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Red Sox

Red Sox prospect Jay Groome is more determined than ever to make his best pitch

Boston's No. 1 pick in 2016, Jay Groome has thrown just 66 innings in the minors but is now healthy after two lost seasons following Tommy John surgery.
Boston's No. 1 pick in 2016, Jay Groome has thrown just 66 innings in the minors but is now healthy after two lost seasons following Tommy John surgery.Pawtucket Red Sox

Jay Groome’s 22nd birthday celebration was unforgettable. For the first time, the lefthander took the mound at Fenway Park, looking dominant at times — particularly overpowering with a low- to mid-90s fastball that he commanded to both sides of the plate — while bringing to life the visions that both he and the Red Sox harbored when the team took him with its first-round selection in 2016.

Only the day wasn’t the fulfillment of those visions, but instead an approximation of them. Ten pitchers taken in the first round in 2016 (though just one who was taken out of high school) have now reached the big leagues. Groome, meanwhile, has never advanced past Single-A Greenville, his development stalled in 2018 and 2019 by Tommy John surgery and the long rehab process that followed it.

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The appearance Sunday at Fenway came not as a big league debut but instead because Groome was invited to the Red Sox Alternate Site in Pawtucket. That invitation came not because he’s knocking on the door to the big leagues but instead, quite simply, he needs to pitch. He has a total of just 66 minor league innings, and with no minor league season as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sox didn’t want Groome to lose yet another year of development.

Could Jay Groome contribute consistently at the big-league level sooner rather than later?
Could Jay Groome contribute consistently at the big-league level sooner rather than later?Pawtucket Red Sox

And so, with the Pawtucket group getting the carrot of a workout at Fenway on Sunday, Groome got to take the mound — finally. And over 75 pitches, the ability to command his fastball and the improved shape of his curveball — Groome’s signature pitch, but one that’s been inconsistent in his return from Tommy John — represented a reminder of the considerable promise harbored by one of the most talented pitchers in the Red Sox system.

“It was not the first time that I had hoped, but it was still awesome just envisioning what it would be like with a full crowd and everything,” said Groome. “It’s not really affiliated baseball, but it is for me. I’m coming up here, getting my work in and showing these guys what I’ve got. I have a lot to prove.”

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Indeed he does. But while the setting for doing so isn’t exactly what Groome or the Red Sox envisioned, the lefthander is now healthy, thus giving him the opportunity to compete against far more experienced hitters and to offer a window into his abilities and demeanor. And even as he faces teammates in simulated games rather than ones that will be an official part of his career portfolio, Groome sees a chance to demonstrate that his talent is not merely theoretical.

“I’m not going to go out there and be the young dude who just goes through his motions,” said Groome. “I want to be that dude that goes out there and just lights it up, that lets his pitching do the talking.”

‘“I’m not going to go out there and be the young dude who just goes through his motions. I want to be that dude that goes out there and just lights it up, that lets his pitching do the talking.”’

Jay Groome, Red Sox prospect

Initially, when the pandemic shut down the minor league season, the New Jersey native — who’d already started planning to open the year in Single-A Greenville, the level where he spent the 2017 season — fretted that after he’d finally positioned himself to move up the minor league ladder in 2020, the pandemic would once again deny him the opportunity to do so. The idea of sitting out of a third straight season weighed on him. But he quickly recognized that he couldn’t afford to wallow.

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“I really started kind of feeling bad for myself like, ‘Man, what the heck? I did all this just to get shut down?’” said Groome. “But I think the thing that kept me going was just the thought of everything starting back up and me just not being ready.”

And so, while he had to stop working out at the Red Sox spring training facility in Fort Myers, Groome bought home gym equipment that he stuck in his garage as well as a net so that he could pitch and maintain his arm strength on his own. The goal was straightforward: If he was given a chance to be part of the 60-player pool, he didn’t want to give away his shot.

His development stalled by Tommy John surger, Jay Groome got back on the mound in Lowell in 2019.
His development stalled by Tommy John surger, Jay Groome got back on the mound in Lowell in 2019.Lowell Spinners

“I just put on my professional pants,” said Groome. “I just wanted to be ready for this exact moment.”

That perspective has been hard-earned for Groome over his professional career. A player who had visions of a fast track to the big leagues when he was drafted has endured repeated lessons in the need for patience.

The fact that he’s now in the 60-player pool, working with players who are shuttling between Boston and Pawtucket, hasn’t altered that. Groome recognizes the futility of settling a goal for his progress through the system or a timetable for getting to the big leagues.

Instead, he uses the perspective gleaned from the long rehab from Tommy John surgery to focus on the work that he can do every day, funneling his concentration into each pitch he can throw. Though he is now working out within arm’s reach of his desired destination, Groome has learned not to look beyond where he is, and instead to appreciate what he has – which, finally, includes the chance to compet, even if it is against other members of the Red Sox organization.

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“I came in ready. I’m happy with where I am right now,” said Groome. “I’m performing well, I’m healthy, and I just want to finish the rest of this year.”


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.