SOUTHINGTON — Sal Romano says he’s right back where he belongs: On the Cincinnati Reds’ Opening Day roster.
It’s no April’s Fools Day joke. Romano is back in the bigs.
It may not have been this past weekend’s most surprising Major League Baseball transaction, but it was close. When the Reds broke spring training camp in Goodyear, Ariz., the former Southington High School ace was once again listed on the team’s big-league roster.
With his roster spot secured, Romano headed East with Joey Votto & Co. for Cincinnati’s home opener against the St. Louis Cardinals. It’ll be Romano’s second Opening Day with the Reds. His first was in 2017.
Once again, the 6-foot-5 right-hander will be joined Thursday by family and friends in the stands. They will be part of the limited number of fans allowed inside Great American Ball Park.
As a starter for the Reds in 2017, Romano didn’t pitch on his first MLB Opening Day. That may change Thursday. His role with the Reds this season will be as a middle reliever.
“I came into spring training ready to go and had every expectation to make the team,” said Romano, who at 27 is starting his 10th season of professional baseball. “I feel great, man. I’m healthy, confident. I am where I belong now and, hopefully, here to stay.”
This was something of a last chance for Romano, who was signed out of SHS in 2011 and worked his way up the Reds’ farm system with stops in Billings, Montana; Dayton, Ohio; Pensacola and Daytona, Fla. and Triple-A Louisville. He’s pitched for the big-league club on four previous occasions.
Romano, however, was out of minor-league options in 2021. As a result, he was facing the possibility of life without baseball for the first time since Little League. Had Romano not made the Reds big-league roster, he would have become a free agent.
“I had to perform,” Romano said. “I knew coming in that I had to show I belong still. It was really about how I looked, how the coaches viewed me — and the front office, obviously — (and) how my stuff was playing.”
As Romano admitted Tuesday from his adopted home of Cincinnati, his spring training stats weren’t eye-popping. He threw 8 1/3 innings in Arizona and allowed six earned runs. Three of those earned runs, however, came on a fly ball lost in the sun that was not scored an error.
His spring ERA was a bloated 6.48 because of what he called “bad luck.” What once again set “Big Sally” apart from those vying for a roster spot in Cincinnati’s bullpen was his overpowering fastball.
Throwing between 93 and 96 miles an hour, the 250-pound Romano struck out 11 of 40 batters he faced in Arizona and walked just four.
Romano says he also has a better feel for his slider, which he now throws with a different grip. That slider ranges from 86-89 miles an hour.
“Stuff-wise, especially my last outing, I kind of just put all together and, hopefully, that helped me make the team,” Romano said. “I’m really excited for where I’m at.”
Romano, who had been a starting pitcher through the 2018 season, moved into his role of reliever while in Louisville in 2019. He made 38 relief appearances for the Reds' Triple-A team that season. His transition continued later that year with the Reds when he made 12 appearances out of Cincinnati's bullpen.
Romano spent a “crazy” 2020 in the Reds organization. He was pitching well last spring when MLB suspended its season due to the pandemic.
As a result, like most of his peers in baseball, Romano’s life was in limbo for two months until he was invited back to the club’s second spring training.
While he didn’t make the Reds’ 2020 roster, Romano showed enough on the mound to be assigned to the club’s alternate training site for players who might potentially be needed later in the season.
Sure enough, he was called up late last season. He made two 2020 appearances, throwing 1 1/3 scoreless innings.
Over portions of six seasons with the Reds, Romano owns a 3-2 Major League record. He started five games for the Reds in 2018 and has thrown 60 2/3 career MLB innings.
His most productive season came after his first Opening Day in 2017, when he threw 20 innings for the Reds. Romano struck out 25 batters, while walking just three. He went 1-0 that season with a 3.15 ERA.
Romano’s career ERA is 4.15.
“There have been a lot of ups and downs, but I like where I’m at,” Romano said. “I’m not the same pitcher I was in 2017 and 2018. I just think I’m in a really good spot, overall.”
Romano’s spot on this season’s Opening Day roster was paved by the Reds when they released former Los Angeles Angels reliver Noe Ramirez last week. With six of the Reds’ eight bullpen spots all but claimed at the time of Ramirez’s release, Romano and former first-round pick out of Vanderbilt, Carson Fulmer, were the only two relievers left in spring training.
Both were out of options. Both made the Reds’ Opening Day roster.
“Opening Day is always special, especially the way Cincinnati does it,” Romano said. “I know with COVID it’s not going to be as crazy as it usually is, but Cincinnati does it the best. So, I’m looking forward to having some fans and being able to play baseball (again) with fans.”
Speaking of which, Romano said he’s excited to see real faces in the stands instead of cutouts.
“It was weird,” Romano said of pitching last season without fans in attendance. “But you have to make your own adrenaline. You have to pump yourself up. It’s your job.
“I’m ecstatic,” continued Romano “This is a dream I’ve had since I was a kid, to be part of that Opening Day roster. You want to see everyone. It’s just the start of baseball season again, all the hard work you put in during the offseason paying off.
“I love Cincinnati. It’s where I became a major-league baseball player. They gave me my first opportunity to achieve my dream.”
Romano’s dream continues Thursday.