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Romero continues to impress; Jays win

Romero continues to impress; Jays win

TORONTO -- Ricky Romero continues to prove his critics wrong. A couple of years ago, the left-hander was struggling in the Blue Jays' farm system and many pundits were quick to chastise the organization for selecting him higher than shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft.

Times, and opinions, have changed.

On Wednesday afternoon, Romero took the mound at Rogers Centre and fashioned another strong performance, leading the Blue Jays to a 5-0 victory over the Rays to avoid a three-game sweep. The eight shutout innings he logged against Tampa Bay ran Romero's scoreless streak to 20 innings -- this after taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his previous outing.

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Following that start against the Phillies, Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi was stopped while making his way through Toronto's clubhouse. A reporter asked Ricciardi when he had last heard Tulowitzki's name brought up in reference to picking Romero sixth overall four years ago. Ricciardi smiled and laughed.

"Just now," Ricciardi replied.

The fact is that Romero has shown a great deal of improvement, not only over the past few years, but in the span of a few months. An afterthought in the race for a rotation job at the beginning of Spring Training, Romero claimed a role on the Opening Day roster and has pitched well enough for manager Cito Gaston to now describe him as the No. 2 arm behind ace Roy Halladay.

Romero's latest outing was simply another step forward in the young lefty's learning process.

Over eight innings for the Jays (42-38), Romero limited Tampa Bay to four hits and finished with seven strikeouts -- all courtesy of his baffling changeup. That signature pitch has played a large roll in Romero's recent string of strong starts. In his past six outings, he has gone 4-1 with a 1.91 ERA, compiling 40 strikeouts over 42 1/3 innings with a .203 opponents' batting average.

"It's not your typical changeup," Blue Jays catcher Rod Barajas said. "It's more like a split-finger at times. It's got such sharp bite. When you're able to throw it behind in the count -- 2-1, 2-0 counts -- it's a swing-and-miss pitch. It doesn't necessarily have to be a strike. There's a good chance they're going to swing and miss at it.

"I've got some pretty good changeups, and he's right up there with the best I've ever caught."

There were a few bumps along the way against the Rays, considering Romero issued four walks and saw his pitch count climb to 113, but the pitcher managed to sidestep each and every scoring threat that Tampa Bay put together.

"That shows me that he's really starting to gain more confidence in himself," Gaston said. "He's growing every time he goes out there. This kid has a chance to be a great pitcher for us."

Rays leadoff man B.J. Upton opened the game by drawing a four-pitch walk from Romero, who promptly picked him off of first base. Ben Zobrist collected a one-out double in the second, but Romero retired the next two batters in order to escape unscathed. Zobrist reached again to open the fifth -- this time with a single -- and Romero stepped off the hill and caught him stealing for a critical out.

Tampa Bay (44-36) had even more chances in Romero's last two frames.

In the seventh, the Rays used two hits and a walk to load the bases with one out, only to have the lefty induce an inning-ending double play off the bat of Pat Burrell. With the Blue Jays holding a 2-0 lead at the time, Romero felt that was a crucial moment in the game.

"That was the key to the game," Romero said. "Bases loaded with one out, you've got a good hitter in Burrell. I just made a good pitch that got in on him, and we were able to get a double play."

The Rays then put runners on first and second base to open the eighth. Jason Bartlett drew a walk, and Romero created a potential double-play grounder off the bat of Gabe Kapler. Instead, Jays second baseman Aaron Hill gloved the roller and fired it to shortstop Marco Scutaro, who dropped the ball before having a chance to make an out.

"Pick a teammate up -- that's what I was thinking," Romero said. "Pick a teammate up right here."

Four pitches later, Rays pinch-hitter Willy Aybar drilled an offering from Romero right to Scutaro, who caught it and flipped it quickly to Hill at second base for a clutch double play. Romero later forced Carl Crawford to fly out to end the inning, putting the final touch on the rookie's outing.

"We got kind of lucky -- line-drive double play," Gaston said. "But he didn't panic. I think that's what I see in him. You talk about playing on this level all the time. To play on this level, you really have to be able to deal with pressure. ... He seems to be getting better at it all the time."

The Blue Jays provided plenty of support, pounding out five runs and three home runs against Rays right-hander James Shields. Barajas belted a solo homer in the seventh to push Toronto out to a 3-0 lead, and Adam Lind and Scott Rolen connected for back-to-back solo blasts to left in the eighth to add to that advantage. Rolen had earlier extended his hitting streak to 19 games with a single in the sixth inning.

With the way Romero was dealing, that offensive showing was more than ample.

"He went out there and said, 'I'm going to go out there and I'm going to shut these guys down,'" Barajas said. "His stuff was amazing. The confidence that he brings to the mound, he's got that swagger about him. He's going to go out there and he's going to compete and he's going to give you a chance to win. He was awesome."

While that seems to be the overwhelming opinion these days, Romero isn't satisfied.

"I think I'm starting to get a feel for all my pitches and just becoming a complete pitcher," Romero said. "It takes work. It takes a lot of work and I'm still not where I want to be."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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