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Romero Can Only Hope That This Fame Is Fleeting

Diane Pucin/ AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

October 12, 2002|Diane Pucin

J.C. Romero dressed carefully. He shook out the creases in each pant leg, tucked in the black tank top. He put on his jacket slowly, buttoned each button, seven of them, carefully. He shook his watch out of a sock and snapped the clasps. He put on shaded glasses, even though it was 9 p.m. and plenty dark out.

Then Romero turned away from his locker, making a deliberate pirouette, taking his time again. He looked up. "I guess I'm famous now, huh?" Romero asked.

When you are a relief pitcher and when you give up a home run in the bottom of the eighth inning of an American League championship series game that was tied, 1-1, in a series that was tied, 1-1, then, yes, you are famous.

Romero, built solid as the rock pile beyond center field at Edison Field and nicknamed "The Rock" by his teammates because he loves the pro wrestler by the same name, said it was simple. "I threw a pitch and Troy hit it out. Now it's over and I've forgotten it. Same thing tomorrow, I want to be there," Romero said.

The pitch was hit long and hard by Troy Glaus. It was the winning run in a 2-1 victory that put the Angels ahead, 2-1, in the best-of-seven series.

And it was quite a story, how Romero got to the eighth inning, staring at Glaus, score tied after two fierce left-handed starters--Jarrod Washburn and Eric Milton--had given batters so very little to hit.

Milton had left a second-inning fastball right down the middle to Garret Anderson. "Garret doesn't miss those, especially against me," Milton said. Washburn didn't give up a run until the top of the seventh, when a two-out double by Jacque Jones scored Dustan Mohr.

So now Twin Manager Ron Gardenhire went to his bullpen in the bottom of the seventh.

Right-hander LaTroy Hawkins started the inning. He walked Bengie Molina. After Benji Gil sacrificed pinch-runner Chone Figgins to second, David Eckstein had an infield single, a line drive that was nearly caught by second basemen Luis Rivas but bounced off his glove.

Pitcher No. 2 was Johan Santana, a left-hander who came in to face Darin Erstad. Santana did his job. Erstad, on a 2-1 pitch, slapped the ball into the ground toward second. Figgins was thrown out at home.

Pitcher No. 3 was right-hander Mike Jackson.

"By now," said Twin catcher A.J. Pierzynski, "it seemed like we were changing pitchers with every batter. I was getting dizzy. But it was working. We were getting things done. The momentum was turning our way."

Jackson walked Tim Salmon to load the bases with Eckstein at third and Erstad at second. There were two outs and in came Romero.

All season Romero has been a rock for the Twins. As the set-up man, Romero was 9-2 with a 1.89 earned-run average in 81 games. Right-handed batters hit .211 against Romero, left-handers .216. He'd given up only three home runs all year and when Anderson drove a 2-and-1 pitch deep to right field, but not quite over the wall, "I think," Milton said, "we felt like we had things changed our way."

But the game is funny that way.

"The eighth inning belongs to J.C.," Eddie Guardado said. Guardado, Minnesota's closer, had spoken to Romero earlier, had consoled his teammate and told him to just forget about what happened. "You see how close we came to Percival in the ninth inning, a couple of great catches or this might be different. Or one pitch J.C. could have back, different, you know?"

While Romero rested in the top of the eighth, the Angels' emerging star, Francisco Rodriguez, relieved Washburn. The 20-year-old struck out the first two batters he faced and got the third, All-Star Torii Hunter, to fly out weakly to left.

Romero was ready to match Rodriguez. He was tough, he was pumped, he was eager to face Glaus.

"I made all the moves I thought I had to to try and get through the seventh," Gardenhire said, "and for J.C. to pitch the eighth. J.C. gets righties, lefties out. Look at the numbers. That will tell you. He just got a pitch up there and the guy hit a home run."

Before he got the pitch up, Romero got behind, 3-and-1. "And the next pitch," Pierzynski said, "wasn't that bad. It wasn't perfect. I mean, come on, it's a big guy swinging a big bat.... It wasn't a bad pitch. Just a little bit up."

Said Romero: "When Glaus hit it, I didn't think it was gone. It was. So let's go get them tomorrow, all right? We done?"

Before Romero had come to talk, Guardado said, "This is exciting, man. Isn't this exciting? One pitch, one swing to decide a game? Man, that's what we're here for. So tomorrow we bounce back and make it 2-2 and I'll take J.C. in the eighth inning against Glaus again."

Gardenhire said, "I don't think we did too much wrong there, really."

But when in these predicaments, the Angel bullpen has stopped the scoring. The Twin bullpen, not quite. In this series, the Angel relievers haven't given up a run. The Twins have.

"You don't want to get behind the Angels late," Gardenhire said. "You have to do everything you can to stop them from scoring a run because you know they've got some great pitchers. We feel the same way about our bullpen."

Feeling is fine. Doing is better.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com

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