"The big talk of camp right now is Ricky Romero," Toronto manager John Gibbons said Thursday. "It looks like he's on the way back and that's what excites us all."
Romero limited the Tampa Bay Rays to one run in four innings Wednesday and sports a 1.29 earned-run average in three appearances this spring. Against the Rays, the left-hander was clinical at times with two 1-2-3 innings.
It's a timely turn of fortunes for the Jays, who are looking for help in the bottom end of their starting rotation.
Barring injuries, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Brandon Morrow are expected to emerge as the first three starters. Romero is battling the likes of Drew Hutchison, J.A. Happ, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Kyle Drabek, Marcus Stroman, Sean Nolin and Dustin McGowan for the fourth and fifth spots.
Gibbons made his comments about Romero when asked about the battle for starting pitching jobs. He offered little specific about the other contenders, saying the fight would go down to the wire, but made a point of singling out Romero.
The Jays manager sees light at the end of the Romero tunnel after some dark days.
"I see a different guy," he said. "That's not easy. You get out on the mound, every eye's on you. You throw a pitch, you walk a batter, you hit a guy or something like that and some of those old demons creep in sometimes when you've been going through that."
"But you get good results, the confidence grows and it's easier to be more positive," he added. "It's tough sometimes when you hit bottom.
"He feels good, we feel good."
Romero has shown enough that he may get the start next Tuesday in Lakeland against the Detroit Tigers.
"We'll see but I tell you what, we're very encouraged where he's at," said Gibbons. "Where it's heading we're not sure but he's moving in the right direction. I know he feels good."
Romero was an all-star in 2011 when he went 15-11 with a 2.92 earned-run average. In 2012, he slumped to 9-14 with a 5.77 ERA and things got worse in 2013, when he saw action in just four games in the majors with an 0-2 record and 11.05 ERA.
The 29-year-old Los Angeles native spent much of the season in the minors, where his numbers were equally bleak (5-8 and 5.52 ERA). Suddenly everything was under the microscope, from his mind to his mechanics.
It seemed there was a black cloud over his head. Last month Romero's girlfriend, Canadian soccer international Kara Lang, was derailed in her comeback from a third devastating knee injury.
Romero has focused on the present in his pitching, looking to enjoy the now rather than worry about the past or future.
"I'm having fun," he said. "Just letting myself play."
Gibbons appreciates what the southpaw has gone through. And he knows what it would mean for the Jays to have the old Romero back.
"He was one of the best in baseball," he said. "That would be huge.
"You never really know when guys start struggling — they lose their confidence and it becomes a mental thing — you never know if they get that back. It's not that it happens a lot but you know it's not rare either in baseball and some guys never rebound from it."
Gibbons said the team noticed an improvement in Romero even in warmups before the first game of the spring.
"He looked different," he said. "And in his last couple of outings here, it's been pretty impressive. We're all pulling for him here. I know the fans are all pulling for him. It would be a great story."
For Gibbons, Romero is all about getting the ball in the strike zone. Combine that with a "dynamite change-up," and he can do damage.
"Where he ran into trouble, he was just scattering it. Walking guys and things like that. He's getting into the zone now and that's the key."
It's not perfect yet. Romero has six strikeouts and five walks this spring so far. But batters are only hitting .130 against him.
Romero says he is not looking ahead to who will fill the openings in the starting rotation.
"Whatever I do out there is going to dictate my future," he said after the Tampa outing. "I'm just worried about each and every day. The next pitch ... I'm not going to make those decisions, so I'm not really paying attention to it. We'll just see what happens.
The Jays have plenty invested in Romero. A non-roster invitee this spring, Romero is due to make US$7.75 million both this season and next.