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Toronto Blue Jays starter Ricky Romero pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies, March 31, 2012. (Steve Nesius/Reuters/Steve Nesius/Reuters)
Toronto Blue Jays starter Ricky Romero pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies, March 31, 2012. (Steve Nesius/Reuters/Steve Nesius/Reuters)

Halladay likes what he sees in Romero Add to ...

And to think Toronto Blue Jays left-hander Ricky Romero once lacked confidence. That’s hard to imagine for all he’s accomplished.

Nobody in franchise history is closer than 10 wins to the 42 victories he’s accumulated in his first three seasons in the majors. On Thursday in Cleveland, Romero will become just the fifth Toronto pitcher to get back-to-back opening-day starts, joining Dave Stieb (1985-86), Jimmy Key (1987-89), Jack Morris (1992-93) and Roy Halladay (2003 through 2009). Select company.

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But mention to Romero, 27, that he’s “The Ace” in the club’s media guide, and he shrugs it off.

“I don’t pay attention to any of that stuff,” he said. “We all have ace stuff on this staff. We are going to put five aces out there.”

When that was mentioned to Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton, he smiled the way a father does when a son makes him proud. “He’s right,” Walton said. “Our five starters all are treated as aces.”

Yet the rotation is the most daunting question facing the Blue Jays on the eve of the regular season. Brett Cecil, all but anointed the No. 3 starter, was demoted to Double-A New Hampshire on Tuesday and replaced by Joel Carreno, who’d failed to land a spot in the bullpen this spring. No. 2 starter Brendan Morrow went 11-11 with a 4.72 ERA last season. Henderson Alvarez, 21, has started 10 games in the majors. Kyle Drabek is 4-8 with a 5.83 ERA in 21 appearances since being obtained in the Roy Halladay trade with Philadelphia in December of 2009. And injury-plagued Dustin McGowan is sidelined with plantar fasciitis.

Over to you, Ricky.

“The great approach he brings begins with his daily routine,” Walton said. “Ricky is locked in every day even if he is not pitching. It keeps him humble. He treats his side days like game day.”

Romero hails from East Los Angeles, the son of working-class parents. They provided the work-ethic example that Halladay also displayed for Romero as a rookie in 2009.

“We didn’t talk so much as I just watched him and the way he approached the game behind the scenes,” Romero said. “I observed one of the absolute best go about business. I saw his work ethic, that he finished what he started. That’s the same attitude I have.

“Team wins are what I’m interested in, and not my personal wins. I take a lot of pride in representing my team and leading by example.”

Halladay and Romero both started last Saturday in Clearwater, Fla., and afterward Halladay was asked what had changed about Romero over three seasons.

“Confidence,” Halladay said. “When he came up, he had the talent. He had the ability. But it’s tough for a pitcher at this level. You have to have the success. The last two years, he’s really believing in his stuff. He’s really believing in himself.”

Romero was 15-11 with a 2.92 ERA last year and was named to his first All-Star team. His record could’ve been much better had run support been there more often. Toronto scored just 30 runs in the 14 games in which he started and the team lost.

Romero’s victory total has risen by one each year. He had 13 as a rookie and then 14 before reaching 15. Might he make a big jump this year, all the way to the magical 20-win total?

“I don’t look at that at all,” Romero said. “My job is just to win as many as I can and set the tempo, rack up innings. The only goal I set is to stay healthy.”

His innings pitched have gone up each year, reaching 225 last season.

“Consistency, night in and night out, is what I want,” Romero said. “And in games when you don’t have your best stuff, you have to fight through it. I’m getting a feel for how to pitch and the art of pitching. But I still have a lot to learn.”

Halladay said the “humble” and “very respectful” manner Romero had as a rookie was different from many young players coming up now. And Romero, as the sixth overall pick in the 2005 draft, out of Cal State Fullerton, easily could’ve had a swelled head.

“To me,” Halladay said, “he was always different.”

He is pleased that Romero has stayed humble with success.

“To see him become ‘the guy’ over there,” Halladay said, “I hope the guys coming up treat him the same way.”

Romero is the ace whether he calls himself that or not. Though, he’s not close to perfect.

“He rarely goes over 110 pitches in a start and knows how to pitch,” Walton said. “But now he needs to learn the art of pounding down to get early outs.”

Romero smiled when the term was repeated for him.

“Bruce is always saying, ‘C’mon, pound down.’ He wants me to pitch down in the zone more.”

A special bond with Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia, 26, pays big dividends in games.

“J.P. is like a little brother to me,” said Romero, who has known him since minor-league ball. “He knows what to say at all times, and knows when to come out to calm me down. And I have 110-per-cent confidence in everything he puts down for me to throw.”

He looked across the room at Arencibia. Seated nearby were Jose Bautista, Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie and Eric Thames.

“Look around this clubhouse at this talent,” Romero said. “I saw something in here this spring, and Bautista agrees with me. We see how bright the future is, and the future is now for us.

“You are going to see a different Blue Jays team this year.”

The goal is to play beyond the regular-season finale on Oct. 3.

“This team is going to do something special,” Romero added.

Special seasons occur when every player on a team improves his game. For Romero, that’s finding a way to stifle left-handed hitters, whom most All-Star southpaws usually dominate. They hit a respectable .269 against him, while right-handers were mired at .194.

He’s worked on his back-door cutter, a pitch he hopes to use effectively against lefties. “I was able to make some strides with it,” Romero said. “It’s another weapon.”

He paused, smiled and said, “I can’t wait for opening day.”

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