Our Chat with J.C. Romero as He Drove to Clearwater: On Control, Cliff Lee's Advice, and Being Hungry for More Than Pancakes

Our Chat with J.C. Romero as He Drove to Clearwater: On Control, Cliff Lee's Advice, and Being Hungry for More Than Pancakes

As it turns out for one member of the Phillies, the road to Clearwater started out with pancakes.

Phillies reliever J.C. Romero spent Friday driving from his home in Alabama to the team's spring training facilities in Clearwater, Florida, but he hit the road a bit later than he had initially planned because he had to make his daughter Jazlyn some pancakes before he left.

Romero wasn't always sure it would be Clearwater that he would report to this spring as a return to the Phillies didn't look promising once the team declined his $4.5 million option for 2011. But much like Cliff Lee, Romero told us he likely left some money on the table, settling on a 1-year, $1.35 million deal to return to Philadelphia, a place his family has grown to love.

We talked with Romero on Friday as he set off on the road. We touched on his decision to return to the Phillies, how healthy he feels heading into the 2011 campaign, his thoughts on the Four Aces and how it will affect the bullpen, his plan to talk look to Cliff Lee for advice, his thoughts on Antonio Bastardo stepping up in Chad Durbin's absence, and what he's planning on working on over the next month and a half in Clearwater.

And don't worry, J.C.'s cousin was driving as we chatted. Didn't want to upset Oprah.

We also asked him what restaurant he planned on stopping at during his eight hour road trip. His answer was not one I was expecting.

Our interview with J.C. Romero below.

Would you say you're 100% healthy right now?

"Yeah. Right now I'm a 100% and I'll tell you something. A real man will accept his flaws and his mistakes. From a personal standpoint, I think I kind of underestimated the operation. I didn't think my surgery was going to be as serious as it was. Honestly, I think I came up too quick. Maybe my competitiveness took over. You know, I've always been a positive individual. If I had to do it all over again, I would have really taken my time rehabbing. I think if I would have rehabbed the way I should have, last season would have been a lot better."

How much of your control issues last season can be attributed to the injury specifically?

"A lot. I've always been effectively wild over my career. We were talking about a 2 to 1 ratio throughout my career. It's hard to come back, especially when you're a sinker ball pitcher and command the strike zone when you pretty much don't have 100% feeling in your fingers. You need your fingers to be on top of the baseball. You need your hands to be where you want it to be. It wasn't that I wasn't healed, it was that I was a little weak. I really couldn't be constant with my arm slot or my arm speed. That was the reason I was so erratic at times. It was a learning process. I hope that everything goes better this year. One of the things I've never done, but I think I'm going to be able to do is to start picking the starting pitchers brains a little bit. I want to sit down a little bit with Cliff Lee because he's a guy that really pounds the strike zone and he really emphasizes getting ahead and putting people away. It's never too late to learn. I want to see the things he does on a daily basis to get his command where it needs to be. I'll be alright. I feel healthy. If I'm healthy I'll be alright.

You mentioned Cliff Lee. A lot of the spotlight this offseason has been on the four aces. How does the bullpen feel about being out of the limelight a bit? Or maybe not having as much pressure on them?

"We're good. We know that the bottom line is if you have a good bullpen you will win championships. Yes, you need hitting. You need defense. You need good starting pitching. You need all around ball. It will take for everybody to do their part to win a championship. We know that. It happened to us before. You take the blessings as they come and we hope the starting rotation can stay healthy and pitch a lot of innings. That's what you want from them. But at the end of the day, we know as a bullpen we have to stay strong, to stay sharp. There's no room for mistakes. We will probably have less innings, but I think as far as appearances and quality outings and key outs, they're always going to be there. You always have to be prepared mentally and physically to execute at any given time. I think our mentality hasn't changed. It's just a matter of being a little more patient because we have some guys who can pitch deeper into games.

Do you still get excited for Spring Training or is it more of a grind you have to go through before the real thing in April?

