Romano's recent struggles highlight depth of Toronto's 'pen

September 28th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Keegan Matheson’s Blue Jays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

If the Blue Jays get where they want to go,  will be the last man on the mound. 

Mike Timlin was that man in 1992, coming in to record the final out in the bottom of the 11th inning. The next year, it was Duane Ward who held the line in the top of the ninth, leaving the door open for Joe Carter’s heroics in the bottom half. 

The life of a closer isn’t always that glamorous, though. Shutdown innings and saves are expected, but a closer doesn’t get to survive a bad day at the office. A middle reliever can serve up two solo shots and live to crack a cold beer in the clubhouse later, celebrating a win. If a closer does that, it’s game over.

The timing of Romano’s two recent outings against the Rays and Yankees is troubling. In each, Romano allowed two runs and took the loss, and those worries were compounded by the news he’s dealing with a cracked nail on his right middle finger. Romano and John Schneider have both downplayed that, calling it a non-issue, but no player is anywhere near 100% at this time of the season.

“It’s the end of September, you know? Everyone is grinding along,” Romano said. “I’m no different than anyone else. I just have to keep grinding, but I feel as good as it can be.”

As a default, Schneider trusts his guys. He’s known Romano for years, going back to his time in the Minor Leagues as a starter. It’s difficult to imagine Romano trying to sustain his stuff over six innings instead of pacing the bullpen, rattling the caged fence, craving the big moment.

Romano has earned these moments, even after two stumbles in big moments. His 97 saves -- 36 this season -- aren’t an accident. The big Canadian has the strangest knack for dancing out of trouble. This would all be far less stressful if there was no danger for him to dance around at all, but it’s a skill not all relievers have. 

There are some other oddities here, too. Romano’s numbers have not been as good in tie games or non-save situations. It’s a classic debate that’s difficult to measure, just how different save situations are for a reliever, but Romano has the experience.

“Closers have such a unique personality and demeanor,” Schneider said. “He knows that if It’s late in the game, no matter what the score is, we’re bringing him in to face the guys we want him to face. I think that’s just a coincidence, what his numbers are in save situations, non-save or ties. He has the same demeanor every time he goes out. It’s weird the way it’s worked out, for sure.”

The Blue Jays will continue to go to Romano as their guy in the ninth, as they should. There are alternatives, but the Blue Jays haven’t pivoted yet and you shouldn’t expect that approach to change much on the big stage.

“It is nice having options,” Schneider said. “When we acquired Hicks, there were plenty of games where we would land at [a spot] in the lineup where we were comfortable throwing Romano in the eighth and Hicks in the ninth or something like that, but it hasn’t really worked out that way. If you look earlier in the game, fifth or sixth inning, and you’re looking at [Erik] Swanson or Chad Green? That’s a pretty damn good option, too.”

Bingo. That’s where the Blue Jays’ strength truly lies. 

Romano is a very good closer, and the duo of Jordan Hicks and Swanson make for great setup men, but this isn’t about one elite reliever taking over a game like Andrew Miller in 2016. The Blue Jays’ bullpen is incredibly deep, and that’s where the advantage lies. 

In a perfect world, the Blue Jays will have Kevin Gausman and José Berríos rolling hot into the seventh inning in the Wild Card Series, but they’ll need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Other clubs would be forced to turn to your traditional “middle reliever” with a 4.00 ERA, but the Blue Jays have fantastic options, expanding to include Tim Mayza and Yimi Garcia. 

The closer always ends up being the face of this, win or lose, but the Blue Jays’ bullpen is about more than Romano. We’ve seen him stumble in the past, but Romano always tends to follow those up the same way: a bounce back.