A few weeks ago, on his way to the ballpark, Sergio Romo pulled into a tattoo parlor. He had not planned to get a tattoo right then, but Romo likes spontaneity. He has spent about 50 hours of his life getting tattoos, he guessed, and this time he had the words “live free” inked on the right side of his neck.
“It’s kind of how I’ve done everything,” said Romo, the veteran pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays. “Not necessarily carefree, because I definitely care. I’m not reckless. But I’ve had to let go of certain things in my life, and I wouldn’t have been able to get out of certain spots without living free.”
Romo, 35, is not bound by rigid ideologies. A wispy former 28th-round draft choice known for creative beard styles, he is shorter than his listed 5 foot 11. In 2012, he had the gumption to throw an 89 mile-per-hour fastball down the middle to freeze Miguel Cabrera and clinch the World Series for the San Francisco Giants. A native of Brawley, Calif., who has pitched for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, Romo wore a T-shirt to the parade that read: “I Just Look Illegal.”
So when Rays Manager Kevin Cash asked him on a recent road trip if he’d like to start a game — after nearly 600 games in relief — Romo readily embraced the unconventional. He had always wanted to start, just to see how far he could go. Maybe he could last six innings, he mused, and possibly qualify for a quality start.
That was never the plan. The Rays, without many experienced starters, have used other relievers to start games this season, working two or three innings to begin a bullpen relay. But for Romo, whose sweeping slider gives him a distinct edge against right-handed hitters, they offered a fresh twist on his usual job.
“I got asked to set up the starter instead of the closer,” Romo said. “In my head, I did exactly the same thing that I normally do. I get asked to pitch against predominantly righties in situations that my manager feels are high leverage. And by the stats, the toughest inning is the first.”
He is right about that: Through Wednesday, major league teams had scored 816 runs in the first inning, the most for any inning. The sixth inning — when tiring starters often face hitters for a third time — produced the second-most runs, with 780.
Armed with that data, the Rays asked Romo to face the Los Angeles Angels’ first three hitters on May 19: Zack Cozart, Mike Trout and Justin Upton. All were All-Stars last season, and all hit right-handed — and all struck out. Ryan Yarbrough, a rookie left-hander, entered in the second and worked six and a third innings for the win. He faced Cozart, Trout and Upton just twice each.
The next day, Romo started again. This time he worked one and a third innings, again facing only right-handers, again allowing no runs and striking out three. Three other pitchers pieced together the rest of the game, none facing more than 14 hitters.
Cozart called the Romo experiment bad for baseball, suggesting to The Orange County Register that it could be a ploy to suppress future salaries for pitchers who would otherwise be starters. Romo emphasized the strategic view.
“If anything, it’s just respect,” he said. “We didn’t want to fall behind to a team that’s known to score runs in the first inning. They’re studs. I’m not trying to ruin anything. I’m not trying to change anything. All I’m trying to do is what’s asked of me by my team. I don’t understand the negativity it’s gotten. We’re not here to make things easy on anybody.”
Chaim Bloom, the Rays’ senior vice president for baseball operations, said the idea was not motivated by finances — only logic. The plan gave the Rays a better chance to win, he said, and Romo was the right fit to execute it.
“He was a good guy for those matchups, but with his personality and experience, we had a feeling this was something he was not just going to tolerate, but embrace — and when Kevin presented him with the opportunity, that’s exactly what happened,” Bloom said. “He was really excited about it, and that’s important. You can think that you’re putting your players in a good spot to succeed all you want, but if they don’t think that, then it’s got to mitigate some of that effect.”
After the Rays lost a starter, Jake Faria, to an oblique injury on Tuesday, Cash indicated that Romo would probably start again soon. Backlash aside, Romo is happy to serve when called.
“Obviously, I have no shame in being the guinea pig,” Romo said. “It’s outside the box, and that’s kind of fitting with me, because there isn’t much in my life that I’ve done inside the box.”
A.J. Pollock’s D.L. Déjà Vu
Last year on May 14, Arizona Diamondbacks center fielder A.J. Pollock left a game with a strained right groin and missed seven weeks. The Diamondbacks had withered without Pollock when he missed most of 2016 with an elbow injury, but they thrived in his absence last season, going 31-13 on the way to the playoffs.
This May 14, Pollock left a game again after breaking his thumb diving for a liner — and the Diamondbacks have not handled it as well. After losing their last six with Pollock, they dropped seven of their first eight games without him, including road sweeps against the Mets and the Milwaukee Brewers that knocked Arizona out of first place for the first time this season.
When the Diamondbacks arrived at Citi Field last weekend, they reinserted third baseman Jake Lamb — an All-Star last season — into their lineup after a shoulder injury. But Manager Torey Lovullo seemed to sense that Pollock’s absence would still hurt. He could miss eight weeks.
