Thanks to a trying moment at the beginning of last season, Houston's Seth Romero has a renewed purpose as he navigates his junior year with the Cougars.
Around this time a year ago, as the Cougars were getting ready for the 2016 campaign, Romero was expected to headline the weekend rotation. He was firmly entrenched into the weekend rotation after putting together a first-year campaign that resulted in Freshman All-American honors.
But everything changed when Romero returned to campus after Christmas break. In the past, Romero had been able to rely on pure stuff and had somewhat of a shadow role within the program. But now he was one of the nation's top sophomores and needed to be one of the team leaders as the projected No. 2 starting pitcher behind righthander Andrew Lantrip.
The only problem with that expectation? He wasn't prepared to be the face of UH's program. When he returned to campus for January workouts, he'd gained a noticeable amount of weight, and in turn, lost some athleticism. Houston coach Todd Whitting, knowing players would be looking up to Romero, had to make an example of the powerful lefthander and suspended him for the season-opening series against Villanova to make a statement.
"I think him having to sit out the first few weeks last season was a lesson learned on the expectation level and culture of our program," Whitting said. "Working hard is not optional in our program. You must prepare your body and arm both physically and mentally to succeed at a high level.
"Fortunately, the light did come on for Seth last season," he continued. "And he ended up having another successful campaign."
Romero ended his sophomore season with a 2.29 ERA in 94.1 innings, along with 113 strikeouts and 28 walks. However, he wasn't satisfied. After all he'd dealt with earlier in the season, Romero didn't like that his ERA was worse than his freshman year, and he'd also lost one more game than the previous season.
Romero was motivated more than ever at this point. But, he didn't head off to a prestigious summer league to get his mind right. Instead, he stayed in Houston and spent the summer in a rigorous workout program trying to get his body perfected to prepare for his junior draft campaign and a potential Houston run to the College World Series.
"I'd say he's at least lost 30 pounds since that suspension. He's a lean, strong and athletic kid right now," Whitting said. "He's always been a good athlete, though. Even in the past, he was one of those pitchers who did a good job fielding his position, running to first base and what not. Now, he just looks the part and is a true athletic lefthanded pitcher."
Scouts got a good gander at the new-look Romero during fall workouts, and he was impressive in an exhibition game against USA Baseball's 18U team. In that contest, Romero was consistently 93-95, with most of his fastballs coming in at 94, while also showing an improved 81-84 mph slider. Against the nation's elite high school draft prospects, Romero retired seven of the eight batters he faced and tallied four strikeouts.
His strong fall set the tone for last week's season-opening start against a Wake Forest team that had one of the nation's elite offensive lineups just a year ago, and still welcomed back several of those key cogs, including elite outfielder Stuart Fairchild.
Wake Forest was supposed to be a stiff test for Romero, but the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder, had his way with Tom Walter's Demon Deacons. Romero got off to a quick start and put four zeroes on the scoreboard before running into some trouble in the fifth inning. Wake loaded the bases with one out in the inning, but instead of succumbing to a big inning, Romero allowed just one run on a fielder's choice and finished the frame with a strikeout. The lefty finished the game with 12 strikeouts, no walks and allowed just a run on five hits in six innings.
Perhaps in the past, that fifth inning situation would've spelled doom for Romero and the Cougars. But this was different because he's now different.
"Romero was lights out last Friday. I think it was obviously big that he made those changes to his body in the offseason, but the biggest key for me with him is just his mental development. We have a situation in the fifth inning where an error essentially costs him a run. Typically, in that situation, he would've melted down and the other team would've had a big inning. But he kept himself calm and collected and pitched his way right through it.
"For two years, he could have success just based on pure talent," he continued. "That was a big moment for him and a definite step forward. There was a real presence about him in that fifth inning."
Besides the improvements to his body, Romero's stuff has improved since last season. While he was up to 95 during the fall, he sat more 92-94 with his fastball and up to 95 against the Demon Deacons with the ability to spot the pitch all over the zone. Meanwhile, the 79-83 slider was a good pitch and the lefty continues to have the ability to throw a quality changeup, though he opted to not use it against the Deacs, instead, going with two variations of his breaking ball.
"He was pretty good. He's shown a little bit better velocity in the past, but he had great command of his fastball, and that's key," Whitting said. "I thought he did a really good job of pitching off his fastball. His secondary stuff was very good and he wasn't out there trying to overthrow.
"As he gets going, I think he'll be able to go out there and throw harder," he continued. "I think his slider has become a definite out pitch for him, and the changeup continues to improve, giving him a solid three-pitch mix. With the way he's throwing his fastball, it's really one of those situations where you can't just sit on the fastball. He can be very effective with his secondary pitches."
At least one scout in attendance agreed with Whitting's assessment.
"He was really, really good. He was powerful, up to 96, and he had his breaking ball working. I call it more of an old school curveball because it has more sweeping action to it. It's not a real tight true slider," a National League scout said. "He uses his breaking ball two ways, one with some depth and which lacks the sweeping action. Then, he'll use that slider with a bit more sweeping action to it," he continued. "He looks really good, and frankly, I never worried much about the weight thing. There are plenty of bigger guys pitching well in the big leagues."
Romero's consistency this spring will determine just how much noise the No. 25 Cougars can make on the national stage. But if his teammates are anything like him, chances are good the Cougars are destined for much success the rest of the season.
Sometimes in life, you have your will tested. That moment for Romero was the beginning of last season. He could've headed down a suboptimal path. Instead, he made sure he did everything he could to be an elite pitcher and leader.
He's a man on a mission and doesn't plan to slow down anytime soon.
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