Blue Jays fireballer Jordan Romano owns the ninth inning. Save the humility
DUNEDIN, Fla.—Tom Henke. Duane Ward. B.J. Ryan. Billy Koch. Casey Janssen. Roberto Osuna. Ken Giles.
The Blue Jays have had a plethora of virtuoso closers over the years. If some didn’t rack up dazzling save numbers, it was because they played on lousy teams and didn’t get an abundance of chances to take the ball in high-leverage ninth innings.
Jordan Romano figures to join that panoply of stoppers. Though he won’t come out and say so. Rather modestly Canadian that way, as if tooting one’s own horn were a politesse faux pas.
“I probably have a spot in that bullpen, but I really try to go about it like I’m trying to make the team,” the Markham native explains. “I feel like if you start feeling you’re safe, that’s how you get too comfortable. I really don’t want to be comfortable.
“Pretty much until the season starts and we get going, I don’t want to think about it too much. I think it’s going to be like that for my whole career. Coming in, telling myself I’m just trying to make the club, that’s when I’m working my hardest and performing my best.”
Well, it’s a figment of his guarded imagination, as Charlie Montoyo has pretty much signalled during this compressed Grapefruit League interval. “I couldn’t tell you about the assignments,” the manager said the other day, referring to bullpen occupants as yet unconfirmed and their roles. “But Romano for sure will be at the end.”
Romano carved out that status for himself last season as the Jays calmly pivoted from the injury-beset Giles — Tommy John looming — to an asset who’d risen through the ranks in their system (with a fleeting Rule 5 departure and subsequent return), debuting with the parent club in 2019 but sticking like Velcro in ’21: 23 saves in 24 opportunities with a stingy 2.14 ERA.
Circa 2022, the lanky Romano — he turns 29 in a few weeks, a bit old maybe to be at this stage of his career, but closers often ripen into the glamour gig — looks markedly different from when fans last saw him on the bump: his lumberjack full beard gone, revealing a startlingly youthful face. Also absent, from what we’ve seen thus far, is his Sultan of Squat pre-pitch in the tuck position that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. once delightfully mirrored in-game. More significantly begone is the left knee — landing knee — discomfort that Romano played through down the final two-month stretch last year, discovering only via MRI at the conclusion of the campaign that he had a torn meniscus, addressed by off-season surgery.
Five months on, there’s no lingering trace of discomfort for the hard-throwing right-hander, who can light up the radar gun with triple-digit four-seam fastballs that elicit a high number of swings and misses; even his slider is wicked, with exceptional depth. The changeup he tried developing a couple of years ago has been abandoned. “I was always working on it and I felt like it took away from my other pitches, so I’m just sticking with those two.”
The limited arsenal is more than enough for a one-inning finisher, although Romano twice last year went two. Fundamentally, those pitches are strategically complementary.
“I like to throw my fastball in the zone and when I’m doing that, spotting it up, the slider works really well at the bottom of the zone, because they kind of look the same out my hand and then they break to different ways.”
Tallied 85 strikeouts over 63 innings with that one-two punch in ’21.
“When I’m up in the zone with the heat and down in the zone with the slider, it’s usually a pretty good day.”
Both Montoyo and pitching coach Pete Walker have been impressed by their low-maintenance closer. “His confidence is through the roof,” notes Walker. “Any time you come into the big leagues, there’s always some uncertainty. Then once you do it enough, it just raises you to a different level from a confidence standpoint. I think he’s there.
“He knows what he needs to do right now, he knows what needs working on. He’s not afraid of any situation. And he’s really developed into one of the premier relievers in baseball as far as I’m concerned. I know it’s still early in his career and you hate to put pressure on someone, but he’s certainly a guy we’re counting on. But also we have a lot of arms around him that can support that, and can also close out games if we need to.”
The bullpen is jammed with arms in camp, some returning, some new and elbowing for inclusion. The Jays are enthusiastic about Yimi García, signed to a two-year, $11-million (U.S.) contract before the lockout froze everything. Notable is that it was Toronto’s first guaranteed multi-year deal for a relief pitcher since Ryan in 2006.
The Jays have had a history of gambling on low-cost, high-upside relievers, interchangeable parts, which may have cost the team a playoff spot last year after nearly all of them went pear-shaped at the same time. Plenty of games that shouldn’t have got away until the starters reasserted themselves in a headlong late-summer thrust.
Montoyo et al haven’t sussed out the ’pen yet but, with the insertion of García as setup, likely Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards can revert to their familiar sixth and seventh frame bookings. Rosters have been expanded to 28 players through May 1 and most teams are expected to carry two extra pitchers, to compensate for arms not yet prime-time ready. “The extra bodies, I want it to be pitchers,” says Walker.