ST. PETERSBURG — It was around noon Saturday when Enny Romero finally got the shocking word, via a phone call from his agent, that the Rays were summoning him from his Dominican Republic home to make his major-league debut as Sunday's starter.
Expecting to spend another relaxing day with his wife and infant son, the 22-year-old prospect instead was in full scramble, with less than an hour to get to the airport. Having not thrown since his last minor-league game Sept. 13, Romero first headed to a nearby field to play catch for about 10 minutes with his brother. He then hurriedly packed a bag and got a ride to the airport from his teary-eyed father.
Next was a 2½-hour flight to Orlando, more than an hour in customs, then a two-hour ride in a town car to his St. Petersburg hotel. It was after 9 by then, and Romero's first night as a big-leaguer consisted of ordering a pizza and trying — mostly unsuccessfully — to force his eyes shut.
Sunday went a bit smoother.
Romero delivered coolly, calmly and impressively in working into the fifth inning, allowing just one hit. And with some dominant bullpen help, dazzling defense and just enough offense, the result was a 3-1 win over Baltimore that kept the Rays atop the American League wild-card race.
"That's about as clutch as you can get right there," reliever Jamey Wright said. "Coming out with no fear, going right after guys. I think he exceeded all expectations of what we were hoping for (Sunday). And that's a beautiful thing."
With seven games to play, including today's 3:10 p.m. home finale, the Rays remain a half-game ahead of the Indians but moved to two ahead of the Rangers. The Royals are four back of the Rays, the Yankees 4½, the Orioles five.
With scheduled Sunday starter Jeremy Hellickson among the 11 pitchers used in Friday's 18-inning marathon, the Rays decided to bring in Romero. Though he made just two Triple-A appearances (one start) after spending the season at Double A, they figured his mid 90s velocity would play well. But they were unsure enough that they also brought up J.D. Martin from Triple A to serve as a potential backup. "I had no idea," manager Joe Maddon said.
Romero's goal was to pitch with countrymen Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney, and when he walked in Sunday, a No. 45 with his name on it was hanging in the locker between them. "#DreamComeTrue," he tweeted.
Peralta gave him simple advice — "Have fun and throw the ball down" — and Maddon similarly said to just do what he did in the minors. Romero's warmup didn't go well — pitching coach Jim Hickey described it as "scattered" — and he felt the nerves as he made his first pitch, a 93 mph fastball.
"After that I breathe," Romero said. "Breathe and throw the ball the same as in the minor leagues."
Maddon said he knew they would be okay after Romero gave up a single to Manny Machado on his third pitch. "He was breathing well," Maddon said. "Machado rolled that ball into rightfield, no big deal. He got right back on the mound, not fazed by it at all. And he just kept looking that way."
He carried the 1-0 lead from David DeJesus' homer into the fifth, but after a fourth walk and a drive Wil Myers leaped to snare at the rightfield wall, Maddon had seen enough, going to the bullpen with two outs.
That kept Romero from qualifying for the win, but it worked out well otherwise. "The bullpen was ridiculously great," Maddon said.
Brandon Gomes ended the fifth, then had a strikeout to start the sixth. Wesley Wright came in to get one, Jamey Wright another. The line for the sixth: three pitchers, three K's.
The Rays — with Evan Longoria ill and Desmond Jennings leaving with hamstring tightness — scored two in the sixth, and the relievers, despite a ninth-inning catwalk incident that scored a run, finished it off.
"I'm very happy," Romero said.
He wasn't the only one.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]bay.com.