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Roving pitching coach says rebuilt Romero ready to help Jays

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Ricky Romero pitches during baseball spring training in Dunedin, Fla., on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Roving pitching coach Dane Johnson worked one-on-one with Ricky Romero since the Blue Jays decided toward the end of spring training to leave their one-time ace in Florida rather than be a member of the starting rotation from the outset.

He knows him well enough to have a strong feeling about when the success of the Reno Ricky project will be determined.

"First pitch, first batter," Johnson said on Friday afternoon, before Romero and the Jays played host to the Seattle Mariners.

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Is he ready?

"Yes, he is," Johnson said. "I think Ricky is going to have a fine outing tonight."

The Blue Jays had a need for a starter after placing Josh Johnson on the 15-day disabled list. General manager Alex Anthopoulos consulted Johnson about his Romero's readiness.

It was expected that Romero would remain in Florida until mid-May, at best. But Johnson had observed Romero get 16 ground ball outs and four strikeouts without allowing a walk in a Single-A game in Florida. He gave Anthopoulos the green light.

That sort of efficiency eluded Romero through most of the 2012 season when he went 9-14 with a 5.77 ERA and issued 105 walks, and again at spring training while trying to rebuild confidence. In contrast, Romero went 15-11 with a 2.92 ERA in 2011.

Aided by video going back to Romero's first year in the organization, Johnson altered Romero's delivery to start his hands at the waist and bring them to the chin during the wind-up, rather than all the way over the head as before.

The idea is to keep his eye longer on the catcher's target – "he was looking down before" and to square his hips to the plate.

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Jays pitching coach Pete Walker had previously said Romero had been suppressing hip rotation during the follow-through. The organization wanted him to take a direct line through his motion to the plate, rather than leaning toward the first-base side.

Velocity wasn't the issue. Romero was throwing the fastball gently into the 90-mph range in spring training, as always. Johnson said Romero has worked to get his hand on top of the ball now at release, to improve command.

Success will come with consistent repetition, including off-day workout habits.

"This is big for Ricky as an individual and big for us as a team," manager John Gibbons said. "We just want Ricky to go out there and do his thing."

The Jays gave Romero the honour of Opening Day starter in 2011 and 2012. Johnson said the team's decision to leave Romero off the 2013 Opening Day roster "humbled him ... but after a couple of days, being the professional he is, we got down to bare bones and went to work."

The process with Romero is reminiscent of a decision the club made with Roy Halladay in 2001, when his mechanics had gone awry. Halladay also went to Dunedin and after returning to Toronto, never looked back.

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Going into Friday, Romero had lost seven consecutive decisions in a span of eight games at Rogers Centre, all in the 2012 season. Opponents hit .367 against him during that span, and he gave up an average of almost 10 runs every nine innings. In his career against Seattle, he's 1-3 with a 3.88 ERA in 10 games.

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