Many days, Romero explained, have been “green,” before the fruit can be eaten and it’s a struggle to push on. But after debuting for the Washington Nationals this past weekend — throwing 1⅔ scoreless innings against the Cincinnati Reds — he is seeing the benefits of his work. He made the majors and wants to stick here. He’s grabbing a late-season chance.
“It’s too long to tell,” Romero said of the rest, speaking in Spanish through a team interpreter. “Way too long.”
Pressed a bit, Romero cracked. He started playing baseball when he was 3. At 10, old enough to watch major league games on TV, he set a goal of making it as a catcher. He was short and stocky. The position made sense.
But no agents or travel teams took him under their wing. He turned 15, 16, 17 — ages at which many prospects sign. Romero walked long distances to tryouts and showcases, often leaving without praise. Then when he was 20, far older than most hopefuls in Colombia, he found a field surrounded by scouts. He asked to squat for the big-name pitchers, and they let him. Afterward, he asked to pitch.
“They permitted me 10 pitches off the mound, just to show them my arm strength,” Romero recalled. “First pitch I threw was 92 [mph], and I topped out at about 94. So after that they gave me a month to prepare myself as a pitcher, on my own, and when I returned the Cubs decided to sign me.”
When he says it like that, it almost sounds simple. But even since, Romero’s path to his big league debut was winding and hard. He was sharp with Chicago’s minor league clubs, posting low ERAs in rookie ball and with Class A South Bend. In 2018, he was traded to Washington for reliever Brandon Kintzler, who was dealt because club officials thought he was an anonymous source for a Yahoo story about the team’s clubhouse dynamics. Romero then allowed 10 earned runs in 13⅔ innings with Class A Potomac.
Soon, his fortune was worse than poor results. He made nine appearances in 2019 before tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Tommy John surgery kept him out for the rest of the season. And because the coronavirus pandemic canceled the 2020 minor league season, Romero went almost two full years without facing an opponent.
Once he rehabbed the injury, he inched back by throwing a handful of innings in Colombia’s winter league. He also pitched for his country in the Caribbean Series. But the majors remained a goal that, before Tommy John, felt closer than ever. He had been with Class AA Harrisburg. This spring, the Nationals started him there again, testing Romero’s mid-90s fastball and sharp slider. He responded with a 2.83 ERA in 33 games and was promoted to Class AAA Rochester in September. Once there, he threw 7⅓ innings, yielding five hits and one run while striking out 11.
Outfielder Yadiel Hernandez’s stint on the paternity list opened a spot on the Nationals’ roster. Romero got the call.
“They asked me about him, and I said: ‘From what I know, he’s feisty, but he throws strikes. He’s always around the zone,’ ” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez recalled of when Romero was acquired from the Cubs. “That’s something I always like — a guy who’s not afraid to throw his fastball for strikes and pound the zone.”
On Friday, in a one-two-three eighth inning against the Cincinnati Reds, Romero threw nine of his 14 pitches for strikes. On Saturday, when he was thrust into a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the sixth inning, that rate was five of seven. To escape that pickle, he used an inside fastball — 96 mph off the plate — that left Jonathan India hitting a limp liner to first. Then Max Schrock tapped a low-and-away change-up back to Romero, who fielded the grounder and threw to Josh Bell to end the inning.
The bird’s-eye scouting report is that, for the most part, Romero pumps his fastball and slider. But his change-up, a developing third pitch, is an important option against lefties, one that moves in the opposite direction of his slider and fades from their bats. Schrock showed what happens when, just like Romero, it comes as a surprise.
“It’s a dream come true,” Romero said. “I never lost faith, which was important, and I hope some kids from where I’m from, kids like me, will see that.”