It took Ricky Romero an economical 14 pitches -- nine of them for strikes -- to mow through the batting order of the Baltimore Orioles in the first inning, which in itself was a small victory for the beleaguered left-hander.
There was a time when a scheduled outing for the 27-year-old was a cause for optimism throughout the clubhouse, knowing that, at the very least, another quality start was in the offing.
These days you just hold your breath.
Control problems have staggered the confidence level of the Blue Jays ace, ringing up 21 walks in his previous four starts.
Tuesday night at Rogers Centre, Romero’s control was mostly pinpoint and the Blue Jays (26-24) responded by outlasting a sloppy Orioles (29-21) outfit 8-6 for their second win in a row over their American League East rival.
Although far from over-powering, Romero was still very good -- allowing four Baltimore runs off six hits while striking out seven through six innings of work.
More importantly, Romero (6-1) only walked one batter, his lowest total in 11 starts this season.
“I just felt more than anything, first pitch strikes were an improvement over his last few outings to give him a chance to go to his secondary pitches,” said Toronto manager John Farrell, also citing an improved pace and tempo as a key to Romero’s success.
“Just getting back on my own side,” Romero said. “I’ve been hard on myself the whole year. Guys kind of tell me to kind of tone it down a little bit and get that confidence back up a bit.”
After losing the last five games of a six-game road trip, the Blue Jays returned home and on Monday took the first of the three-game set, 6-2, off the Orioles, who continue to show surprising resiliency through the first two months of the season.
With Toronto’s stock dipping rapidly in the AL East and another tough division rival in the Boston Red Sox heading into town next, the Blue Jays realize they need to start stringing some wins together and fast.
In the past, such a challenge would be right up Romero’s alley, but not lately.
Everything was breaking Romero’s way the first month of the season when his pitches were sharp, his control was precise, and the right-hander was 3-0 with a 3.18 earned run average after his first five outings.
But things started to go awry, starting May 8th in Oakland where Romero issued five walks over six innings of work in a 7-3 Toronto loss.
Five walks in one game was something that Romero managed just once in 32 starts last season, on April 18 against the Red Sox.
Romero walked another five in his next outing May 13 against the Minnesota Twins, then four against the New York Mets on May 18 before the ultimate horror show in his last start on May 23 against Tampa Bay where he walked a career high seven.
Romero now has 37 walks on the season after totalling 80 all of last year.
Against Baltimore, Romero remained mostly in control -- although he did serve up a couple of home runs, a solo shot by Adam Jones in the second and a two-run blast by Chris Davis in the sixth that trimmed Toronto’s lead to 8-4.
Earlier in the day the Blue Jays demoted struggling left fielder Eric Thames to Triple-A and called up utility infielder Mike McCoy as potential backup to middle infielders Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson, who are both trying to play through nagging injuries.
Thames departure means more playing time for Rajai Davis in left field and he made his starting presence count.
With Baltimore leading 1-0, Davis squared to sacrifice in the third inning with runners at first and second and nobody out and he laid down a perfect bunt toward third base.
Knowing Davis is equipped with premium speed, Baltimore pitcher Jake Arrieta pounced on the ball but his hurried throw was wide of first base, allowing Brett Lawrie to score from second and David Cooper to pull into third on the throwing error.
Davis went 3-for-4 in the game, driving in two runs.
Cooper would come into score on a ground out by Escobar, providing the Blue Jays with a 2-1 lead.
The Blue Jays would tag on three in the fourth, where the Orioles made two more errors, and three more in the fifth.
Brett Lawrie also had a big game with the bat, going 3-for-4 with three RBIs.
Jones homered for the second time off closer Casey Janssen in the ninth, a two-run shot with one out that closed the gap to two.
Lawrie made a spectacular sliding catch in foul territory to track down a pop fly off the bat of Davis before Wilson Betemit hit into a fielder’s choice to finally end things.
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