CLEARWATER, Fla. - J.C. Romero walked out of the dugout and toward the metal bleachers, exchanging pleasantries with some of the Phillies' Spanish-speaking minor leaguers as he passed. Soon, he reached the spot where his wife and daughter sat, and he joined them for the short walk from the Carpenter Complex to Bright House Field. For Romero, who just moments before had breezed through his first competitive outing since late-September, it was hard not to smile. In the most serious test of his surgically repaired elbow to date, the soon-to-be-34-year-old lefthander retired all four minor league batters he faced, striking out two while throwing 10 of his 13 pitches for strikes.
After kissing his wife a few times and wrapping his daughter in a smothering hug, Romero slipped into the home clubhouse, where he looked and felt as upbeat as he has all spring.
"I'll take it one day at a time," said Romero, who had surgery to repair a second-degree tear of his flexor tendon on Oct. 7, "but today was very good and I am very happy about everything that went on today."
Romero has been something of a forgotten man for much of the past year. He spent the first 50 games of the 2009 season serving a suspension for a positive drug test that he says came as a result of a tainted over-the-counter supplement (a lawsuit against the manufacturer of that supplement and two stores that sold it to him is pending). Less than 2 months after he returned, he was placed on the disabled list with what the Phillies initially called forearm tightness, a condition that eventually ended his season and prevented him from participating in the playoffs.
But while Romero may have had little impact on the 2009 season, his healthy return would go a long way toward stabilizing a bullpen that spent much of last year in flux. Perhaps for that reason, his return to game action was monitored by a host of key decision-makers, including general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., assistant GM Benny Looper, former GM and current consultant Chuck LaMar, and super scout Charley Kerfeld.
Amaro declined to comment on the outing, saying he wanted to wait until he briefed pitching coach Rich Dubee. But Romero looked much sharper than closer Brad Lidge, who is recovering from elbow and knee surgeries, looked in either of his first two minor league outings. Dubee said Romero has gained arm speed faster than Lidge, but downplayed the significance of that observation.
"His is probably coming quicker," Dubee said. "They were two different surgeries. Lidge had two surgeries in itself and wasn't able to long-toss like he usually does. Two different individuals."
The Phillies anticipate that both Lidge and Romero will be ready to pitch in the majors by the end of April. Lidge and Romero have personally targeted the team's home opener on April 12.
After yesterday's outing, Romero reaffirmed his belief that he is on pace to be ready by then. But he also said a big test will come today, when he is able to gauge how his body responds to its first competitive action since late September.
"To me it's not a matter of whatever outcome I get pitching in a game, it's how I recover the next day," said Romero, who posted a 2.75 ERA in 81 appearances in 2008 and a 2.70 ERA in 21 appearances last season. "That's one of the reasons why I am taking it one step at a time, because if I'm not capable of going back-to-back days, I don't think I am healthy enough to compete at the level that I want to compete."
The Phillies are also happy with his recovery. The team currently has just one healthy lefthanded reliever, rookie Antonio Bastardo, in camp. Although Bastardo, who was on the active roster for all three rounds of the playoffs last season, pitched a scoreless inning in the Phillies' 5-4 loss to the Braves yesterday, he has had an up-and-down spring. The 24-year-old has struck out 14 and walked just two in eight innings, but has allowed six earned runs and nine hits. The Phillies don't seem to believe that there are any significant upgrades available. Veteran lefty Brian Shouse was recently released by the Red Sox, but the Phillies had ample opportunity to sign him early in spring training, and they don't sound as if they have had a change of heart.
Still, Dubee disputed the notion that Bastardo was guaranteed a spot on the Opening Day roster.
"We always have options," he said. "We're always looking."
Their most hopeful option, however, was pitching in a minor league game yesterday. Romero, who is in the last year of a 3-year, $12 million contract (the Phillies have a $4.5 million club option with a $250,000 buyout for 2011), has held lefthanded hitters to a .215 average in his 10-plus-year career. His return would go a long way in easing manager Charlie Manuel's concerns about the late innings of tight games.
According to Romero, yesterday was a positive step.