History narrowly eludes Romero in victory
Rookie takes no-hit bid into seventh inning against Phillies
TORONTO -- There's an unwritten rule in baseball that dictates players are to avoid speaking to their starting pitcher in the event he is throwing a no-hitter. On Friday night, Blue Jays rookie Ricky Romero was flirting with history, but he didn't want to play along with tradition.
"I like talking between innings," Romero said with a smile. "I talked to the guys and guys were talking to me."
That's just the kind of relaxed approach Romero has, and it carried over in a big way in a 6-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies at Rogers Centre. The young left-hander carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning before finally flinching, allowing a leadoff single to Phillies second baseman Chase Utley after breezing through the first six frames.
All evening, Romero relied on a changeup that danced through the strike zone and eluded Philadelphia's bats. During the confrontation with Utley, it was that same pitch that cost him a place in baseball's history books. A 2-0 changeup from Romero hung up in the zone, rocketed off Utley's bat and skipped into right field for a base hit.
After a gasp of disappointment from the crowd, Rogers Centre began to buzz and the cheers grew lounder as the fans shifted out of their seats to offer Romero a well-earned standing ovation. Even with the no-hitter gone, it was a special moment for the rookie pitcher.
"It was pretty cool to be out there tonight," Romero said. "If you guys are wondering if I was thinking about it, of course. As a pitcher, you know you have a no-hitter. Whoever says they don't, it's a lie. You know you have it. It was pretty cool to be a part of it."
The Blue Jays (41-34) provided Romero with more than ample run support early on, chasing Phillies ace Cole Hamels from the contest with two outs in the fifth inning. Alex Rios delivered an RBI single in the fourth, and a two-run double from Aaron Hill -- followed later by a run-scoring sacrifice fly by Scott Rolen -- pushed Toronto ahead, 4-0, in the fifth.
Toronto tacked on a pair of insurance runs in the eighth inning -- not that more was needed to help Romero to his second successive win. The 24-year-old left-hander didn't need much assistance on this night. Romero -- an afterthought in the race for two rotation spots midway through Spring Training -- cruised through the first six innings while facing just one batter above the minimum.
"Outstanding job," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "He just really dominated out there tonight."
Romero's lone blemish over that span was a one-out walk to Utley in the fourth inning. No harm done, though. Featuring that strong changeup and a sharp curveball, Romero struck out the side in that frame and finished with seven strikeouts over his seven innings. Those two pitches also helped create 11 outs via ground ball.
The only issue was Romero's pitch count. Through six innings, the lefty had used 88 pitches, leaving Gaston with a little bit of a dilemma.
"You'd love to see that kid pitch a no-hitter," Gaston said. "But you certainly would've had to push the pitch count up quite a bit on him. That's one of those things where managers just sit there and go, 'Man, what am I going to do with this?' He pitched a great game for us."
Romero's latest outing was further evidence of how far he has come since the spring.
The Blue Jays were close to returning Romero to Minor League camp during the preseason in light of the pitcher's early command issues. Toronto pitching coach Brad Arnsberg helped convince the club to keep Romero around, and the pair went to work on his mechanics. The turning point came on March 29, when Romero logged seven impressive innings in a road start against the Astros.
"I keep visualizing and looking back to when we went over to play in Kissimmee," said Gaston, referring to Houston's spring home in Florida. "That's when he first started to really open up some eyes."
With that performance late in the spring, Romero -- selected sixth overall in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft -- claimed the fourth spot in the rotation. His success in the latter stages of Spring Training carried over into April, when Romero opened the season with a 2-0 record to go along with a 1.71 ERA in his first three outings.
"The kid's done a good job," Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "He just keeps working. I think any time you go through adversity, it's probably the best thing in this game. It builds character."
Romero missed a month between April and May with a strained right oblique and returned with a pair of rough outings at the end of last month. Since then, though, Romero has gone 3-1 with a 2.36 ERA over his past five starts, mixing in 33 strikeouts against 10 walks across 34 1/3 innings.
"He's starting to get back to where he left off before he went on the DL," Gaston said. "He kept the ball down great tonight. He kept it down and got his breaking ball and changeup down. He just did a great job."
The Phillies had a chance to swing the momentum in their favor after Utley ended Romero's no-hit bid in the seventh inning. Following Utley's base hit, Jayson Werth reached on an infield single to put runners on first and second base with no outs. Romero then sent a 2-0 fastball to Phillies slugger Ryan Howard, who drilled the pitch up the middle.
Hill snared the sharply hit grounder with a backhanded grab -- his left arm pushed into the air by the force behind the ball. Hill recovered quickly and fired the baseball to shortstop Marco Scutaro, who stepped on second base and threw to first while hurdling a hard-sliding Werth. It was a double play that left Gaston in awe.
"That was a great double play, wasn't it?" Gaston marveled. "I mean, that was a tough ball to handle. Of course, to finish it off, Scutaro had to get way in the air to avoid getting hit. It was a big double play. If it gets through, it's going to change that whole ballgame."
Romero followed by forcing John Mayberry to fly out to center field -- one of only two outs to the outfield during the starter's seven innings on the hill. The Phillies tried to rally in the ninth inning, scoring one run off Toronto reliever Dirk Hayhurst, but Romero's outing was simply too much to overcome.
Asked if he'd ever thrown a no-hitter, Romero laughed and said he might have fashioned one in high school back home in Los Angeles. Thanks to Utley, Romero will continue to wait for another chance to achieve the rare feat on the big league stage.
For now, Romero knows his job as a rookie is to keep learning.
"It's still a work in progress," Romero said. "Hopefully, it just keeps getting better every time. That's one thing about this game. It's going to keep me humble forever, and I'm going to come back tomorrow ready to work and see what I can get better at."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.