MLB SPRING TRAINING: Southington’s Romano in the running for Reds’ starting rotation

MLB SPRING TRAINING: Southington’s Romano in the running for Reds’ starting rotation

Record-Journal


One of baseball’s more enduring tales begins with a New York Yankees’ starting first baseman in June of 1925 leaving the lineup as he struggled to recover from a beaning.

Manager Miller Huggins replaced him with a strapping rookie named Lou Gehrig. The bit of baseball lore that ensued was that Gehrig went to on to play in 2,030 straight games until the heartbreak of ALS forced him out of the lineup and eventually killed him in 1941 at 37-years-old.

The previous first baseman — Wally Pipp — became a footnote in a story reinforcing that one person’s misfortune can lead to another’s success.

Southington pitcher Sal Romano, 23, stands on the brink of that precipice as the Cincinnati Reds assess their pitching prospects for the upcoming season.

The Reds made a multi-year dollar investment in Homer Bailey, but the hard-throwing right-hander will open the season on the disabled list with bone chips in his elbow. Last Sunday, the team announced that emerging righty Anthony DeSclafani will miss time with a strained elbow ligament.

Through their adversity comes opportunity for the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Southington High graduate. The Reds have three slots to fill in their starting rotation before the spring’s final cuts. Romano, who turned his 2016 Double-A season in the Southern League around with a brilliant run, has given the Reds’ brass food for thought.

“I think I’ve turned heads here,” Romano said Thursday night from Arizona. “I just came into spring training trying to do whatever they asked — bullpen or starting rotation — but I had some quick success facing major league hitters. I made the first cut, but I still have some work to do.”

In four spring games, Romano is 1-0 with a 1.69 ERA. He has 16 strikeouts in 10 2/3 innings. He was slated to log some innings Saturday out of the bullpen against Texas.

Last year, with the Pensacola Wahoos in Double-A, Romano was 1-10 with a 5.02 ERA through 16 starts when he fashioned a complete turnaround. After yielding 107 hits and 26 walks over his 86 innings between the season opener and July 7, Romano went 5-1 with a 1.93 the rest of the way. In his last 79 innings, he allowed just 50 hits and walked eight while fanning 62.

The stint earned him the No. 8 slot on the Reds’ prospect list as assessed by Baseball America. Romano was the fourth-rated pitcher and second righty behind 2011 first-round pick Robert Stephenson. Romano was selected in the 23rd round in that same draft as he wrapped up his Southington career in June.

“The Reds know what I’m capable of doing with the way I finished up last year,” he said. “I feel like I belong.”

Belief in himself and his talent are at the heart of Romano’s success.

“It’s my confidence level, trusting my stuff,” he said. “I’m trying not to be too picky. I’m just letting my stuff work. Establishing the inside corner is a big thing. I get guys off the plate and that opens up the outside of the zone, but feeling I belong is the big thing.”

Brandon Finnegan and Scott Feldman are considered to have a lock on starting roles in the Cincinnati rotation. According to a Tuesday report on RedsMinorLeagues.com, Romano is competing with Stephenson, Cody Reed, Luis Castillo and southpaw Amir Garrett for the open slots. The 6-5 Garrett played Division I college basketball at St. John’s.

One of the two runs Romano has given up this sprint was a homer by Kansas City’s All-Star third baseman Mike Moustakas in a 7-3 Reds win over the Royals on March 6. Romano fell behind and caught too much of the plate with his 3-1 delivery.

“When you fall behind it’s hard, but you can’t give the hitter that much credit. A good located fastball is hard to hit,” Romano said. “I struck him out the next time.”

Romano has squared of against his share of proven big-league hitters.

“I’ve faced major league guys in all four appearances — Brandon Crawford, Hunter Pence, Brandon Belt, Michael Morse [of the Giants], some guys with the Brewers,” Romano said. “It’s cool facing them. The Giants have been good for a lot of years. I watched them on TV and now I’m the mound facing them, but you have to be ready. I want to prove that I can get big-league hitters out.”

Romano is learning some nuances from another pitcher trying to make the roster, but from a much different perspective. The last time former Red Sox right-hander Bronson Arroyo threw a major league pitch was in 2014, but he’s pitched well in challenging for a spot in Cincinnati.

Romano sees the 40-year-old Arroyo (lifetime 145-131, 4.19 ERA in 405 games) as an appropriate role model for pitchers who accentuate location, changing speeds and mixing pitches as an avenue to success. While velocity is appealing to the masses, Arroyo’s legacy suggests otherwise.

“It’s not a big thing for Bronson because he throws his fastball 83 to 87,” said Romano, who tops out in the 95-96 range. “Everybody throws 95 now. Locating the fastball is the big thing. If you can’t locate, you can’t survive.”

The rule of thumb is that starters need at least three pitches in their repertoire or the bullpen is their destiny. Romano compliments his two-seam fastball with a slider/curve that he throws between 84 and 88. He’s also working on the changeup, which has become an essential tool in recent years as pitchers try to effectively vary speeds.

“You want to get good depth on your curve and changeup. As long as their velocity is a little bit different from your fastball, you can keep the hitters off-balance,” he said. “I’m trying not to overthrow, locate and be in a good rhythm.”

Romano has been working with the Reds’ two big-league catchers, Devin Mesoraco and Tucker Barnhart. His ability to throw his breaking pitches in traditional fastball counts has been instrumental in his development.

“You’ve got to be confident, especially if you’re starting because you’re going to have to [command] that third pitch. I’ve gotten a lot better.”


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