"I do. I get excited. The day that I stop being excited about showing up to Spring Training it the day I walk away from the game. You have to be excited. This is a special place to be. Not everybody can play at this level. We're very blessed to do what we do for a living. But at the same time it takes some preparation and some discipline which I look forward to as well.

Is there anything specifically that you want to work on while in Florida?

"Actually, I just want to get that attacking feel back. I want to get back to attacking mode. That's what I did when I was younger. That's what I did when I was healthy.  Me being healthy will make that a lot easier. I want to pound the strike zone with my sinker and try to limit my walks. That's my main concern. I've been doing targeting pitching here in my house trying to make sure my command is where it needs to be. You know, I've done it before. It's about me going out there, doing the repetitions, and training the right way. All I need to do is compete, start having a little success early in the season, and it will all take off from there.

One of the younger guys that the team may rely a lot on this season is Antonio Bastardo. Especially with Chad Durbin likely being gone, do you see Bastardo stepping up his role a lot this season?

"He better. That is a kid that reminds me a lot of myself when I was a young puppy when I played in Minnesota. I have been with Bastardo every step of the way, from the day that I got hurt I was in Clearwater and I took him under my wing trying to teach him how things are in the big leagues. The kid has amazing stuff. The important thing for him is to stay consistent. Knowing that the season isn't two or three weeks. You have to play six and a half, seven months out of the year. I think he's up for the challenge because his stuff is there and mentally he's getting stronger. Plus he had a good taste of the big leagues last season. I think he's going to be alright.

"Durbin is going to be missed. Because his personality, the way he was and what he brought to the team, that calmness in the bullpen, if we were all hyped up he was very calm and very mellow. We called him 'The Doctor' because he was calm and very collected. We're going to miss him tremendously. We wish him well, but at the same time there's a job there for somebody to take. I think Bastardo is going to be ready for it. If he's not ready, somebody else will, so he better be ready.

Some word association.

Brad Lidge

"Notre Dame boy"

Ryan Madson

"Oh man. Funny guy"

Jose Contreras

"I call him 'Big Truck.' He's a beast."

Rich Dubee

"I call him 'The Coach.' He's the coach."

Charlie Manuel

"Charlie Manuel. Oh my god. That's the ace. That's the real ace of the team, man. That's the real ace."

Making rookies carry that pink backpack to the bullpen. What's inside the backpack?

"All the goodies. Me personally, I don't participate too much in that because when I was a rookie I didn't really carry one. I used to carry a couple of bottles of water or whatever in my hands. But you get water, Gatorade, Powerbars, Red Bull, Aspirin. Whatever you need in the bullpen you carry in that pink bag. If you notice throughout the season, somebody always carries the pink bag, but somebody also carries a regular bag. So if you're not a rookie, you could still be carrying a regular bag. It depends on seniority. The youngest member of the bullpen will always be carrying a bag even if you're not a rookie."

Toughest hitter ever faced?

"I'd have to say, thank God he retired, but John Olerud always gave me a hard time. Seems like he always gave me two strikes, then he got me after an 0-2 or 1-2 count."

You're actually driving down now, which Phillie in the clubhouse are you most excited to see?

"One of the things that makes this team so unique is that you want to see everybody, man. Everybody is so unique. They have something different to bring. What I really want to see is, to see if we're still hungry. You know what I mean? We have the pieces. I want to see how the guys react as a whole unit because I want to make sure they're still hungry. I'm here to win a championship, and I hope they have that goal in mind as well.

You going to stop for some food somewhere at some point?

"My wife is really into healthy stuff. I'm not glad that I went through the whole suspension and all that stuff, but it kind of opened our minds. So we've been very health conscious, even with a lot of stuff we eat. She made me a big goody bag with some turkey, some pastrami, and all the good organic stuff. I got food here for eight hours, so we're good."

