Fernando Romero's return from Tommy John surgery went smoother than expected, but the fireballing right-hander saved his best work for last.
Minnesota's sixth-ranked prospect allowed two hits and struck out nine over seven innings to lead Class A Advanced Fort Myers past Palm Beach, 1-0, on Thursday. After missing all of 2015, Romero will be shut down for the rest of the season after reaching his organization-imposed innings limit.
"We're not holding him back because he's weak or we're worried," Miracle pitching coach Henry Bonilla said. "He's been strong, he's healthy, but this is our protocol and the way we go about our business with the innings limit. We shut him down strictly because it's his protocol. He could probably throw three or four more starts, but this is the number he's good at."
Romero (5-2) gave up two singles and didn't allow a runner past first base in his final outing of the season. It was the first time since his 2016 debut on May 20 -- in which he spun five perfect innings for Class A Cedar Rapids -- that the Dominican Republic native allowed two or fewer baserunners in a game, and he matched his season high with seven frames.
"It helps that he's got probably some of the best stuff in our organization," Bonilla said. "He's got a mid-90s fastball, a really good slider and now he's added a changeup in the mix that's getting to be big-league level. He's using his mix correctly, so he's really taken some good steps forward."
After Dylan Tice's two-out single in the second inning, Romero retired the next 13 batters he faced -- seven by strikeout. An infield single by Juan Herrera to lead off the seventh ended the stretch, but the 21-year-old right-hander got the next three batters on 11 pitches to end his night.
"He started getting the tempo and feel of his slider, and if he gets command of his slider where he knows exactly where it's going to go -- especially with two strikes -- they're not going to hit it," Bonilla said. "It's too good of a pitch and too late of action. ... He commands his fastball so well. It makes it too hard with two strikes to try and catch up to 96-97 [mph] and then you've got that really good slider. ... He just had a really good mix."
Since allowing four runs -- three earned -- on five hits and two walks over three innings Aug. 6 in Charlotte, Romero twirled 20 1/3 scoreless innings in his final three starts, striking out 28 while allowing 11 hits and two walks.
"His stuff even in that outing [against Charlotte] was OK, but it's his mental focus pitch to pitch," Bonilla said. "He's got great stuff and it's just about him having a purpose with each pitch. That's what we've been getting him to keep in mind. Older guys and more veteran hitters, especially in the Major Leagues, are going to have an approach and he's going to have to go against them. Every pitch has purpose, every pitch he knows where it's going and he executes really well."
Romero's season has been a rousing success since his May debut and Miracle manager Jeff Smith still finds himself in awe watching the 21-year-old pitch. In a system full of intimidating arms, the Twins remain excited to see Romero unleash his full potential.
"Maybe next year, later on, he's probably completing the game," Bonilla said. "We're going to give him a plan for the offseason to come back ready and strong, and hopefully he has just as dominating of a 2017 as he did 2016. Hopefully, he goes into next year strong and we get him up to the big leagues quickly."
Romero was locked in a pitchers' duel for most of the night, as Cardinals' No. 9 prospect Sandy Alcantara matched him zero for zero through six. Fort Myers broke through for the game's lone run in the seventh when Joe Maloney doubled with one out and scored on a single by Christian Ibarra -- two of the Miracle's four hits in the game as they swept the Cardinals in the three-game set despite combining for four runs in the series.
The sweep was made possible by some outstanding pitching performances. On Tuesday, Randy LeBlanc (5-7) tossed seven three-hit innings in a 2-1 victory, and Miles Nordgren (1-4) followed that up with six one-hit frames to lead Fort Myers to a 1-0 win Wednesday.
Alcantara (0-3) allowed one run on four hits and a walk while fanning six over 6 2/3 innings.