He only pitched four innings, but you have to pardon Ricky Romero of the River Cats for feeling ecstatic about his outing Monday night in Las Vegas. It was his best in nearly four years.
Since the middle of 2012, the baseball life of the one-time Toronto Blue Jays ace has been marked by relentless pain – two knee surgeries – and ongoing defeat. Last year, the Giants made the left-hander a reclamation project. On Monday night, he threw for the first time in two years in a game played somewhere other than Arizona. Even if it was against the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s, he did not allow a run, and he came out of it somewhere north of giddy.
“I mean, just to be part of this environment again,” Romero said in a telephone interview Tuesday morning. “This is what I live for. So, to have been able to go out there and give us a chance to win as a starting pitcher, that’s all you ever ask for. You go out there and compete, and you try to set the tone, and it definitely was very cool.”
Of course Romero, 31, wants to make it back to the majors, even if he doesn’t regain the status as one of the top pitchers in baseball, which he once was for the Blue Jays. From 2009 through mid-2012, he won 50 of 80 decisions. In 2011, he made the American League All-Star team and finished 10th in the voting for the Cy Young Award.
In talking to Romero, you learn that, for now, he’s just happy to be back on the mound and doing what he loves, which is trying to get guys out.
River Cats manager Jose Alguacil will give him the ball again Saturday night at Raley Field in the second game of the club’s home-opening series that starts Friday night against Salt Lake.
“I’m just thankful to wear a uniform and to be part of a team,” Romero said. “I can’t wait to go out there.”
Surely you remember the last time Romero pitched at Raley Field. In case you forgot, it was April 22, 2005, when he threw a six-hitter for defending national champion Cal State Fullerton. Romero and the Titans beat UC Davis 5-1 in front of a crowd announced at 2,351.
A few months later, Romero was the sixth overall pick in the baseball draft by the Blue Jays. By 2009, he was in the majors, and he did so well his rookie season (13-9) the Blue Jays signed him to a five-year, $30 million deal the next year.
The contract ensured that in spite of the four seasons of pain and suffering, Romero’s life has not been one of want. Along with financial stability, he attained happiness at home. He married Kara Lang, a one-time soccer star from Canada and UCLA. They now have a baby boy and live in Hermosa Beach.
Even with the human and material comforts, Romero still feels the need to prove that he can still pitch, that he is not one to quit despite two bad knees that nearly killed his career.
The weird thing about Romero’s knee injuries, there was no traumatic event that led to them. Instead, his knees appear to have withered under the routine stress of training and performance.
“I used to run on concrete a lot when I was younger, coming up through the minors to the big leagues,” the East Los Angeles native said. “And it began a soreness, and soreness led to a compensating from one knee to the other.”
He tried to pitch through the pain for two years, from the time it became a constant and unwelcome companion in 2012. Excruciating pain marked his airplane flights and other occasions when he would have to sit for long periods.
In June 2014, he had surgery on the left knee and several weeks later the right. In April 2015, Toronto released him, even though the Blue Jays owed him more than $8 million. A month later, the Giants signed him.
“They gave me a chance,” Romero said.
Monday night, the 51s touched him for only one hit while he sent three batters back to the dugout via strikeout. He did walk three but came out of the game on a natural high – thanks in large part the play-calling of battery-mate Andrew Susac.
“He did a really good job noticing what they were adjusting to,” Romero said of the Jesuit High grad. “We sank the ball down and away. We pitched in, and we worked on the heater pretty much because my changeup wasn’t really on.
“(Susac) has been one of the guys that has taken me in and welcomed me with open arms into the organization. He’s a stud.”
Romero knows the timetable to his baseball future will be one of incremental progress and hard work. Maybe he goes five innings Saturday night. In time, he’ll find out where this comeback road leads.
He’s just glad to be on it.
“Putting on the uniform, even though it’s Triple A, I’m as happy as I can be, to be part of a team, to be competing, giving myself a chance,” Romero said. “I like my odds. I’ve just got to continue doing what I’m doing.”