“There’s lineup continuity that we’ve missed because Jake has been out, but now we’re still weeks away from A.J. returning,” Lovullo said. “When you put the whole group together, hopefully we’re going to be clicking on all cylinders by then and we can just add A.J. and we become a really good offensive team.”
Alas, the Diamondbacks scored just 10 runs in their six losses to the Mets and the Brewers, and Paul Goldschmidt, their five-time All-Star first baseman, entered the weekend with a .200 average and a National League-high 65 strikeouts.
“He had a lot of moving parts that were kind of charging at the pitcher rather than slowly moving back and getting in the hitting position, and he probably started to get frustrated and anxious and started to swing at pitches out of the zone,” Lovullo explained. “It’s a whole cycle. By his standards, he’s not swinging the bat well. The numbers indicate that, but I feel like he’s 10 days away from having it back where he’s going to start crushing it. I think he’s getting close.”
Goldschmidt did homer once in New York and again in Milwaukee, but otherwise was 1 for 19 with 10 strikeouts in those series.
Cubs’ Gamble Has a Wild Start
While many free-agent starters lingered on the market well into the new year, Tyler Chatwood found a home before the winter meetings in early December. The Chicago Cubs eagerly gave a three-year, $38 million deal to Chatwood, the former Colorado Rockies right-hander, betting on his production away from Coors Field.
The numbers were striking: In 2016 and 2017, Chatwood had a 6.07 earned run average and a .303 opponents’ average in the thin air of Denver. Everywhere else, he had a 2.57 E.R.A. and a .195 opponents’ average.
So far, it seems, the Cubs should have paid more attention to a different statistic: walks. Of the 72 pitchers to make at least 50 starts in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Chatwood averaged the most walks per nine innings, with 4.33. After his first nine starts this season, he was leading the majors in walks, with 40, and has averaged 7.88 walks per nine innings.
To put that in context, just one pitcher since 1950 has made at least 25 starts in a season while averaging 7.8 walks per nine innings: Bobby Witt, who did it with Texas in 1986 and 1987.
“I’m fighting myself,” Chatwood told reporters after Tuesday’s loss, when he walked six in two and two-thirds innings. “I’m trying to force pitches, rather than just letting it happen and trusting my stuff. A little mechanical thing: I’m drifting on the mound. I don’t know where I created that bad habit, but it’s hard to break right now.”
The good news is that Chatwood does have reason to trust his stuff. When he is not allowing walks, he has been very hard to hit, allowing just 6.7 hits per nine innings, the best mark of his seven-year career.
M.L.B. Keeps an Eye on Its Facebook Games
As usual, there was one game in the past week that fans could not watch on television or the MLB.com AtBat app: the weekly Facebook-only game, which featured the Los Angeles Angels and the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday afternoon. The Facebook game has been a source of frustration for some fans — those without Facebook or those who would rather watch on TV — but Major League Baseball believes that the exclusivity of the broadcast is the only way to accurately test the idea.
“How are you going to learn whether this platform is viable?” said Tony Petitti, deputy commissioner for business and media. “We have to think about how we reach our fans, not only in the next year or two years, but how are we going to reach them in the next five to 10 to 15 years? We want these platforms to be tested now, and we have over 2,000 games. We have the luxury of being able to test it in day games. This is a sport that should be able to test a package like this.”
The league carried some games on Facebook last year, too, but Petitti said it gained no useful information from that venture because the games were not exclusive to Facebook. This year’s offerings, produced by the league and featuring local broadcasters, have provided more interaction with fans, who give the questions for in-game manager interviews and comment on the action in real time — for better or worse.
“There’s lots of venting. There’s no doubt about that,” Petitti said. “But at the same time, there’s also lots of real, meaningful engagement. We’re not looking to curtail either of it.”
While the medium mandates the use of Facebook, Petitti, who said he was “sensitive to the disruption,” pointed out one positive.
“We’re not asking customers to write us an additional check to have access,” he said. “I can remember when games went from broadcast to cable and people felt like, ‘Wait, now I have to go get a cable subscription?’
“Things are changing, and we’re moving into this world where these over-the-top packages are becoming another way for people to engage with content. I think we owe it to our fans to see whether we can deliver content to them on these platforms.”
White Sox catcher Welington Castillo blew a bubble as he waited to bat on Wednesday in Chicago.CreditCharles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
Catcher Owns Up to Doping
Chicago White Sox catcher Welington Castillo failed a drug test and earned an 80-game suspension on Thursday. While there is certainly no honor in that, Castillo at least deserves credit for his statement in response. While others — most recently Seattle’s Robinson Cano — have given vague excuses for positive tests, Castillo, who tested positive for EPO, simply acknowledged that he got caught.
“The positive test resulted from an extremely poor decision that I, and I alone, made,” his statement said. “I take full responsibility for my conduct. I have let many people down, including my family, my teammates, the White Sox organization and its fans, and from my heart, I apologize.”
Castillo hit a career-high 20 home runs for Baltimore last season and then signed a two-year, $15 million contract with the White Sox.