Romano’s return caps impressive Blue Jays win after Kikuchi’s high-octane performance

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. went 2-for-3 with a pair of RBI, Yusei Kikuchi struck out nine over six innings and Jordan Romano navigated a rocky ninth to pick up his first save as the Toronto Blue Jays held off the New York Yankees 5-4.

TORONTO – In the month Jordan Romano spent recuperating from elbow inflammation, the Toronto Blue Jays closer made a point of tending to his mind while he was working on his body.

“I’m pretty confident in the mental reps I put in,” said the two-time all-star. “I’m not out there, but I’m visualizing, I’m doing my meditation, my reading so when we’re in there, I can be fully up to speed.”

Reading? 

“There are a few books,” he replied. “One is Peak Performance. I just read that. What I’m reading now is called Inner Excellence, by Jim Murphy. I was actually talking to the author a little bit. I really enjoyed the book, so I actually got in contact with him. I like his concepts, a lot of stuff I believe in and I’ve been practising. When you’re out, you’re not getting game reps, but I still wanted to stay mentally sharp, mentally on top of things because it’s a very, stressful, high-anxiety job. I needed to stay on top of that stuff while I wasn’t performing.”

Now it’s back to real reps for Romano, who was activated from the injured list along with set-up man Erik Swanson on Tuesday afternoon and hours later closed out a 5-4 Blue Jays victory over the New York Yankees.

His first outing of the season capped an impressive win in which Yusei Kikuchi allowed one run over six high-octane innings while Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s two-run single was the key blow on a grind-out-the-runs kind of night at the plate.

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Kikuchi set the tone before a crowd of 31,175 by striking out the side in the first and finished with nine punchies against one walk and three hits versus an imposing lineup. The biggest point of concern for the lefty was in the sixth when he felt some cramping after a pitch to Juan Soto, but told manager John Schneider and trainer Jose Ministral that he was fine, remained in the game and finished out the inning.

“It’s my sixth year in MLB but I think this is the most confident I’ve felt,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Yusuke Oshima. “Not just performance-wise, but like in all my pitches right now.”

That the Blue Jays trusted him enough to not only remain in the game but to work through the heart of the Yankees lineup a third time in a tight game shows how much trust he’s earned. There were times last season when Kikuchi might not have enjoyed the same leash he got Tuesday, when Schneider had no qualms about letting Soto, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Rizzo get a third crack at him.

“It’s where he is with his pitch count,” said Schneider. “You’re watching him pitch three hits, nine strikeouts – when guys have good stuff and he’s got pitches to kind of keep going, you let him roll. So I think the biggest difference has been his pitch efficiency and keeping his pitch count down.”

The offence, meanwhile, was relentless in chewing through Carlos Rodon and the Yankees bullpen, displaying the type of tenacity in approach they want to make a template. 

They worked walks of 12 pitches by Bo Bichette in the first, eight pitches by Guerrero in the third and 10 pitches by George Springer in the fourth, eating up 30 per cent of Rodon’s 101 pitches over four innings in three plate appearances alone.

High-damage swings were hard to come by, which made Justin Turner’s bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the third, tying the game 1-1, and the error that plated Ernie Clement in the sixth before Bichette’s RBI single later in the inning all the more important.

“It’s having a plan at the plate, which has been the key for the entire game,” Guerrero said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “When you go up there, keep looking for your pitch and not chase, just fighting. And if you don’t get your pitch, then you get your walk.”

That pair in the sixth seemed to set the Blue Jays up for a lower-leverage night but Trevor Richards gave up a pair in the seventh on Jose Trevino’s run-scoring groundout and Oswaldo Cabrera’s sacrifice fly to pull the Yankees within 5-3. 

Yimi Garcia worked through Soto, Judge and Stanton in the eighth, setting up Romano to finish off a fourth straight Blue Jays win. He made it interesting, surrendering a run on a Jose Trevino groundout and stranding the tying run with a Cabrera groundout to earn his first save.

To make room for Romano and Swanson the Blue Jays optioned Nate Pearson to triple-A Buffalo and designated Mitch White for assignment, decisions that Schneider said centred around the way their staff is currently set up.

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With Yariel Rodriguez in the rotation but in need of a piggyback partner while his innings are managed, one of Bowden Francis or White needed to remain with the club. The Blue Jays stuck with Francis, and now risk losing White on waivers if they aren’t able to trade him, and that also forced Pearson, who touched a big-league-best 102.3 m.p.h. in a dominant inning Sunday, to the minors until another opportunity arises.

“All decisions are tough and when you have a lot of good options, it makes it even tougher,” said Schneider. “We’re comfortable with guys that can provide length, like Bowden or even Trevor or (Genesis) Cabrera. With all the rules, (Paolo) Espino provides length, too, but can’t be recalled (for two weeks) with the exception of an injury, so it’s a delicate balance. And it comes down to performance and execution and things like that. You could have done it a lot of different ways. But at the same time, you’re trying to win.”

Romano and Swanson, of course, help immensely on that front, joining Garcia, Chad Green and Tim Mayza to shorten games for the opposition. Garcia and Green collected two saves apiece in Romano’s absence, which bodes well for spreading workload during stretches of consecutive late-leverage games. 

Romano didn’t want to rush back after getting a cortisone shot in his elbow in the middle of March so that he could be as close to full strength upon his return as possible. Watching his bullpen-mates pitch as well as they have, “was inspiring,” he said, making him “want to pitch like they’re pitching. We have so many guys who can close, leverage guys, and they’re showing it.”

Still, he badly missed the combination of “nerves, stress, anxiety” inherent to the ninth inning when games are on the line.

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“I’ll be honest, I don’t know if this is a good thing or bad thing, but it’s one of the few feelings that just makes you feel fully alive, you know what I mean?” said Romano. “Those feelings are different than anything I’ll ever experience. I’ve come to crave it. At first, I didn’t, but now I do.”

An uncomfortable ninth in his return delivered an immediate dose of adrenaline. Daulton Varsho had to lay out to snare a Rizzo liner to open the innings. An errant fastball hit Gleyber Torres. Verdugo doubled, dialling up the heat. Romano then reset, getting both Trevino and Cabrera.

“I felt great,” he said. “Mind was under control, even when the runners were on. I didn’t let the game speed up on me. I think I made some pretty good pitches there. I feel like that was myself out there, just pounding the zone with strikes, whatever happens, happens. I was happy with how that went.”

Body and mind alike.

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