TRENTON — JoJo Romero always heard that the leap from the most advanced level of A ball to double A was the biggest one he would make before reaching the majors. But in bracing for it last winter, the Phillies pitching prospect actually psyched himself out.
Romero opened the season at double-A Reading, and his first five starts were unsightly. Opponents batted .312 against him, and when they weren’t ambushing his fastball, they were walking all over him. The 21-year-old lefty walked 11 batters in his first 26 1/3 innings. It was no wonder he went 0-3 with a 7.18 ERA.
“He was definitely trying a little too hard early in the year,” Reading manager Greg Legg said this week. “He had a mix of four or five pitches and he was throwing them all the first time through the lineup. [Pitching coach] Steve Shrenk and him and the catchers, they talked about it, and they just started working on simplifying the game.”
Shrenk got Romero to focus on commanding his fastball. Once that happened, Romero got control of his mind, too. He began relying on his fastball and cutter early in games, then mixed in a bat-slowing change-up that was effective for him last season in going 10-3 with a 2.16 ERA between two A-ball levels.
Romero stuck with the plan, and in his last five starts, he has held opponents to a .212 average while striking out 33 and walking 11 in 30 1/3 innings. He’s 3-1 with a 2.97 ERA, including Wednesday night’s eight-inning gem in which he allowed one run, struck out seven, and walked only one in a victory over Trenton.
“I think where a lot of us get caught up is feeling like we have to do too much because we’re here [in double A],” Romero said. “It is a big jump. There’s a lot better players. People say, ‘If you can play there, you can play in the big leagues.’ I think a lot of us get caught up in that. When you see guys separating themselves from the pack is when they stick to the simplicity as far as pitching, stick to what got you there, and kind of the fundamentals of everything.”
Romero is part of a talented Reading rotation that features fellow lefty Ranger Suarez and righthander Franklyn Kilome. And double A has been an adjustment for all of them. Suarez has a 4.17 ERA through seven starts, while Kilome has a 5.36 mark through nine. But Suarez has pitched well since a rough outing in his first start of the season, and Kilome is coming off a strong start last weekend against Portland.
“I think we’re kind of getting into our groove of things here, keeping things simple and just going back to having fun,” Romero said. “These last couple of starts I’ve found where I was at last year. I’ve found a little rhythm and just hoping to play off that.”
Drive for No. 5
As Zach Eflin muddled through his second poor start in a row Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, it was worth noting that lefty Cole Irvin tossed 8 2/3 shutout innings for triple-A Lehigh Valley. Irvin outdueled touted Chicago White Sox prospect Carson Fulmer and improved to 6-1 with a 2.73 ERA in 10 starts.
If the Phillies decide to make a change at the No. 5 starter spot, Irvin could be a consideration. One problem: Irvin is not yet on the 40-man roster. And if any pitcher is going to be added to the 40-man, it figures to be righthander Enyel De Los Santos.
Acquired last December from the Padres for shortstop Freddy Galvis, De Los Santos leads the International League with a 1.40 ERA and has 56 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings over nine triple-A starts.
Look out below
A few recent late-round draft picks are thriving at low-A Lakewood.
Lefthander Will Stewart, a 20th-round pick in 2015, is 5-0 with a 1.23 ERA in nine starts, including a three-hit, 10-strikeout shutout Wednesday night. Meanwhile, lefty reliever Zach Warren, who grew up in Vineland, N.J., and was drafted in the 14th round last year, is riding a 10-inning scoreless streak and has a 2.45 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 22 innings overall.
Big week for Mickey Moniak. The former No. 1 overall pick hit safely in six consecutive games, including three multi-hit games in a row for high-A Clearwater. He went 3-for-5 with a double Wednesday to hike his average to a season-high .243. … After missing nearly a month with a sore shoulder, outfielder Jhailyn Ortiz was 14-for-44 (.318) with two doubles and a homer in 11 games through Wednesday for Lakewood. … Sixto Sanchez watch: the Phillies’ top pitching prospect has allowed two earned runs in 18 2/3 innings over his last three starts for Clearwater. Through seven starts, he has a 2.95 ERA, 40 strikeouts, and nine walks in 39 2/3 innings.