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."

Best of MLB: Stephen Strasburg wins 14th as Nationals down Indians

Best of MLB: Stephen Strasburg wins 14th as Nationals down Indians

CLEVELAND -- Stephen Strasburg shut down Cleveland for seven innings and bounced back from his only loss this season, leading the Washington Nationals to a 4-1 win over the Indians on Wednesday.

Strasburg (14-1) began the season with 13 straight wins before he was beaten by the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 21. The powerful right-hander shook off that blemish, holding the Indians to only three hits as the Nationals recovered after blowing a two-run lead in the ninth and losing on Tuesday night.

Washington rookie Trea Turner drove in three runs and Daniel Murphy hit his 20th homer off Carlos Carrasco (7-4), who nearly matched Strasburg but was done in by one bad inning.

Nationals reliever Blake Treinen stopped Cleveland's threat in the ninth, getting a game-ending double play for his major league save.

Strasburg walked one and struck out seven (see full recap)

Cardinals snap Familia's saves streak, rally past Mets 5-4
NEW YORK -- Yadier Molina and pinch-hitter Kolten Wong each stroked an RBI double in the ninth inning, and the St. Louis Cardinals ended Jeurys Familia's streak of 52 straight saves in rallying past the New York Mets 5-4 on Wednesday night.

Yoenis Cespedes hit a go-ahead homer off Adam Wainwright to cap a three-run comeback in the seventh that gave the Mets a 4-3 lead. But then Familia, who hadn't blown a regular-season save opportunity since July 30 last year, finally faltered.

Jedd Gyorko drew a one-out walk in the ninth and was replaced by pinch-runner Randal Grichuk. Molina hit the next pitch to deep center field, and Grichuk scored standing up to tie it.

Molina was thrown out at third by Familia (2-2) on pinch-hitter Jeremy Hazelbaker's comebacker, but Hazelbaker stole second and scored when Wong lined a double just inside the left-field line.

Familia's franchise-record saves streak was the third-longest in major league history behind Tom Gordon (54) and Eric Gagne (84).

Jonathan Broxton (3-2) tossed a scoreless eighth and Seung Hwan Oh got three quick outs for his sixth save (see full recap)

Padres hit 3 HRs to extend streak, beat Blue Jays 8-4
TORONTO -- Adam Rosales hit a two-run home run, Alex Dickerson and Brett Wallace each hit solo shots and the San Diego Padres beat the Toronto Blue Jays 8-4 on Wednesday, avoiding a three-game sweep.

San Diego extended its club-record streak of games with at least one home run to 25. It's the longest run since the 2002 Texas Rangers set a major league record by homering in 27 straight.

Luis Perdomo (5-4) allowed four runs and six hits in 5 2-3 innings to win back-to-back starts.

Wallace reached base three times. He was hit by a pitch and scored on Rosales' homer in the third, connected off R.A. Dickey in the fifth and hit an RBI single off Joe Biagini in the sixth.

Dickerson homered for the fourth time in four games when he connected off Franklin Morales in the eighth. He is first Padres rookie to homer in four straight games.

Dickey (7-12) allowed seven runs, six earned, and four hits in 5 2-3 innings. The knuckleballer is winless in three starts and has allowed six home runs in that span (see full recap).

Eric Rowe explains 'hiccups,' ready for fresh start in pads

Eric Rowe explains 'hiccups,' ready for fresh start in pads

Earlier this week, Doug Pederson admitted cornerback Eric Rowe had some “hiccups” during the spring, and seemed to indicate they stemmed from learning a new defense. 

Rowe says that wasn’t the problem at all.

“It wasn’t the new defense that was giving me whatever hiccups [Pederson] was talking about,” Rowe said on Wednesday as he reported for his second training camp (see Day 3 observations). “It was just, I was having trouble breaking on top of the routes, specifically the curl routes. But fade ball, deep post, digs, I didn’t have any trouble there. It was just curl routes. I just knew I had to work on it after the OTAs.”

Rowe, 23, said the problem was technical; he just needed to get his feet down quicker.

Whatever the problem, whatever the hiccups, it seems as though Rowe’s standing within the organization and on the depth chart isn’t what it once was.

Many thought he would be a starter in 2016, like he was at the end of 2015, but that wasn’t the way things were in the spring. Instead, Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks took those positions, and it looks like Nolan Carroll, returning from an injury, and rookie Jalen Mills, who hasn’t yet practiced in pads, are vying for playing time, too.

