Notes from Houston
Minute Maid Park
Last year, in his final start of Spring Training on March 29, Ricky Romero slipped into a based loaded jam with no outs on the road against the Astros. The young lefty struck out Miguel Tejada, and then did the same to Geoff Blum. Pudge Rodriguez then grounded out to end the sixth-inning threat.
That showing helped earn Romero a spot in Toronto’s rotation.
On Friday night in Houston, Romero found himself in a bases loaded jam against the same Astros with one out in the third inning. Slugger Carlos Lee stepped into the batter’s box and promptly struck out. Romero then forced an easy fly out to right field off the bat of Pedro Feliz to escape unscathed.
“I think I did,” Romero said with a laugh. “It definitely feels good.”
Romero joked, because he entered Spring Training with a job secured after a 13-win season in 2009. After logging five solid innings in his final outing of the spring, Romero lowered his Grapefruit League ERA to 1.89. That’s not even including the seven shutout innings he threw last time out.
So what if that was a simulated game in an indoor batting cage…
Against the Astros, Romero did not have his best stuff, and he was quick to roll his eyes and shake his head when thinking about the three walks he issued (one to leadoff the second inning). What was good about Friday’s performance was that Romero managed to get by without pinpoint command.
“It goes to show you that your stuff is plenty good enough,” he said. “You don’t need to do extra. When I settle down, when I’m calm and when I’m under control, I feel like my pitches are sharp. It’s just those few times when I kind of get out in front of myself and kind of rush a little bit that I get in trouble.”
Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston liked the fact that Romero fought through command problems and fashioned a decent outing anyway.
“Ricky didn’t have his best location tonight, but he battled out there,” said the skipper. “I think every time he goes out there he learns something. I think tonight he learned a little bit about himself. He was rushing a little bit and I think the last two innings he settled down and pitched well.”
FRASOR FEELING GOOD: On March 14, Blue Jays closer Jason Frasor simply could not find his changeup. So what did he do? He kept throwing it… Over. And over. And over. What happened? Four runs on four hits, including one homer, with two walks and only one out recorded in a fortgettable appearance against the Braves.
“I just kept going with it and it wasn’t there,” Frasor said.
The changeup — for Frasor it’s more of a splitter-changeup hybrid — was the pitch that helped the righty post a career year in 2009. It helps complement his overpowering fastball and sharp slider and it is a big reason why he is now Toronto’s closer in a contract year.
But it was missing, and Frasor was getting worried.
“At the beginning of spring, when games started, I was like, ‘I’m OK. I feel pretty good,'” Frasor said. “Then, in the middle weeks, I was a little worried, honestly. I just didn’t have a good feel for the changeup.”
Lately, though, Frasor is feeling much better. On Friday night, he entered the game with two outs, a runner on first and the Jays holding a 3-2 lead. After walking the first hitter he faced, Frasor induced a groundout to end the inning. Stuff-wise, Frasor is feeling much more confident right now.
“I feel like I’m right where I need to be going into Opening Day,” Frasor said. “I was worried there for a minute, though.”
Bringing Frasor into the game with a runner on base in the middle of an inning was something pitching coach Bruce Walton wanted to do. Frasor said it was good to experience that type of situation before the season starts. At first, it looked like Frasor might have been coming in for a multi-inning save.
Frasor only logged one-third of an inning, though, and Gaston said — with setup man Scott Downs and Kevin Gregg in the fold — he doesn’t plan on using anyone for a multi-inning save unless it’s absolutely necessary.
“Right now, we have the luxury of having three guys down there,” Gaston said. “So it shouldn’t be a problem unless everybody is burned out. Then you might have to do it. But you wouldn’t really want to do that.”
CUTTING UP: Lefty Brian Tallet keeps getting name-dropped this spring. Within the past couple weeks, Brett Cecil said he started trying out a cut fastball that he learned from Tallet. On Friday, Romero said he is also throwing a cutter now — one he learned from Tallet as well.
“We’ve been talking about it,” Romero said. “It was more just where to put your fingers and how to release it. He’s got a good one. I’ve played catch with him before and he throws it and it’s just like, ‘Wow.’ It’s a pretty good one when it can be almost the same as your fastball, but then has that late cut.
“I feel like right now I have that good movement on it, but it’s just a matter of working on it.”
Working on the cutter dates back to last season for Romero, who had discussions with former Jays ace Roy Halladay about the pitch. Romero said the fact that he and Tallet are both lefties has helped him develop the pitch. Ricky did not throw a cutter at all last year. Now, it’s part of his regular arsenal.
“It’s been a big pitch for me,” Romero said. “If I get the hang of it, I think it’s going to be a good weapon for me throughout the year.”
BIRD FEED: RHP Brandon Morrow starts on Saturday in his final tuneup for the regular season. It will give the Jays one last look at the pitcher to determine if he is completely over the right shoulder fatigue he battled this spring. … GM Alex Anthopoulos arrived in Houston Friday evening and met up with the club. He will be monitoring Morrow and third baseman Edwin Encarnacion (left wrist) to decided if either player might need to open on the DL. … The Jays reportedly signed Cuban shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria weeks ago. With Opening Day on Monday, and the GM now in town with the team, might an official announcement be coming within the next few days? … Shortstop John McDonald is not with the Jays in Houston. He is back home in Connecticut to be with his ailing father, Jack, who is battling liver cancer. Johnny Mac will join the Jays in Arlington for Sunday’s workout before Monday’s opener. … RHP Shawn Camp was with the team on Friday and logged an inning, but he will not be with the team on Saturday. Camp will be heading home to attend the baptism of his new baby daughter, born a little more than a week ago. He’ll be back with the team a day later. … Second baseman Aaron Hill has homered in three of his past four games. Hill belted a two-run shot to left field against the Astros on Friday night. … Jose Bautista went 2-for-5 to raise his spring average to .436. … Gaston said Friday’s lineup will be the Opening Day lineup: 1. Bautista RF, 2. Hill 2B, 3. Adam Lind DH, 4. Vernon Wells CF, 5. Lyle Overbay 1B, 6. John Buck, C, 7. Encarncion 3B, 8. Alex Gonzalez SS, 9. Travis Snider LF.
EASY DOES IT: In the fourth inning on Friday, Romero sprinted toward a grounder chopped to his left and made a diving stab at the ball, landing hard on the grass. Hill was able to snatch up the ball and make a quick throw to first for the out.
“I almost had it,” Romero said with a grin. “Almost.”
Gaston is all for aggressive play, but three days before Opening Day?
“Yeah, I don’t like that,” said Gaston, shaking his head.
QUOTABLE: “Aaron’s learning to become a great hitter. He’s starting to learn how to sit on pitches, look for pitches. It’s the same thing we talk about all the time, having an idea up there. He’s starting to have a great idea up there.” –Gaston, on Hill