MLB BASEBALL: Sal from Southington strides back to the hill in Cincinnati

MLB BASEBALL: Sal from Southington strides back to the hill in Cincinnati

The Romano family of Southington will spend a second straight Easter Sunday in Cincinnati. And there’s no place they’d rather be than the Great American Ball Park.

With family and friends in town, Southington High School graduate Sal Romano will start for Cincinnati Reds today in their third game of the 2018 season after making the Major League club’s starting rotation.

A year ago, Romano was called up from the minors and made his MLB debut on Easter Sunday.  

Originally scheduled to take the mound Monday against the Washington Nationals, Romano’s start was moved up to Sunday after the Reds’ Opening Day was postponed Thursday.

“The rain actually helped,” said Romano, whose parents Sal Sr. and Lynne arrived in Cincinnati on Friday. “(Sunday) is going to be a special day. I’m glad I can share it with my family and a lot of friends that I’ve made through this organization. It’s going to be a great day and I’m looking forward to it.”

Romano’s road to the majors began in 2011 when he was picked in the 23rd round by the Reds. He nearly attended the University of Tennessee after signing a letter of intent and enrolling in classes. But following a sensational senior year at Southington High School that saw him go 10-2 with a 0.35 ERA and lead the Blue Knights to the state title game, the Gatorade Connecticut Player of the Year opted instead to sign with the Reds as an 18-year old.

Now 24, Romano’s journey through the Reds’ farm system was steady. Over six minor league seasons, he pitched 665 innings with a 4.31 ERA in such places as Billings, Mont., Dayton, Ohio and Pensacola, Fla. He started the 2017 season at Triple-A Louisville before getting called up for his Major League debut.

On Monday, he’ll put down some roots in Cincinnati when he moves into an apartment.

 “It absolutely feels good,” Romano said.

Romano’s first taste of the big leagues came on April 16 of last year, when he donned a Reds uniform for his first MLB start. His time on the Cincinnati mound didn’t last long. He allowed two home runs and walked four batters in just three innings.

As a result, he was sent back to Louisville, where a sore arm kept his work load to just 49.1 innings in two-plus months. But in limited action, Romano impressed the Reds enough for him to be promoted back to the big club for the second half of the 2017 season.

Romano’s first Major League win came on July 6. Over 16 starts and 87 innings of work, Romano finished with a 5-8 record and a 4.45 ERA.

“Getting to the Major Leagues and pitching your first game is something you’ll never forget. It was a special day, not just for me, but everyone who’s helped me along the way in this journey,” Romano said.

“But I got goosebumps today walking on the grass as part of a Major League club (on Opening Day).”

After sticking with the Reds over the final half of the 2017 season, it was Romano’s goal to be part of the club’s starting rotation from Day 1 of the 2018 season. Romano did nothing in spring training to prevent that from happening. He enjoyed one strong spring start after another and finished his Cactus League season with a 2-1 record and 3.00 ERA over five starts.

But his spot was far from locked in coming into spring training. In competition with a host of young arms, Romano separated himself from the pack by mid-March, and was told after his final spring start that he would be given the ball every five days as part of Cincinnati’s starting rotation when the club broke camp last week.

“My mindset (this spring training) was to go into the office at end of spring training and have (the coaches) tell me I’m going to Cincinnati,” Romano said. “I wanted to show ‘em I was ready to go, show that I belonged on the team. And I was fortunate to make that happen.

“They said they were really proud of me and that it was my spot to lose, and I showed nothing but that I deserved it.”

A year ago, Romano was told on the last day of spring training that he wouldn’t be joining the Reds. Now he’s part of a rotation that starts with a healthy 31-year-old Homer Bailey and includes three arms under the age of 25.

“There were a bunch of us competing for a spot in the rotation. A couple of us were able to make the bullpen and others are in the rotation,” Romano said. “The team is going to be based on how our starting rotation does. Guys in the rotation now are guys who had a good bit of (MLB) success when they got their opportunities up here. 

“We always hit and play good defense. So if our starting pitching is pretty good, with Homer at the top, we got guys who give the team a chance to win. We got a good group of core guys here and I’m excited for the season to start.”

One area Romano knows he must improve on is control. Built to last deep into games, the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Romano has struggled with his command in a Reds’ uniform. 

A power pitcher who features a 98-mph fastball, Romano struck out 73 Major League batters last year, but also walked 37 in 87 innings. As a result, his pitch count climbed early in games and Romano lasted into the seventh inning only three times with the Reds. His best start did come late in the 2017 season against the Pirates, when he threw eight scoreless innings and did not walk a batter.

“Walking batters at any level isn’t good, especially at the MLB level,” Romano said. “I really wanted to work on working around the plate. When you pitch in the big leagues, you have to throw strikes. Walks will kill ya, not matter where you are, especially in the big leagues.

“You have to be able to throw the ball around the plate. That was definitely something I tried to stress to (the coaching staff) during spring training: not walk guys. And I was able to do that.”

Romano is the third recent Southington High School graduate to pitch in the major leagues. He follows a pair of world champions: Carl Pavano with the 2003 Marlins and Reds reliever Rob Dibble, who was part of the Nasty Boys in Cincinnati that won the 1990 World Series.

Another Southington native, Choate graduate Chris Denorfia, played Major League Baseball from 2005 through 2016, starting his career, like Romano and Dibble, in Cincinnati.

“I’m looking forward to making a name for myself now,” Romano said. “Just continue to give back to Southington and go from there.”

Speaking of giving back, Romano was in Southington this winter and stopped by his former high school coach Charlie Lembo’s youth baseball camp. It was, after all, only a few years ago that Romano was playing for Lembo as a sophomore on the junior varsity team.

Romano was Lembo’s ace when SHS lost to Newington 3-2 in an epic 10-inning state title game at Muzzy Field. In his final high school game, Romano threw over 140 pitches in those 10 innings and, despite Lembo’s best efforts, refused to exit the state championship game in the eighth, ninth or 10th innings.

Romano’s visit to Lembo’s camp prompted an impromptu Q&A with parents and kids alike. Romano signed several autographs and delighted kids with his approachable personality.

 “Sal was a great kid growing up and is so solid as a person,” Lembo said. “You’re just so happy when he fulfills his dreams.”

Traits like those Lembo speaks about seem to come naturally to Romano, whether he’s in Southington or his new home of Cincinnati.

“I like to go to the youth clinics here (in Cincinnati) and go to the hospitals. Just share some moments with kids,” said Romano, who played at Memorial Park in Southington North Little League. “I really take a lot of pride in that. I always want to be a good person before a good baseball player.”

Sunday is another step toward being both.