In back-to-back days earlier this week, Pederson and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz failed to mention Rowe’s name while listing players at the cornerback spot. Coincidental omissions or a vocalized unofficial depth chart?

Rowe could possibly go from starter to deep bench player, but that’s not what he’s planning on.

“I know I had a little ups and downs in OTAs, but now the pads are coming on,” Rowe said. “I feel like it’s a fresh start for me and I’m just ready to get out here.”

Pads go on Saturday.

“Right now, I think I still stand in a good position (with the team),” Rowe said. “Football is about the game with pads on. Now we’re really about to see in a couple days when we put the pads on.”

Small in stature, Wendell Smallwood likes to play big

Small in stature, Wendell Smallwood likes to play big

He looks like a small back. He's built like a small back. He wants to play like a big back.

Wendell Smallwood, trying to make the Eagles as a reserve tailback, stands 5-foot-10, 208 pounds, but he said he’s got a surprise for defenders that think he’s one of those itty-bitty backs that dances around looking pretty … until they get hit.

“I think that’s what most people expect,” he said Tuesday. “But when I actually put my head down and fight for those extra yards and get under guys, guys start to say, ‘Hey!’ They start to feel me a little bit.

“So I definitely think that started to show my last year in college, and I started becoming more of an inside zone type of runner instead of an outside runner.”

None of this should be a surprise considering Smallwood’s position coach is Duce Staley, who during his 10-year NFL career was much more interested in running over people than around them.

Smallwood is nowhere near as big as Staley, who played at about 235 to 240. But that’s the kind of back he wants to be.

“It’s definitely important to me and it’s definitely what Duce wants me to do,” Smallwood said. “He wants me to hit the holes and hit ‘em hard and that’s the reason he got me here.

“Duce, he doesn’t like small backs. He doesn’t. I don’t think he believes in those guys. He was a big boy. Running dudes over left and right. That’s what he wants.”

Smallwood played sparingly as a freshman at West Virginia, shared time with Rushel Shell as a sophomore, then took over last year when he led the Big 12 with 1,519 rushing yards and added nine touchdowns, 26 catches and a 6.4 rushing average.

The Eagles plucked him out of Morgantown in the fifth round, and in an uncertain running back picture, he’s got a realistic chance to not just make the team but also play a role.

Just don’t expect him to play like a typical guy his size.

“I don’t consider myself a small back anymore,” he said. “People have always said that and I kind of started to agree, but then I looked at some of the guys who are around and I’m not a small back at all.

“I’m not little and the running style I like to do is suited for a big back, and my catching kind of throws people off. I definitely think I’m a mixture of both.”

Smallwood ranked 13th in Division I in rushing yards last year, and his 6.4 average was tied for ninth among backs with at least 200 carries.

He said a lot of defenders expect him to be a finesse back, a guy who likes to juke safeties and linebackers instead of bowling them over.

“Get me going downhill and I’ll get you what I can get you,” he said. “A lot of [defenders] kind of take the easy route and think it’s going to be easy and then the rest of the game they’re going low and trying to take my legs out.”

Look at the Eagles’ running back picture.

The starter is Ryan Mathews, who is talented but injury-prone. The backup right now probably is Kenjon Barner, who has 34 career carries. Then there’s Darren Sproles, whose 3.8 average last year was his lowest since 2009 and second lowest of his 11-year career.

With a strong camp, there’s no reason Smallwood can’t work himself into that picture.

The last frontier for the Northern Delaware native is blitz pickup. Something he was never asked to do at WVU.

“I don’t think I did basically any in college,” he said. “They didn’t ask me to block at all. I was mainly running routes.

“But as soon as I got here, Duce emphasized, ‘If you want to get on the field, you’re going to block. If you’re not going to block, you’re not going to play.'”

Staley’s No. 22 wasn’t available, but Smallwood is happy to wear the jersey number of another one of his favorite backs growing up, Correll Buckhalter’s No. 28, who he seems quite similar to.

It’s not fair to compare Smallwood to Staley, Buckhalter, Brian Westbrook or any other former Eagles back until the pads go on and we see what he’s really made of.

But Smallwood said he’s thrilled Staley is his coach and said there’s nobody he’d rather be playing for.

“I think he’s a great fit for me as a coach,” Smallwood said. “I need a kind of guy who drives me, tough guy, who’s not going to let up, who’s going to keep his foot on my back. I definitely need that kind of coaching.

“Just being around him growing up and seeing what he did when he was here and how he runs and him being one of my favorite backs, I was kind of star-struck to be around him, and now he’s my coach. It’s definitely a great situation for me.”