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The Invisible Man

Sergio Romo’s return is just another excuse to wax poetic about my favorite pitch of all time

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World Series - San Francisco Giants v Detroit Tigers - Game 4

Sergio Romo will be remembered as a Giant for one pitch.

It’s a pitch we all know, have seen replayed in montages, highlight reels, across the inside of our eyelids when our minds wander during childrens’ piano recitals, lectures, homilies, office meetings.

It’s a pitch that Giants die-hards, lukewarm fans, and baseball pundits all remember for its perfect backwardness, its paradoxical bold humility. A checkmate with a pawn—Andrew Baggarly equates it to a river stone and a slingshot employed by David to take down Goliath.

Romo’s K of Miguel Cabrera in 2012 to seal the World Series for the San Francisco Giants is compelling also for its contrast to its twin.

In 2010, it was Goliath vs Goliath. Brian Wilson was an All-Star, led the Major Leagues with 48 saves, and with his jet black beard as groomed as his media image, Wilson was funny, bold, recognizable, and the undaunted and wild captain of San Francisco baseball: the good ship Torture. He was The Closer, and Nelson Cruz The Hitter. A year removed from his first All-Star performance, Cruz notched a .950 OPS during the regular season and launched a combined 55 home runs between ‘09 and ‘10.

Big personality versus big swinger in a big situation requires a big pitch—with a full-count and nobody on, Nelson Cruz was expecting something in the zone from Brian Wilson, something hard but certainly manageable. Exactly that was delivered—an elevated cutter—and Cruz swung out of his pants trying to hit it.

Posey and Wilson started off the at-bat with a cutter for strike 1, a hard slider that dropped out of the zone for ball 1 before elevating a four-seamer at 96 MPH which Cruz swung through for strike 2.

The swing was balanced and on-pace, the location perfect, and announcer Tim McCarver voiced what was certainly going through Cruz’s mind: “We’re going to see that pitch again.” It was a strikeout pitch, good ol’ country hardball, power versus power that cleanses the palate and wipes the hitter’s memory of anything soft. Wilson tried to blow it by him again but yanked it for ball 2.

The count went full which set up Cruz’s swing through a 90 MPH cutter he had apparently forgot about. Expecting 95 MPH heat teed up in the zone, he got yo-yoed trying to hit a two-run homer with no one on base.

I go back and forth on whether the pitch worked because of its ingenuity or that Cruz’s adrenaline got the better of him. There’s no doubt the cutter was nasty—a similar one delivered in a full-count froze Ryan Howard to win the 2010 pennant was deemed one of the best pitches of that decade by Grant Brisbee (subscription required). But this one to Cruz wasn’t located as precisely and it kind of feels like, given Wilson’s pitch to Howard a week earlier, that Nelson should’ve been sitting on the cutter…

Splitting atoms here. The whiff kick-started the dynasty—a K is a K, but is it the same as a backwards one?

Sergio Romo was the opposite of Wilson: His fastball velocity rarely broke into the 90s, his repertoire leaned heavily slider, and he didn’t walk batters. There was no reliance on power or mound presence or image. Everything about Romo was understated: 5’11’’, 185 pounds. Romo’s facial hair in 2010 was just as black as Wilson’s (and naturally colored) while appearing in two fewer games with a 2.18 ERA, 10.2 SO/9, and a sub-1.000 WHIP, but received less recognition as the set-up man.

That was fine by Romo: “I was one of the best invisible players in baseball…I didn’t mind it.” He thrived on deception, on not being seen and pitching backwards: his sweeping slider continually teasing the zone before falling away from right handed hitters, or his fastball that mirrored the sweeper for 50 feet until it diverged laterally, jumping towards the hands of righties.

The slider was a weapon and, compared to an 89 MPH fastball, it rightfully received all the attention.

In Game 1 of the 2012 World Series, the legend goes that Miguel Cabrera yelled to Romo from the Detroit dugout that he was “ready for the slider.” The future Hall of Famer thought he had Romo pegged, figured out to such a degree that he felt confident enough to throw a gauntlet down, razz him, blow him a kiss. It’s this moment, not the game scenario, that elevates the Romo-Cabrera at-bat.

Some pitchers would be stubborn enough to take the bait and try to beat Miggy with the pitch he ordered: He called for it, he thinks he can handle it, so I’m gonna show—solo home run to right.

During the AB, Romo toyed with that hubris–-slider, slider, slider, slider, slider. Five of them in a row. Miggy took one for a strike, swung and missed at one, fouled one off and spat on two—after the 5th slider, all other options were off the menu. In Cabrera’s and everyone else’s mind, Romo had accepted his challenge.

No one would’ve faulted Romo for trying a 6th sweeper. Posey wanted another. Everyone expected another. There was no reason to go in the zone to Cabrera: they had another ball to give in the count, and if Miggy saw the fastball coming, he could’ve easily slapped it over the fence and tied the game.

Baiting Cabrera to whiff at one more slider would undoubtedly have been cool, fulfilling the expected, tried-and-true narrative arc, as well as an undeniable testament to the nastiness of the pitch. But Romo knew that storybook ending wasn’t realistic—there was no way he’d fetch another out-of-zone swing from Cabrera on a pitch he knew was coming.

The Romo fastball is so perfect because it is unexpected. It’s a blend of physicality and cunning. Instinct and intellect. A high-90s fastball blowing past a desperate bat is art-less comparatively: it is all action and result, a drumstick hitting a cymbal—what else is there but sound?

The way the fastball just slides into the zone, pocketing itself in Posey’s mitt, freezing everyone in the baseball world.

That pitch defined Romo’s career—so brash and bold in such an understated way.