mindset extends across his approach to the ninth inning, in a role that can chew up many relievers with the raw stuff high leverage demands.

An example came in the outing versus the Pirates, when he easily could have thought about the need to avoid contact, or failing that, to keep the ball in the infield to prevent the tying and winning runs from scoring. Instead, he kept telling himself to throw the best strike possible each time out, going one pitch at a time until he’d retired the side.

“When you think about the position you're in, you can win the game, lose the game, that's not the right thing,” he explained. “Being in those spots a lot, my process is just make pitches until you're done, win or lose.”

Usually, that’s win and though the potential was certainly there in that spring of 2019, there was definitely no guarantee of it.

In camp with the Rangers, Romano appeared in seven games, allowing four runs, all against San Diego in one outing, for a 3.86 ERA over 9.1 innings with six strikeouts. It wasn’t enough for him to stick and he was returned to the Blue Jays, home after being selected by the Chicago White Sox in the Rule 5 draft and then flipped to Texas.

After a rough start at triple-A Buffalo, when he allowed 21 earned runs in 20.2 innings over nine games, he began to turn the corner, debuting in 2019 and embarking on the development path that’s made him the force he is now.

“I enjoyed starting and it's almost like I wanted to prove that I could make it as a starter, but probably '17, '18 and '19, I wanted to be in the bullpen,” says Romano. “That's where I thought I fit the best. They always wanted me to throw the changeup so we tried that for a few years and it never worked. But I always wanted to be in the bullpen. That's where I feel like I belong. I always felt like I could do it if I just kept at it.”

To his credit he persisted and the Blue Jays are reaping the rewards as their Las Vegas win, with some help from the Rangers, came in escaping what would have been a calamitous loss.

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