Davey Martinez flagged down Seth Romero in the visitor’s clubhouse at Citi Field and called him into his office. The Nationals skipper cherishes moments like this one, but when the 6-foot-3, 240-pound pitching prospect walked through the door, Martinez’s attention briefly drifted elsewhere.
“First and foremost, the earrings gotta go,” he said, “and secondly, congratulations. You’re gonna pitch for us.”
Romero was already traveling with the Nationals as a member of their road taxi squad, though he had yet to appear in the major leagues. That finally changed Thursday, when Washington placed veteran reliever Sean Doolittle on the Injured List and selected Romero’s contract ahead of their series finale with the New York Mets. He made his debut in the fifth inning, allowing four runs over six outs of work with three hits, three walks and four strikeouts.
The big damage came on a grand slam off the bat of Mets catcher Tomás Nido. Romero was one out away from escaping the inning unscathed when he grooved an 0-2 changeup over the middle of the plate and Nido cranked it into the outfield seats for a grand slam. He then came back out for the sixth and recorded two outs around a pair of walks before being relieved by Wander Suero.
“I wasn’t too worried about it,” Romero said. “I felt good on the mound. I mean, things happen so I didn’t really think about it too much and just tried to focus about the next pitch.”
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Martinez spoke after the game about the Nationals’ decision to bring up Romero despite the fact that he hadn’t pitched in a professional game in nearly two years due to Tommy John surgery.
“Seth was here, we needed a lefty in the bullpen [and] as you can see when he throws strikes, he’s got swing and miss stuff,” Martinez said. “His stuff plays so I like it. He threw one bad changeup to Nido. Other than that, I thought he threw the ball very well. Nervous, he was really nervous. Heartbeat was going a thousand miles an hour but he’s gonna be OK.
“I thought with all the lefties coming up that that was a good spot for Romero. I thought he threw the ball good considering it’s his first outing in the big leagues. Got the early strikeout. Walks, I told him, ‘The walks is what—you’re up here you know. Walk one or two guys and these guys can all hit so just throw strikes. All I ask is you throw strikes.’ He was nervous but like I said, when he did throw strikes, he had a lot of swings and misses. It was nice, he’s got good stuff.”
It certainly wasn’t the debut Romero had dreamed about. The runs he gave up contributed to the Nationals’ eventual 8-2 loss and there were no fans in the stands to create the atmosphere that so many athletes strive to experience. But his debut marked the culmination of a difficult road that had kept him off the field and limited his ability to progress.
Washington selected Romero with the 25th overall pick in the 2017 first-year player draft. He had been one of the most electric pitchers in college baseball until the University of Houston dismissed him from the program for a series of incidents that reportedly included failing a drug test and fighting with a teammate. The questions about his character took a hit on his draft spot, which allowed him to land with the Nationals at the back end of the first round instead of being a top pick.
Romero made seven starts for the Nationals’ minor league system in 2017 and he evidently impressed the team enough to invite him to their major league spring training. However, the left-hander was sent home for violating team policy. He wouldn’t appear in a professional game until June of that season, when he made seven starts with a 3.91 ERA.
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But bad news struck again in September, this time in the form of an injury. Romero tore a ligament in his throwing elbow and required Tommy John surgery, putting an end to his 2018 campaign and forcing him to miss all of 2019 as well. By the time he started throwing again, Romero had to start from scratch; the first five balls he threw went straight into the ground. He eventually got over those "yips" and had been working his way back ever since.
“I’ve just been trusting the process, sticking to what they’ve told me, doing everything they’ve told me,” Romero said. “Just trying to stay healthy just in case they needed me.”
The Nationals hadn’t seen Romero pitch in a live game in 23 months, but they felt comfortable giving him a shot after what they’d seen from him at their alternate training site.
“We watched him progress, we watched him down in Fredericksburg and he was a guy that was throwing strikes and that’s important here,” Martinez said. “He was throwing a lot of strikes, he’s always in the strike zone, we feel like he’s got a lot of swing and miss stuff. And we need a left-handed pitcher. Right now he’s the only lefty we got with [Doolittle] going down. So we thought it’d be a perfect opportunity to get him up here and see what he can do.”
Even with the mixed results, both Martinez and Romero were happy to see him back on the mound and showing signs of potential. The former first-round pick still has a lot of work to do before he can live up to his draft status, but for now he reached a significant milestone and experienced for the first time what pitching in the major leagues can do a player’s nerves.
“Oh, I was 100 percent nervous for the first one but after the first few throws, I kind of settled in,” Romero said. “But right off the grip definitely nervous.”
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