Several reasons behind Brandon Graham's seemingly sudden emergence

Several reasons behind Brandon Graham's seemingly sudden emergence

With three sacks in three games, Brandon Graham is off to the fastest start of his career by far, already almost halfway to his career high of 6½. Naturally, the Eagles' defensive end is excited about the production, but not nearly as excited as he was with the defense as a whole after a 34-3 romp over the Steelers on Sunday.

"For us, I was just happy we stayed together, we played together and the outcome was good," Graham said postgame. "Hats off to Pittsburgh because we did a lot of planning for them. We respect them a lot.

"I am just happy to get this win and I am happy in the style we did it."

Graham was one of four Eagles players to bring down Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, marking the first time the seventh-year veteran has recorded at least one sack in three consecutive games. In fact, prior to this season, Graham had never posted a sack in Week 1.

For once, the numbers are taking care of themselves for Graham — although that's not what he's focused on.

"Since I've been here, I've never gotten a sack in the first game, and I've never been consistent," Graham said. "I'm just trying to be the leader, go out there, get W's and be relentless."

There are plenty of explanations for Graham's seemingly sudden emergence.

This is only his second season as a full-time player in the NFL after injuries, then depth conspired to keep the 2010 first-round pick on the bench early in his career. Perhaps all he needed was an opportunity. The switch back to a 4-3 defense and wide-nine front no doubt helped rejuvenate Graham's career as well, allowing him to move from outside linebacker back to his natural position at defensive end and focus on rushing the passer.

With Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry and Marcus Smith all rotating in at end, Graham is also being kept fresh. Last season, the Eagles lacked the quality reserves to provide many breathers for Barwin and Graham on the outside.

"It's a great feeling because there's no pressure to hurry up and get back out," Graham said. "I feel like everybody is just as good and there's no drop-off when we come out of there.

"It's definitely going to help us later on in the year. It's been helping now."

There are all sorts of schematic reasons why Graham could finally be on his way to a breakout season. This will be his first full season as a starter at D-end in a 4-3, it's the first time since 2012 he's in a wide-nine and the defense no longer has to be worried about being exhausted by Chip Kelly's offense's uptempo approach.

Graham was also blessed with a new addition to his family during the offseason — a baby girl. The 28-year-old admits that changed his perspective as well, making him want to work even harder toward achieving his goals.

"Just the preparation and then the work this offseason, I took it up to another level," Graham said. "I guess because I had a daughter this offseason, everything is kind of viewed a different way for me.

"I know we have a good defense — that helps out a lot, too. I couldn't ask for a better defense right now."

Clearly, those goals are not individually motivated. Graham wants to be part of something great, and with a dominant performance against the Steelers in Week 3, the Eagles and their defense passed a huge test.

"I feel like we improved," Graham said. "We got a lot better. We stopped a good team, a great team, a well-coached team. Our hats off to them because they made us work this week."

Few people were expecting the Eagles to handle a trendy Super Bowl pick the way they did, and Graham actually prefers it that way.

"I hope we still get overlooked because it feels so good when people are talking the way they did," Graham said. "It added a little fuel. We watched a little bit of the TV (Sunday) morning, and they were just saying how [the Steelers] were going to dog us.

"I'm just happy that we came out and did what we were supposed to do, and I hope we stay the underdog because, for us, nobody gave us a chance and we stayed together. If we stay together in here, that's all that matters."

Through three games, the Eagles lead the NFL in fewest points surrendered with a paltry 27 and rank fourth in yards allowed. They're also tied for third with 10 sacks and tied for seventh with six takeaways.

If the defense stays together the way Graham says they have, how far does he think the Eagles go this season?

"I don't know," Graham said. "If we keep playing like that, there is no ceiling."

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Flyers Notes: Promising performances from young defensemen

Flyers Notes: Promising performances from young defensemen

The most impressive thing about the Flyers' 4-0 preseason win over the Islanders on Tuesday night was the play of the their young defense and the outstanding work by the penalty kill.

Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers each gave a strong accounting of themselves while veteran Andrew MacDonald proved why experience helps with some terrific PK work during an extended five-on-three Islanders power play in the third period.

“Overall, they did a good job,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I look at some of the opportunities we gave up, especially in the second period, we gave up three or four Grade A opportunities that Mase (goalie Steve Mason) was great on, but I put those on our forwards.

“We’re still not into regular-season form on our play without the puck. I thought as a whole, the group of defensemen did a good job and the young guys in there were good tonight.”

Sanheim had strong plays the entire game from the point and picked up two assists (see highlights). He gets the puck quickly on net and joins the play up front.

“It took me a little bit, even in this game,” Sanheim said. “As I play more, I started to jump up more and you start to see my game more. It’s something I want to bring to this next level.”

Provorov logged 21:43 of ice time following nearly 29 minutes at New Jersey. He had 5:17 on the PK. Some of his clears weren’t deep or hard enough, at times, possibly because of fatigue.

He also took a bad boarding hit on Joshua Ho-Sang in the third period that set up an Isles five-on-three power play. It became extended because of a trip call to Myers but MacDonald did yeoman’s work on the extended PK.

Provorov quarterbacks the first-unit man advantage for now until Shayne Gostisbehere joins the crowd. He had some very skillful passes. The Russian can find the seam up the ice on the breakout quickly and had a no-look, hard pass to Nick Cousins in the second period for a quality one-timer on net.

Expect Provorov to handle the second-unit power play during the season, should he make the roster.

The goals
Although the Flyers, using a better NHL lineup, were lacking for offensive chances early against the Isles' "B" squad, they found their way in the final four minutes of the opening period.

First, Dale Weise had one of those pinball goals as a bouncing puck hit a couple of players in the slot, including goalie Chris Gibson, to make it 1-0 during four-on-four play.

That was the Flyers' first goal of preseason in three games. A little more than a minute later, Wayne Simmonds scored off a rebound just as a Flyers power play ended. Simmonds had two goals in the game, including a wrister from the left circle to open the final period.

Smallish (5-foot-7) — but bullish — centerman Andy Miele, a former Hobey Baker Award winner as college hockey’s top player (Miami-Ohio), made it 3-0, out-battling Thomas Hickey for the rebound of Michael Raffl’s shot.

The shield
Simmonds is wearing a visor for the first time. It’s an experiment for now.

“Everyone is all over me about it,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. It wasn’t too bad tonight. The only thing is trying to track pucks in the sky when you are getting the glare from the lights. A little bit of an adjustment."

He said neither his mother nor girlfriend had pushed him as hard to wear the shield as someone else: “Ron Hextall,” he said flatly. “He gave me a call.”

Because of his tenacious play in the slot where sticks are high and pucks are deflected, a shield makes sense.

“Yeah, I think so, being that front guy and doing work on the PK,” he said. “Getting sticks in lanes like that, the game is really fast and pucks get deflected.

“Sometime you don’t know where they’re going and can’t react to that. Obviously, the shield is good for that."

He added he would wear the shield in a fight, too.

“Every time I fight and someone has a shield on, I’m at a disadvantage so I guess this evens it up,” he said.

Loose pucks
Weise did a nice job sticking up for teammates late during a melee after a Ben Holmstrom crosscheck to linemate Nick Cousins. “It was a bad crosscheck and you’re defending your teammates,” he said. “The ref was in the way and I kind of went overtop him. That’s what I’m about. Guys take liberties on my linemates, I’ll stand up for them.” … Matt Read had just 6:54 ice time through two periods. Fourth-liner Boyd Gordon had more ice time there — 9:39 — but Read finished with 13:55 to Gordon’s 13:41. More than half of Gordon’s ice time was on the penalty kill. … Goalie Steve Mason faced some point-blank chances among the first 17 shots he faced and finished with 23-save shutout.