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."

Now on Phillies' bench, Ty Kelly looks back fondly on Team Israel experience

Now on Phillies' bench, Ty Kelly looks back fondly on Team Israel experience

Ty Kelly is currently the 25th man on the Phillies' roster, a utliity man who has all of two starts with the club this year.

But two and a half months ago, he was one of the headlining players on the Cinderella squad of the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Kelly was the starting third baseman for Team Israel, which made a surprising run to the second round with a perfect run through Pool A. The team began the WBC with an upset over host South Korea before wins over Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands. Israel beat Cuba in the next round in Japan, but fell to Japan and the Netherlands handily.

Unlike most MLB players who spent their spring in Florida, Kelly got to experience two major Asian cities -- Seoul and Tokyo -- while getting his preseason at-bats.

"It was a great experience, trying the food and all that and seeing all the sights," Kelly said.

However, he wasn't too adventurous with trying the local cuisine compared to his teammates.

"Some of the guys were really trying to seek out the native food," Kelly said. "I wanted to do that as much as I could, but at the same time, you're still trying to get ready for baseball games in a tournament, so you've got to do what's best for your body.

"Chicken sandwiches for me were the way to go for the most part," he added with a laugh.

Kelly's participation with the squad began in the middle of 2016, when Peter Kurz, the President of the Israel Association of Baseball, emailed him and asked if he had a Jewish grandparent. Kelly's mother's side of the family is Jewish, making Kelly eligible.

Last year was also the end of Kelly's long road to the major leagues. Drafted by the Orioles in 2009 out of UC Davis, Kelly was traded multiple times, once straight up for current Brewers slugger Eric Thames before Thames went to Korea and back. Kelly wound up with the Mets and finally made his MLB debut two months shy of his 28th birthday. He played 39 games for the Mets at six different positions and got a hit in his only postseason at-bat, which came vs. Madison Bumgarner no less.

Kelly still had to make the Mets this spring, which could have made joining the WBC a tough decision. However, the organization was on board with Kelly playing in the tournament.

"It made it difficult, but I talked to the Mets about it and they were all for me going over there and still playing and getting experience," he said. "People were still watching, so once I got the go-ahead from them, it was an easy decision."

Kelly made the Mets out of the spring but had just one at-bat before he put on waivers and was claimed by the Blue Jays. Eight days later, he was traded to the Phillies. He has four hits (three doubles) in 19 at-bats with the Phillies and had the game-winning RBI single two weeks ago in the front end of the Phils' doubleheader with the Nationals.

He's the only player from Team Israel to have played in the majors this season. Ryan Lavarnway and former Mets 1B Ike Davis are in AAA while the roster also included former MLBers Nate Freiman, Sam Fuld and Jason Marquis.

While none of his WBC teammates have parlayed Team Israel's run into MLB time, Kelly still thinks the team caught the eye of people in the game.

"There was definitely a lot of fandom around our team," Kelly said. "A lot of people rallied around us, including people in front offices I think. Of Jewish descent or not, I think a lot of people liked what we did.

"Being a part of that definitely looks good for me, which is just an added bonus."

A healthy Nolan Patrick to Flyers? 'He won't let anybody down,' Brandon GM says

A healthy Nolan Patrick to Flyers? 'He won't let anybody down,' Brandon GM says

As he met with general manager Grant Armstrong, Nolan Patrick had just finished an injury-marred junior season.

The 18-year-old missed the WHL playoffs and was limited to 33 games because of two separate injuries. He underwent a sports hernia surgery the offseason prior, a major impediment to his summer training. He never quite "caught up to the year," as Armstrong put it.

"I don't think he really ever got himself into a situation where he was 100 percent," the Brandon Wheat Kings GM said in a phone interview last week with CSNPhilly.com.

But none of that was about to crack Patrick's confidence.

"When we had our exit meetings, he told me he was going to play in the NHL," Armstrong said. "I wished him the best of luck and I expect that's where he'll be next year."

