DUNEDIN, Fla. - As spring training starts go, it was a big one for Toronto Blue Jays left-hander Ricky Romero.
Romero, who has gone from No. 1 in the rotation last year to No. 5 in a revamped starting five, has struggled in spring training and needed to step up in his Grapefruit League start against Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
He showed some good signs but still left plenty of room for improvement in allowing three runs, two earned, in 4 1/3 innings against the Pirates. He allowed six hits and three walks while striking out two before being removed with the Blue Jays leading 4-3 in the fifth to lower his Grapefruit League earned-run average to 6.23. Romero threw 75 pitches, with 44 strikes.
Romero entered the game with a 7.27 ERA and an 0-1 record after his first four Grapefruit League games, giving up seven walks and 11 hits in 8 1/3 innings.
In an effort to improve his command he worked on adjustments to his delivery but struggled in a minor-league game last week, an outing that does not show in spring training statistics. He allowed four runs and five walks and retired only eight batters in that game, throwing 29 strikes in 64 pitches.
Romero is coming off a disappointing 2012 season when he was 9-14 with a 5.77 ERA after going 15-11 with a 2.92 ERA in 2011. In spring training of that year, Romero was 1-2 with a 7.91 ERA.
When manager John Gibbons was asked Tuesday morning what he wanted to see Romero do in the starts, he said: "Throwing strikes."
"When he throws strikes he's good," Gibbons continued. "He struggles when he loses that command. You've got to give yourself a chance. He's got a pretty good defence behind him and they're going to make some plays.
Gibbons felt that a good outing on Tuesday would help his confidence.
"For his own sake, he needs a good one," Gibbons said. "He's under the microscope after last year. It hasn't been easy for him.
"He's pretty good, too, we don't want to lose sight of that, it's still just a spring training game. He's been off this spring so we need to see him pitch pretty good today, especially since it was battle for him last time in the minor leagues."
Romero threw 10 strikes in 13 first-inning pitches, allowing two hits and a run on a windy afternoon. Starling Marte scored the run on a groundout after leading off with a single on an 0-2 pitch, stealing second and taking third on a sacrifice. The inning ended when left-fielder Rajai Davis made a leaping catch at the fence on Michael McKenry's fly ball.
Romero came back in the second with three successive outs to escape without a run after a giving up a leadoff double followed by a four-pitch walk. He allowed a run in the third as he again had control problems, allowing two walks to start the inning and a one-out single to McKenry. But Garrett Jones lined out to first baseman Adam Lind for an inning ending double play.
An error by Lind on a throw from third baseman Mark DeRosa on what should have been an inning ending grounder by Marte led to an unearned run in the fourth. Pirates pitcher Jonathan Sanchez, who batted for himself in the game, doubled with two out and scored while Marte was out in a rundown on a pickoff-caught stealing.
Notes: Right-handed reliever Sergio Santos was sent home with flu symptoms. …. It was the final home game of spring training for the Blue Jays. …. Left-hander J.A. Happ will be the Blue Jays' starter Wednesday when they visit the Tampa Bay Rays at Port Charlotte. Happ has a spring training record of 1-1 with a 1.89 ERA in six outings, five starts. He is a possible replacement for Romero in the lineup.