CHICAGO — Sergio Romo smiles at the memory. He was so young, so excitable and so focused on just trying to survive the moment. But even with the swirl of emotion and surreal nature that comes with your major league debut, it will never leave his mind.
He can list off the inning like it happened days ago. The only thing that slows his recall is the emotion of gratitude and accomplishment that was inserting a baseball-sized lump in his throat.
“It was June 26, 2008, Cleveland,” he said late Tuesday evening after the Mariners’ 4-0 loss to the Twins. “Oh man, I’m just kind of trying to hold it in right now.”
But like a payoff pitch with the game on the line, Romo pulled it together and recalled the rest of that first MLB relief appearance.
“Shin Soo-Choo, fly ball to left,” he continued. “Casey Blake, strikeout. Dave Dellucci, strikeout.”
And now 799 MLB appearances later, he stared down at the two score cards in his hands — one autographed by Mariners manager Scott Servais and the other by Twins manager Rocco Baldelli — to commemorate his milestone achievement Monday night at Target Field.
When he jogged to the mound in the sixth inning, Romo made his 800th pitching appearance in the big leagues.
“Sergio pitching in his 800th game, that’s unbelievable,” Servais said. “With the career he’s had, I know that’s a number that means a lot to him. He’s just got a way of getting through innings, understanding who he is and how to attack hitters. I think he’s gonna help us quite a bit.”
With the Mariners trailing 4-0, Romo allowed a single to Gary Sanchez, but came back to strike out Miguel Sano swinging. After a catcher’s interference call allowed Alex Kirilloff to reach base, Romo calmly got Byron Buxton to ground into a fielder’s choice force-out at second and struck out Carlos Correa for a scoreless inning.
“It would’ve been a little sweeter if we had got the win,” Romo said. “But this is pretty cool. Talk about beating the odds, right? I didn’t know how it was going to make me feel. But this is one of the reasons why I wanted to play this season and wanted to be on a good team so we could win, and I could get some of these personal accolades out of the way. Kind of struggling to pat myself on the back.”
Romo, who turned 39 on March 4, has a career 42-35 record with a 3.09 ERA over 15 seasons. He was also a valuable part of three World Series championship teams with the Giants in 2010, 2012, 2014. In six World Series appearances, he’s pitched six innings without allowing a run to notch three saves and strikeout 10 batters.
“I’ve been pretty blessed from the get-go,” he said. “Two years in and winning a World Series. Five years in, I’ve got three rings. And 14-plus years later, I’m still here and still chucking it and slinging it against the best. It’s gratifying.”
To put that sort of longevity in order, only right-hander Joe Smith of the Twins, who made his 834th appearance in that same game at Target Field and Tyler Clippard of the Nationals (803) have more appearances. Julio Rodriguez was just over 7 years old when Romo debuted. Also coming into Tuesday, the other nine relievers in the Mariners’ bullpen had a combined total of 865 appearances.
It’s the feeling of competing that brings him back each season.
“It’s mano y mano,” he said. “This the real time that I feel big. I don’t feel 5-10. I feel 6-10. I feel very visible when I’m on the mound. I’ve been playing against the best. There are no slouches in this league. Just that opportunity to consider myself, not one of the best, but to consider myself amongst the best and that I can play and compete against them, that’s pretty awesome.”
Never blessed with an overpowering fastball and relying more on movement, a sweeping slider, guile and fearlessness, Romo has exceeded scouting projections and minimal expectations when he debuted.
“I’ve been joking around that I’ve been tricking (hitters) for a while,” he said. “I’ve been just tricking them every year, and now I’m even tricking new teams into giving me jobs.”
Romo credited his 10-year-old son, Rex, for pushing him this offseason even when his only opportunity to pitch this season was in the Mexican League, before the Mariners call in mid-March.
“He believed I could still be here doing this,” Romo said. “He was like, ‘Nah, dad, you are still striking hitters out.’ ”
So, does he have 100 more appearances in him?
“You ask me that as I have ice on my arm,” he said. “It would be cool. I don’t know if I’d be given that opportunity to do so. I’ve got to still produce and still show that I can get hitters out to get to that number. But here we are at 800 and the next is 801 and that’s pretty awesome to say.”