Where he could be is Philadelphia sporting Flyers orange. Patrick and Nico Hischier are the consensus top-two picks for the June 23-24 NHL entry draft. The Flyers, of course, with a stroke of good luck, will be happily sitting at No. 2 overall. The Devils will make Ron Hextall's decision much easier when they pick at No. 1.

The Canadian Patrick and Swiss-born Hischier are both centers. Coming into the season, Patrick was viewed as the draft's top dog, but his health and Hischier's rise have tightened the race.

Will the injuries cause apprehension?

"I think there's no concern at all," Armstrong said. "Injuries are a part of the game and I don't see it being an issue for Nolan at all. He trains well, he works hard at it and rehabs properly. I don't see it being an issue and currently, I think he's at 100 percent."

Despite the hampered summer and shortened season, Patrick showed why he's so heralded by still compiling 46 points in 33 games for the Wheat Kings, his third year with the junior club. He scored 20 goals and collected 26 assists. Why that might not be mind-blowing is because Patrick had 102 points in 2015-16 on 41 goals and 61 assists for an astounding plus-51 rating. He went on to record 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists) in 21 playoff games, leading Brandon to its first WHL title in 20 years alongside current Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov.

Similar to Provorov, Patrick's hockey smarts are well beyond his age.

"His presence on the ice, he just thinks the game, he puts himself in positions to be successful all the time," Armstrong said. "He's almost above the ice in his thinking aspect. He sees the game so well, he's a student of the game, he understands and puts himself in positions of success. That hasn't changed, it's only getting better for him.

"He's a difference-maker."

Armstrong joined the Wheat Kings last summer but had scouted and seen plenty of Patrick as Armstrong worked the previous four seasons for the WHL's Victoria Royals.

"He's a very elite player with a tremendous hockey sense," Armstrong said. "I think that's his biggest attribute is he thinks the game so well, he thinks it ahead of what's really happening on the ice a lot of the times. He's a player that's really starting to come into his own. 

"This next season will be a real opportunity for him to showcase his elite hockey sense and his athleticism and all the things that combine to make him a great player."

It appears Patrick, who has great size at 6-foot-3, 198 pounds, is ready to showcase those traits at the NHL level. His future club will ultimately decide that in training camp.

"We would like to think we know that, but until the kid comes in and shows you what he can do," Hextall said earlier this month. "You make an educated judgment and then you go from there. A player has to come in and prove that he's ready and at this age not many are, so we'll wait and see which way [the player] goes from there."

Armstrong said there's constant communication between Brandon and NHL teams throughout a season and that it escalates this time of year as the draft nears.

What about with the Flyers?

"The Flyers are a great organization and obviously we have ties to their GM," Armstrong said. "It's a good fit and they know what's going on.

"They're dialed into what's going on and they have all kinds of ways to communicate with people."

While Patrick may not jump off the charts with Connor McDavid-like scoring ability, he prides himself on being complete. Armstrong said Patrick models his game after Kings center Anze Kopitar, a two-time Stanley Cup champion and 2015-16 Selke Trophy winner as the NHL's top defensive forward.

It's the do-it-all mentality Armstrong believes was special, night in and night out.

"Just the way he makes small plays in a game that would set up a teammate," he said. "He plays a 200-foot game, he's coming back hard and supporting the D in the defensive zone. Switching to offense, he's quick and he does things that make him such a great player.

"I think everybody thinks that a No. 1 or 2 centerman is going to be completely focused on the offensive side, but no, he's very committed to the defensive side of the puck — I think that's one thing that's a little bit misunderstood about him. He's got such an ability to play in any situation — killing penalties, late in the game, taking big faceoffs, that's his game."

Armstrong extolled Patrick for making everyone around him better on the Wheat Kings.

If that's with the Flyers next, Armstrong believes you won't be disappointed.

"I think they just have to be patient and allow the player to grow. He won't let anybody down," Armstrong said. "I just think he's an elite talent with an elite sense for the game. At some point, he'll be a great two-way centerman in the league. He'll put up offensive numbers. They won't be in the elite category, but he'll be a guy that'll chip away at his game, he'll produce. You just have to take your time and be patient."