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Ninth inning belonged to Romo10/10/2007 10:00 AM ET
By Shane Figueroa / Special to MLB.com
You have to scan through all the statistics on Sergio Romo's player page to see just how dominant the young reliever was in 2007. If you happen to settle on just his nine saves, the typical measuring stick of a closer, you'd miss the bigger picture.
Romo went 6-2 with a 1.36 ERA and hurled 34 2/3 innings down the stretch without allowing an earned run to become the second straight San Jose Giant to earn MiLB.com's Class A Advanced Relief Pitcher of the Year Award (following Brian Anderson).
Not enough to win such an award? Don't worry, it gets better. The Mesa State product held opponents to a .155 batting average and posted an absurd 105/15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 66 1/3 innings. He had three scoreless streaks of at least 11 innings. Romo notched at least one strikeout in all but four of his 41 appearances and fanned four or more in a game 10 times.
"The strange part is, I don't look at him as a strikeout pitcher," said Giants pitching coach Jim Bennett. "My initial impression of Sergio in Spring Training was, 'Here's a guy who isn't afraid to let the bat hit the ball.'
"He throws strikes, a lot of them, to the point where you're surprised the few times he would fall behind. He gets ahead of everyone -- and when you're constantly pitching ahead, no matter what kind of stuff you have, batters are going to start taking defensive hacks. And those lead to strikeouts."
That simple strategy led to many more third strikes than Romo notched in 2006, when he fanned 95 in 103 1/3 innings with Class A Augusta. He went 10-2 with a 2.53 ERA while shifting between starting and relieving. Before he could get back to work this season, he had to recover from the strained flexor tendon in his pitching hand that caused him to miss all of April.
"Coming back from an injury is incredibly frustrating," Romo said. "You want to get back as quickly as possible, but injuries take time to heal. We were smart about the rehab, and it was stressful on me to miss a month, but my arm strength was there down the stretch, so there was some good that came from it."
After allowing only three hits and an unearned run in his first 11 2/3 frames, Romo ran into trouble in two outings against the Lake Elsinore Storm, the Giants' eventual opponent in the California League Championship Series. The 24-year-old right hander was tagged for three runs on five hits on June 9 and two more runs on July 2. He served up homers in both outings but didn't give up another until Sept. 2.
"I try and take the same approach every time when I'm pitching," he said. "I'm not afraid of contact. I want guys to hit the ball, as long as I dictate what pitches they hit. I trust my defense to make plays. I'm not going to try and run my pitch count up for a few extra strikeouts."
After that rough outing in early July, Romo ripped through the second half with a 0.85 ERA, averaging 1.91 strikeouts per inning and allowing only 30 baserunners in 42 1/3 frames. Of the 20 second-half runners he inherited, only two crossed the plate.
Showcasing a fastball-slurve-changeup repertoire, Romo began a string of 23 consecutive scoreless innings from July 6-Aug. 13. After allowing an unearned run in the Giants' 6-5 loss to Stockton on Aug. 15, he threw another 11 shutout frames in a row, allowing one hit and no walks while fanning 19.
"I wasn't even aware the streak had reached that far," Romo admitted. "It's easy to have fun when your team is winning -- you don't pay attention to stats as much, everyone's mood is light and you're only interested in keeping it that way. The last thing you want is for things to change for the worse, so you keep doing your job, getting outs and trusting the other players to do the same."
That attitude carried the Giants into the playoffs, where Romo again dominated the ninth inning. He yielded two hits without a walk in 5 1/3 scoreless frames, fanned nine and went 3-for-3 in save opportunities. He was on the mound for the final out as San Jose rallied from a two-game deficit to defeat Lake Elsinore for its second championship in three years.
"It's a rewarding feeling to pitch well against a team that scored on me earlier in the season," said Romo. "They had given me trouble a few times and, honestly, I believe the failures are more important.
"Some guys might try and pitch differently after struggling and, truthfully, I may have tried some different things after blowing that first save back in June, but it doesn't work. You have to trust your stuff and keep trusting it."
Romo's fearlessness and consistency in the strike zone should continue to propel him through the Giants organization and, one day, to a seat in the San Francisco bullpen. Bennett isn't sure when it'll happen, but if the first two years of Romo's career are any indication, it won't be long.
"I absolutely see him as a big leaguer," Bennett said. "It's not just the stuff, which is excellent, but the way he uses it. He's a special competitor. There was one instance during the season when I went to the mound and told him to intentionally walk a hitter to set up a double play. He wasn't happy about it. He was upset. He feels he can get anyone out in any situation, and that's the mentality you need as a big-league reliever."
Romo has a different take on pitching in late-inning pressure situations, one he wouldn't have offered back at Mesa State.
"I have a 20-month-old son," he said, "and closing games is a lot like being a dad. My son, like my teammates, is relying on me to get the job done. I have to have confidence in myself to succeed at both. I'm young at being a closer and a father, but my goal is to get better and better at each one."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.