Austin Romine starting to clean up for Yankees

Yankees catcher Austin Romine smiles in the visitors'

Yankees catcher Austin Romine smiles in the visitors' dugout after he singled and then scored against the Seattle Mariners. (Sept. 12, 2011) (Credit: AP)

Austin Romine was flipping through his iPad and sipping a full cup of coffee in a mostly empty Yankees clubhouse Thursday morning when a reporter asked for an interview.

Romine obliged and set the paper coffee cup to rest on the edge of his locker.

Well, almost.

The hot beverage tipped over almost instantly, spilling its entire contents over Romine's backpack. Excusing himself in a hurry, Romine grabbed a towel and went to work drying off his backpack, exclaiming, "I don't even like coffee!"

When the episode concluded, Romine stood back at his locker, frustrated, but ready to resume the interview. If that's the worst thing that's happened to him since reaching the big leagues, then life is good.

The Yankees' young backstop can spend his time laughing over spilled coffee and the cleanup process. After a rough start to his season, Romine, 24, cleaned up his production, too, and is starting to straight clean up at the plate.

Romine was called up at the end of April, after Francisco Cervelli suffered a broken hand. In 16 games (12 starts) from April 29 to June 1, Romine hit .100 (4-for-40) with two extra-base hits, no walks and 13 strikeouts.

Then something clicked.

Since June 2 he's been a different hitter. Heading into Friday night's game against the Rays, Romine is hitting .300 with a .351 on-base percentage and .429 slugging percentage during his last 31 games (24 starts). He hit his first home run on Aug. 4, in cavernous Petco Park of all places, and came about a foot from launching his second on Aug. 21 against the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium (he had to settle for a sacrifice fly after an outstanding catch from left fielder Kevin Pillar).

"The game's slowing down for me a lot," Romine told Newsday . "It was moving real fast. I was trying to do too much. Really refined my approach at the plate, trying to go the other way, up the middle, and good things are happening."

Though this is Romine's first extended stay with the Yankees, it's not necessarily his first chance to make some noise at the major league level. Romine was a September call-up in 2011 but hit only .158 (3-for-19) in nine games. He was a candidate for the backup catcher job during spring training in 2012 but was sidelined by back inflammation, leading the Yankees to demote Cervelli (who had an option remaining) and trade for Chris Stewart, the man Romine now shares the major league catching job with. Romine exited early from the 2013 spring competition, this time finding himself the victim of having a minor league option.

In 2011 and 2012 he had to compete for innings (when there were innings to be had) with Russell Martin, a very good defender who also happened to be a three-time All-Star. Now? Romine's competition is Stewart, a 31-year-old journeyman who's batting .231. But Romine said it doesn't matter who the "other" catcher in the clubhouse is.

"There's never that much pressure," he said. "I just really want to win the game. I tend to look at it as game-to-game, not as 'this is my chance, I gotta do well.' I just look at it as I've got to do the right things.

"[Manager Joe Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena have] done a good job of easing me in. Any questions I've had they've been able to answer. That's one of the benefits of playing for a catcher who was a very intelligent and a very good defensive catcher - Tony, too."

Romine has long held a reputation as a good defender himself. The 2012 Minor League Baseball Analyst called him an "athletic backstop" whose "agility and receiving are up to snuff."

It wasn't always that way.

Romine was selected out of high school in the second round of the 2007 draft and saw his first action behind the plate with Single-A Charleston. He allowed 18 passed balls and made six errors in 54 games. The next season at Single-A advanced Tampa, Romine allowed 11 passed balls and made 10 errors in 80 games.

"First and foremost I'm a catcher," Romine said. "I pride myself on being a defensive catcher and a good one at that. When I was at low A, I had 10 passed balls a game, I couldn't block anything. So I worked very hard to be where I am and be considered a good catcher back there.

"Every year I was double better than I was at the beginning of the year. Mentally, physically. Learning how to manage all of that. Catching is hard. It's difficult. Especially when you get to the higher levels it becomes more mental."

Working with Yankees minor league catching instructor Julio Mosquera, Romine transitioned into an excellent option behind the plate. He's made two errors and allowed four passed balls in 326 innings this year. Compare that to another catcher (and ex-Yankee) with an excellent defensive reputation: Jose Molina has seven passed balls and four errors in 585.1 innings for the Rays this season.

No, Romine doesn't drop much these days.

If only he could get a handle on the coffee.

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