“He put his bats in mine, I put my gloves in his and then he mentioned something about my walk-out [music],” said Romano, a Connecticut native and unexpected country music fan. “He told me a song, I listened to it a couple of times throughout the week and I was like, ‘You know what, I can dig that.’”
That song is Jason Aldean’s “Lights Come On,” a fitting description of Romano’s rapid progression as a pitcher. He built on his second-half success with eight scoreless innings on Tuesday, facing two above the minimum in a 5-2 victory. The shutout bid was his fourth in his last 10 starts, including a near-perfect outing on July 29 and another eight-inning gem on August 20.
“He’s come so far and it’s fun to see,” Pensacola manager Pat Kelly said. “We saw the struggles in April and May. You knew the stuff was there, it was just a matter of being able to put it all together.”
Romano is posting the best strikeout rate of his career (8.40 K/9, 22.3 percent of batters faced) and his lowest walk rate (1.98 BB/9, 5.3 percent). Since the All-Star break, Romano’s 0.96 WHIP is the second-lowest mark among Southern League pitchers and his 2.16 ERA ranks third. Opponents are hitting .220 against him in his last 13 starts, sixth in the league over that span, with an OPS nearly 130 points below the league average.
He’s been even sharper since July 12, striking out 58 over 64 innings with just seven walks to produce a league-best 0.81 WHIP. Romano’s 1.55 ERA in that time frame ranks second and his .194 opposing average ties for fifth.
“Sal has been outstanding this half, which is a credit to the work that he and [pitching coach] Danny Darwin put in this summer,” said Reds director of player development Jeff Graupe. “Sal has discovered who he is as a pitcher and what type of routine and preparation works for him. He has been one of the best stories of the season, in my opinion.”
Sal, short for Salvatore, shares a first and last name with Bryan Batt’s character in Mad Men. But the 2011 23rd-round pick out of Southington High School is more of a joker. And as he modified his pregame routine, Romano asked himself, “Why so serious?”
“I’m just having fun and being who I am,” Romano said. “I’m not trying to be some heavy-headed guy or be so serious before I pitch. That’s not who I am, that’s not the type of person I am. … When I get between the lines, that’s when business is supposed to happen. But before the game, I’m not really thinking about it. I’m having fun, smiling and joking around the clubhouse.”
Armed with a fastball Baseball America rates as the best in the organization and a reliable out pitch in his curveball, Romano is increasingly confident in his changeup. He tinkered with two different grips before finding a fit and slowly took it from his side sessions to the game.
“I’ve never really realized how good it actually is,” Romano said. “To be honest, I really don’t know if I’ve always had it because I didn’t throw it. I never trusted it during the game [before].”
Reds manager Bryan Price values the changeup as a stepping stone in learning how to pitch instead of simply throw. For a young rotation loaded with power arms, mastering the pitch has been a point of focus for many Pensacola pitchers.
“A lot of young kids are afraid it’s going to get hit, but it’s meant to be hit,” Darwin said. “Sal really had a lot of problems with throwing it during the game. On the side, it was excellent. It’s just a matter of knowing they’re going to put the ball in play and trusting it.”
Romano relies primarily on his fastball, choosing between a daunting high-90s heater or a two-seamer with heavy sink. The latter has produced an inordinate number of groundballs over his career, though the rate is nearing equilibrium this season. Refining his pitch sequencing from month to month, Romano can mix in a changeup after an elevated fastball to induce weak contact and keep the ball in the park.
“Some guys can time up my fastball,” Romano said. “No matter how hard it is, they can time it up. To be able to throw the changeup and get their timing off, it’s become a really big pitch for me.”
Romano could flirt with triple digits as a reliever and the bullpen seems like his most likely destination. But this season has been a strong defense of his durability. He has registered 11 quality starts and pitched into the seventh inning 10 times, both career highs.
The Pensacola roster includes three members of the Reds’ 40-man roster, all pitchers. With Rookie Davis optioned back to Pensacola on Monday, the Reds would like to see them finish what they started. That means the call of a lifetime potentially won’t come for a few more weeks as the Wahoos contend for their third straight division title. But Romano will be ready, wherever and whenever the lights come on.