ST. PETERSBURG - Ricky Romero sounds like a man who is lost. Pitched like one, too.
Normally a control pitcher, Romero has walked 21 batters in 22 innings over his last four starts, including a career-high seven walks during Wednesday’s 5-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.
He was long gone from the fray when Tampa’s B.J. Upton drilled a walk-off double off reliever Darren Oliver to score speedy Rich Thompson from first base in the bottom of the 11th. Romero's fourth consecutive premature departure was eating at him.
“I can’t explain it,” said Romero. “I’m frustrated. This game takes a lot out of you mentally, more than physically. Right now it’s taking a toll on me because I’m working and trying to fix things and it’s just not going my way.”
Central to his struggles is his sudden and inexplicable inability to deliver pinpoint control with his fastball. It is the key to being an effective ace and something that has been at his core as a pitcher since he arrived in the big leagues in 2008.
Romero’s other pitches, his curve and change, are still sharp but without location to set them up, the effectiveness is limited.
“If you don’t have command of your fastball, the other stuff is kind of worthless,” he said. “Everything works off your fastball. When you’re able to locate your fastball, that’s what makes you a pitcher. I can’t live throwing 50 changeups or 50 curveballs a game. I’ve got to be able to control that heater.”
From the first inning through the third, as the Rays built a 4-1 lead, taking advantage of four walks and a hit batsman along the way, Romero could not find the handle on the strike zone. Then, out of nowhere, came two three-up, three-down innings that included three strikeouts.
“That’s what happens when I’m in the zone,” he said. “What did they get? Two hits? They didn’t beat me. I beat myself. That’s been the story of my season to this point. I’m beating myself more than other teams have beaten me.”
Even as down as Romero was, far from having his best stuff, he still kept the score from getting out of control. The Jays scored a second run in the fifth inning on a Yan Gomes sacrifice fly to get within two runs. That set the stage for Edwin Encarnacion’s 14th home run of the season, a two-run shot with one out in the top of the eighth inning that scored Jose Bautista, who doubled ahead of him.
Earlier, Bautista had given Toronto a short-lived 1-0 lead in the top of the first, blasting his 12th home run of the season deep to left-centre.
Kelly Johnson’s two-out double in the top of the ninth put the potential go-ahead run in scoring position but Fernando Rodney got Yunel Escobar to ground out to end the threat.
Johnson, suffering from hamstring tightness, was removed from the game in the bottom of the ninth and Omar Vizquel threw out Carlos Pena at the plate as he tried to score the game-winning run from second on a groundball by Drew Sutton that went for an infield single.
In the 11th, Oliver hit leadoff man Thompson before striking out Pena. Upton then hit a liner to the left-field wall and Thompson scored from first without a throw.
In the end, the Blue Jay staff issued 10 walks and really were fortunate to be in a position to win the game with one swing. In six of the 11 innings, Tampa's leadoff hitter was on via a walk or hit-by-pitch.
“That’s 10 additional baserunners,” said manager John Farrell, referring to the walks. “When we’re in the strike zone, we’re recording outs.”
In the fourth inning, when Tampa catcher Chris Gimenez squared to bunt and popped it up, there was very nearly a disastrous collision between Romero and Brett Lawrie. They both converged on the ball and, at the very last second, Lawrie dove low and Romero went over top of him. Both hit the ground heavily and Lawrie caught the ball for the out.
It was a sobering moment but not so concerning for Romero as his own struggles.
“Right now it’s just one of those things where the game is kicking my butt," he said. "I’ve just got to stay mentally strong. I’ve never gone through this in my career -- ever. I’ve never walked seven guys, six guys, in back-to-back-to-back outings. It’s really frustrating.”