By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
DUNEDIN, Florida – Jordan Romano had the time of his life at the World Baseball Classic.
Representing the country of his father’s birth, the native of Markham, Ont., suited up for Team Italy in March to compete internationally for the first time since the right-handed hurler played for the Canadian Junior National Team briefly seven years ago.
The Toronto Blue Jays prospect enjoyed every moment of the experience while it lasted, getting into two games for the Italian squad, and earning the win in its tournament-opening matchup against Team Mexico when his offence came back for five runs in the bottom of the ninth to walk off the host squad.
“It was pretty cool to pitch there, because you’re playing against the best guys out there,” Romano said. “That was awesome, putting my stuff against theirs. It was just a cool experience. I don’t know how to describe it, but it was awesome going against the best guys in the game.”
After arriving at spring training in Dunedin, Fla., early to work out a pitching plan with the Blue Jays, Romano joined the Italian national team in Mesa, Ariz., just before the squad flew to Mexico to begin tournament play. There, he had a chance to get to know his new teammates and earned an early taste of the major-league life.
“I got to Arizona and it was basically spring training for Team Italy,” Romano said. “We met all the guys and you do the same drills, fielding practice, batting practice, and we would throw bullpens. I got into game action versus the A’s over there. It was essentially spring training with a different team, which was good because the guys bonded before we went over to Mexico.
“When we finally got the whole team together, we went on a chartered flight to Mexico. It was pretty cool, we had just the team on the flight. It was very big league. The whole experience was really big league. Everything from the hotels to the transportation, everything was first class. And the atmosphere there, that first game, playing Mexico in Mexico, the fans were wild. It was the craziest baseball experience ever, pitching in that game.”
Along with the amazing on-field experience, Romano enjoyed learning about Italian baseball and what the game in his adopted country has to offer. Gaining education in the international game, the 24-year-old is hoping that what the team accomplished in Mexico will help its continued growth, and that he can contribute further in the future.
“I learned a little bit about Italian baseball because there were guys who were actually from Italy on the team,” Romano said. “They explained to me what baseball in Italy was like. It’s really far behind baseball in the U.S., and even baseball in Canada. They play in a professional league over there, but they only play two games a week, and year to year their schedule is shrinking.
“That wasn’t good to hear. But hopefully with us playing in the World Baseball Classic, keeping things close, we were in every game, hopefully that helped grow it a little bit. I would like to see it grow over there, that would be cool.”
When Italy departed the event, knocked out after losing a tiebreaker game to Venezuela, Romano returned to exhibition play in Florida before beginning his season with the Class-A Advanced Dunedin Blue Jays. The atmosphere was a little bit different, to say the least.
“There, you’re not so much trying to work on things as you are trying to get outs and just trying to keep your team in it,” the 6-foot-4, 200-pound righty said. “Here, you’re essentially doing the same thing but every day you’re still trying to work on things.
“Here, a big thing is changeup development for me, so they want me to throw that more. With Team Italy, I wasn’t going to throw it because I’m going with what I know can get guys out. Here it’s more developmental, but you’re still competing every game. It was different. Every game there was like a playoff atmosphere. It would be pretty crazy playing every game in a playoff atmosphere with fifty thousand fans screaming at you.”
Romano has entered what he hopes will become his first full season on the field in professional baseball. After being selected in the 10th round of the 2014 draft out of Oral Roberts University, the former Ontario Blue Jays hurler suffered a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of his throwing elbow in his first spring training the following year and had to undergo Tommy John surgery to repair it.
He missed all of the following season and returned partway through last year, joining and finding success with the Lansing Lugnuts. In 34 career appearances, with 19 starts and 130 innings under his belt, Romano has posted a 2.22 ERA with 50 walks and 139 strikeouts, holding opponents to a .213 batting average.
“I was doubting myself because it was like I wasn’t sure if I was going to be the same again [after surgery],” Romano said. “So coming back initially I was in my head. My throwing program, the training staff said it was probably the worst one they’ve ever seen.
“You go through little bumps here and there, but for me I was getting in my head more than anything mechanically. So I really do understand how that doubt and lack of self confidence can come in, and as time progresses it gets less and less. You basically naturally get over it, and the more I threw, the more I realized hey, I can actually do this.”
So far in the Florida State League, Romano has two wins in five starts and six games, with a 2.76 ERA over 29 1/3 innings, with 10 walks and 33 strikeouts. Aiming to just stay on the field all year long, the right-hander is also trying to gain confidence in the four-seam circle changeup that he has found some comfort with.
“For this season, I obviously want to do well and compete every game, and stay healthy,” he said. “But the biggest thing is I want to develop my pitches so that they’re not just good for A ball, they’re good for the big leagues. That’s what I want to do. I want to get everything sharper, so in turn I can do well here and then keep building toward the majors. Basically, this year is about development, learning who I am as a pitcher, and what I need to do to get guys out.”
Dunedin’s skipper, John Schneider, who also managed the righty in Lansing last season, has been excited by the progress he’s seen from Romano and is looking forward to when everything he is working on comes together.
“The changeup is huge for him,” Schneider said. “To me, he almost has a reliever mentality right now. He’s a big, strong dude, throws hard, good slider, and he wants to try to strike everybody out. So having the changeup in his back pocket, it’s something that we’ve definitely talked to him about, something that’s a definite priority.
“The more he uses it in games, he’ll begin to trust it and understand that it’s going to make his fastball that much faster, and his slider that much tighter. It’s a work in progress because he wants instant results with it, and it’s going to take a bit of time for him to get comfortable with it. But when he does, and I know he will, because he’s a good athlete and a tremendous worker, it’s going to be fun to watch him.”