By NATHAN MAYBERG
Tommy Romero celebrated Independence Day with another gem.
He entered Thursday’s game as a 21-year-old with a 21-inning scoreless streak and allowed an earned run for the first time in nearly a month. That run in the first inning against the Jupiter Hammerheads was the only one he allowed over 5 2/3 innings en route to his sixth straight win in as many appearances.
Romero, who turned 22 Monday, has the lowest ERA in the Florida State League among qualified starters at 1.84. He is part of a murderer’s row rotation which features’ the league’s strikeout leader Joe Ryan, first-round pick Shane McClanahan (whose ERA with Charlotte is 0.39 but doesn’t qualify after four starts) and the 2.38 ERA of Michael Plassmeyer. “We all kind of feed off each other. We know we are all talented,” Romero said.
If this staff can carry on these numbers, Rays fans have a lot to look forward to.
When the Rays traded their closer Alex Colome and veteran outfielder Dernard Span to the Seattle Mariners last year, the key part of the return appeared to be Andrew Moore, a 2015 second round pick who was a promising prospect.
Moore is no longer with the club and Romero has quickly developed into a top pitching prospect.
A 15th-round pick in 2017 out of Eastern Florida State, Romero is adding to the mystique of how good the Rays are at obtaining and developing quality arms.
After all, when Tampa Bay last went to the World Series in 2008, it was with a rotation anchored around 16th-round pick James Shields, and two first rounders fleeced from the Twins (Matt Garza) and Mets (Scott Kazmir).
Now enters Romero, who grew up in Plantation and graduated from Coral Springs Charter School.
He led all junior college pitchers in strikeouts in 2017 while throwing to a 1.13 ERA and was expecting to be drafted higher. He was committed to go to the University of South Florida and almost did so, but he decided to turn pro. “It was a hard decision to make,” he said. “I wanted to go to pro ball after a good year like that.”
After posting a 2.08 ERA in rookie ball, he pitched well last year for the Mariners’ Class-A Clinton with a 2.45 ERA. After joining Bowling Green following the trade, he pitched to a 3.21 ERA while allowing fewer hits per nine innings (7.5) with 70 hits given up over 84 innings.
He has turned it on to another level in Charlotte this season. Over 71 1/3 innings, he has allowed just 53 hits (6.5 hits per nine innings) while compiling 64 strikeouts. Hitters are batting a measly .205 against him this year.
In 16 games with Bowling Green last year, he allowed 10 home runs. In 14 outings this year, just one batter has taken him deep.
Romero credits his improved success to better concentration and an understanding that hitters are tougher at Class-A Advanced than the low-A Midwest League.
“With the quality of the hitters we have here, I have to really make it a good pitch,” he said. “My stuff is getting better. Last year, I was still learning how to pitch.”
The 6-foot-2-inch righty has the broad-shouldered build of a slighter Roger Clemens though he doesn’t throw as hard yet.
Romero’s fastball typically sits in the low 90s and he has found success by working up in the zone with it. “I try to attack that part of the zone,” he said. “I use my breaking balls off that.”
He is especially tough on righties, who are struggling to hit the ball at a .182 clip against Romero. His slider is his primary off-speed pitch that he uses to finish off hitters and is particularly effective against right-handed batters. He also throws a curveball and a changeup, though the latter is still a work-in-progress. “I don’t throw it as much,” he said of his changeup. “It is a hard pitch to get a grip on. My curveball is more of a slower curveball I use to get ahead of hitters and get them off-balance. I think all of my pitches from last year have gotten better.”
He credits pitching coach Steve Watson with keeping his mechanics consistent.
Romero’s motion is like a slingshot, smoothly winding up before he uncorks his hardest fireballs.
Romero has developed into a dangerous pitcher for another reason. He doesn’t get flustered when hitters get on base.
He has allowed 28 walks over the season but those runners rarely get home as opposing batters are hitting just .216 when Romero allows a runner on.
That is important to note as pitchers typically are hit harder with runners on base.
“With runners on, I just try not to let the moment get too big for me,” he said.
That calm attitude may have been passed on from his parents who regularly make the trip to see him throw especially when he is throwing closer to home in places like Jupiter.
His mother Kathy grew up in The Bronx and his dad Jorge was born in Venezuela. Romero was born in Old Bridge, New Jersey and moved to Florida as an infant. He bonded with his dad watching the Yankees on television. Both of his parents were high school athletes and played baseball with him when he was young.
Like many of his generation, Romero looked up to Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter while growing up. “Just his attitude on the field. He didn’t argue anything,” Romero said.
Romero attended public schools until his middle school travel baseball coach encouraged the family to enroll him at Coral Springs Charter School for its baseball program. He played at the school for two months with Touki Toussaint, who eventually transferred and is now pitching for the Atlanta Braves. Seeing him as a youngster had a big effect on Romero. “It was an eye opener that I really needed to step it up.”
Romero said he started taking his training more seriously. He has benefited from a workout regimen in the offseason with Cressey Sports Performance in Jupiter. “It is helping me right now maintaining my velocity throughout the whole game and I just feel stronger.”
For now, Romero is enjoying being in his home state of Florida, where he enjoys the beach. He has two other states to play for with the Rays before he can make the majors.
Once he does, Romero will be able to return home again.