By BILLY WITZ
Yankees catcher Austin Romine, with pitcher Luis Severino, before a game against the White Sox last week at Yankee Stadium.
PITTSBURGH — When Austin Romine returned from the Triple-A All-Star Game two years ago, it was with a bounce in his step, certain that he had rejuvenated his career. Just a few months before, Romine had been the final cut by the Yankees after playing poorly in spring training. Free to sign with any club, he returned to the Yankees’ top minor-league affiliate, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, because no other team was interested in him.
But as Romine walked into the visitor’s clubhouse in Louisville, Ky., he caught sight of a newcomer in the room, Gary Sanchez, the organization’s top catching prospect.
Immediately, Romine’s heart sank.
He knew what that meant: Sanchez, four years younger, was there to take his job.
“You don’t ever want to come back from an All-Star Game and now you’re a backup,” Romine said. “I understand the situation and the talent that he is, but nobody wants to swallow that.”
If it is a catcher’s duty to soak up punishment and cajole the best out of others, Romine has applied those lessons to himself, setting aside the game’s frustrations and enduring long enough so that he, as a formerly bright prospect, might have one more chance to blossom.
Having surprised even himself by making the Yankees last season, Romine has surprised others in the way he has played since Sanchez, a budding star, went out with a biceps injury two weeks ago.
In his place, Romine has hit .324, with an .840 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, while also earning plaudits for managing the pitchers, who have a 3.13 earned run average when he is behind the plate. The Yankees have won nine of the 11 games Romine has started.
On Saturday, he broke up Jameson Taillon’s no-hitter with two outs in the fifth, the first of his two hits, and scored a run in the Yankees’ 11-5 victory.
Though his stint as a major league regular may not be long — Sanchez has begun to throw and swing a bat and is expected to return in two weeks — Romine is relishing an opportunity that took so long to arrive.
A second-round draft pick in 2007, Romine, at one point, looked like the heir apparent to Jorge Posada. He was the Yankees’ minor league player of the year in 2009 and 2011, and twice played in M.L.B.’s Futures Game, delivering the game-winning hit in 2011 off Kansas City’s All-Star reliever Kelvin Herrera.
Among Romine’s teammates that day were the future All-Stars Bryce Harper, Matt Harvey, Jason Kipnis, Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt and Wil Myers.
But Romine plateaued and watched the Yankees’ confidence in him wane, as they signed free agents (Russell Martin and Brian McCann), made trades (Chris Stewart) and promoted catchers in the organization (Francisco Cervelli, Jesus Montero and John Ryan Murphy).
“My journey has been one of a lot of weird circumstances,” said Romine, 28, who spent last season as the backup to McCann, only after Sanchez had an awful spring, hitting .091. “It was hard to be passed up, sent down, overlooked by every other team, not wanted — you can put whatever words you want on it — but all it did was put a chip on my shoulder, and a positive chip, to prove to everybody that I can do it, to prove anybody wrong that says I can’t.”
Romine hitting a broken-bat, run-scoring single during last week’s series against the White Sox. Playing in place of the injured Gary Sanchez, Romine has hit .324 and has earned praise for the way he has managed pitchers.
Romine said that through his travails, he had come to understand the importance of enjoying the game, of finding the joy in its mundane details, the kind that can beat a player down. He has also softened his resentment toward Cervelli for his use of performance-enhancing drugs, which was discovered in baseball’s Biogenesis investigation and led to a 50-game suspension in 2013. (Montero was also suspended in the Biogenesis scandal after he had been traded.)
Over the weekend, Romine shared home plate with Cervelli, who was traded in 2014 to Pittsburgh, where he has flourished, receiving a three-year, $31 million contract extension after last season.
Romine said in an interview last season that it bothered him that he had been competing against a player using P.E.D.s. Reminded recently of those comments, Romine said they were normal emotions for someone in his position, adding: “I don’t have any ill will toward anybody. I wish him the best. You have the value that you make for yourself. I wasn’t doing anything to build my stock into anything more than I was, which was a backup and a Triple-A player.”
Cervelli said before the series began that Romine had never expressed any antipathy toward him.
“He has the right to say anything he wants,” Cervelli said. “I don’t get mad. If he feels that way about me, it’s cool. He’s got the right to say that. I know why I did it, and that’s it. I don’t have to tell anyone. He has the opportunity now, and he’s always had the opportunity to play with the Yankees. He’s a good prospect. He’s an amazing catcher.”
The players were cordial Friday night, acknowledging each other but doing little more.
The unforgiving nature of the baseball business is something that Romine has long been versed in. His older brother, Andrew, is a utility infielder with the Detroit Tigers. Their father, Kevin Romine, was an outfielder for the Boston Red Sox in the late 1980s and early ’90s, where he was a teammate of Austin’s position coach with the Yankees, Tony Pena.
“I remember when he was born,” Pena said of Austin Romine.
Kevin Romine got his shot with the Red Sox when center fielder Ellis Burks was hurt in 1989. He filled in capably and found himself as the opening day right fielder in 1990, hitting two doubles off Detroit’s Jack Morris to help Roger Clemens win at Fenway Park. But less than a month later, the Red Sox traded for Tom Brunansky, who possessed the power that Romine did not. Two years later, he returned home to Southern California and became a police officer.
“It’s a very — I don’t want to say cutthroat business — but it’s realism,” Kevin Romine said in a phone interview. “What have you done for me today? You are who you are. You don’t try to make excuses and you try to be better. But the game owes you nothing.”
In Austin Romine’s mind, there is little mystery about why he is ready now for the opportunity his father told his sons would always come, whether it was four at-bats, four games or four weeks.
No longer is he “an out at the plate” as he says he was in 2013, when he hit .207 while serving as a backup most of the season after Cervelli broke his hand. He no longer is trying to pull every pitch, and he is using the whole field. His home run and both of his doubles have been to right field, and he has pulled only five of the 33 balls he has put in play.
“Austin’s keeping his sights in the middle of the field, and when you do that, you can hit multiple pitches and live with the results,” the hitting coach Alan Cockrell said. “You can only handle a small little area when you’re trying to pull everything.”
The pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who is typically measured in his praise, lauded Romine’s work with the Yankees’ staff. The team’s E.R.A. was lower with Romine behind the plate last season (3.88 compared with Brian McCann’s 4.18 and Sanchez’s 4.41), and Rothschild said Romine had excellent nonverbal communications techniques, such as using his glove to emphasize that he wants a pitch out of the strike zone.
Romine also absorbs the detailed scouting reports — and knows when to discard them.
“Common sense is the bottom line,” Rothschild said. “When you’re watching a game, there may be stuff happening that goes against the reports and you’ve got to react, and he does a really good job with that. The hitter will give you the road map, telling you, at times, with bad swings how to get him out, and you better be able to follow it.”
All of it, the more modest approach at the plate, and the canny mind behind it, have dovetailed nicely for Romine and at just the right time. Before long, Sanchez will be returning, and the current backup, Kyle Higashioka, hit 21 homers in the minor leagues last season.
Still, Romine’s circuitous journey has not dulled his ambition.
“I still want to start. I still think I can start,” Romine said. “It will be tough here, obviously, but any guy that sits here and says he’s fine being a backup, there’s no drive. I don’t want to be a backup. It’s my job right now, and I want to do the best job I can for the other 24 guys in the room. But I’m working for something bigger and better. I want more.”