There wasn’t much doubt. Jose Berrios was broken.
From the beginning of August through his first start in September, the 25-year-old righty had allowed 29 earned runs in 32.1 innings — an 8.07 ERA.
That’s more likely to get you connected to a seedy toll-free line than it is through the American League Division Series.
The fans of the Minnesota Twins were clearly worried, too. If the team’s de facto ace wasn’t right, how could they possibly match up against the Houston Astros, who have three aces of their own in Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, in the playoffs? How could they tame the powerful offense of the New York Yankees in October?
All of that has changed now that Berrios has strung together a pair of terrific starts — both on five days of rest instead of the customary four — including 7.1 innings of two-run ball in a 5-3 win over the Chicago White Sox at Target Field on Monday night.
“I thought he was really sharp, even from the beginning,” said manager Rocco Baldelli. “Even early on, I thought he looked really good. The stuff was really good. I think it was as good as we’ve seen it. I think his confidence level, the way he felt, the way he was going about his business, what he was saying when he would come back to the dugout, he just seemed to have an air of confidence about everything that he was doing.
“He wanted to keep pitching and normally when a guy’s thinking like that at that point in the game, he’s feeling good physically and it was a good day.”
Berrios allowed single runs in the first and second innings, but was on cruise control from that point on.
Things were, however, a little dicey from the start. Leury Garcia singled to right to start the game and was chased to third base on a double by Yoan Moncada, who wound up having an extremely strange evening. With nobody out and two in scoring position, Jose Abreu lifted a fly ball fairly deep to center field. LaMonte Wade Jr. made the catch and hit the cutoff man — Marwin Gonzalez, who was playing first in his first game since Aug. 27 — on the infield grass.
Moncada attempted to take third on the play, but a perfect throw from Gonzalez to Miguel Sano got the out for an unconventional 8-3-5 double play. Berrios followed by striking out Eloy Jimenez to limit the damage to just one run.
“It was actually a really nice night for Marwin,” said Baldelli. “He made a couple of nice plays. He charged the ball. That’s a reaction play. He picked the ball up, tagged the runner out. If he waits back on that, even just a little bit, that play can get a little ugly. He cuts the ball off and gets the out at third base to allow us to shorten that inning up. He has really good feel for what’s going on. His awareness level is through the roof. He sees everything on the field very, very well and his at-bats were good.
“I thought he looked really, really good. It’s very, very encouraging seeing a guy that’s missed that amount of time with that kind of injury cause you know guys don’t always come back, even when they’re physically good, their confidence isn’t always there because those are odd injuries and it takes guys a little while sometimes and it didn’t seem like it took him a very long time.”
In the second, catcher James McCann wasted no time taking Berrios deep to left field. It came on the first pitch of the second, and from that point on, Berrios was absolutely incredible.
Even Berrios had to chuckle about how well McCann has hit him over his career. Coming into Monday night’s game, McCann was 7-for-21 with three home runs and a 1.190 OPS against Berrios.
“I obviously have to tip my cap,” Berrios said. “He’s a good hitter and he’s putting good numbers up against me. The reality is, I didn’t locate that pitch and he hit it.”
Catcher Mitch Garver said it wasn’t so much the pitch selection, but rather the location.
“If it’s down at the bottom of the zone, (McCann) can hit it,” Garver said. “It’s gotta be away. It just never got away. It started inner half and just ended up down the middle.”
The Twins drew even with a pair of runs in the second and went ahead with one in the fifth, but it was in the sixth where things got a little squirrelly. Wade doubled over the head of Jimenez in left field to move Gonzalez to third and bring Luis Arraez to the plate.
It’s hard to truly explain with words how Arraez singled both runners home. The rookie second baseman hit a cue shot toward Moncada — who was also picked off in the sixth — at third, and as the defender moved laterally to his right, the ball did the opposite, sneaking through the infield as though it was possessed by some sort of magnetic force field or something of the sort.
“You do see something new every day when you show up to the field,” Baldelli said. “That was a little different. You get used to seeing those foul balls that are kind of cued off the end of the bat that occasionally will roll back fair. The more baseball you watch, the more you kind of see those right off the bat and you know there’s a chance it might happen.
“When he hit that ball, I don’t think anybody realized it was going to do that, us included. Moncada’s a good defender over there and to see him move in that direction and then to have to try to go back and make that play. It was just a very unusual ball off the bat.”
That single plated Gonzalez and Wade, and capped the scoring for the night for the Twins, who slashed their magic number to eight and bumped their division lead to five games with Cleveland idle on Monday evening.
But let’s go back to Berrios.
First of all, the velocity looked crisp for the righty. He averaged 94.1 mph on his four-seam fastball — touching 95 — and sat at 93 mph with his two-seamer. Over his 94 pitches, he had 16 swinging strikes — tied for the third most he’s had in a start this season and the most he’s had since posting 16 in his start on Sept. 4 against Boston.
Six of those swinging strikes came on the curveball, which Garver said was especially good — including most notably on a strike to Ryan Goins in the fifth inning. Garver called that probably the “best breaking ball (Berrios) has thrown in his life.”
“I wish he’d throw that one over and over again,” Garver said with a laugh.
Berrios chalked up some of his improvements over the last two starts to a new postgame routine, which includes some soft-tissue massage.
“I was doing (postgame recovery) on my own and I was doing that real quick and it wasn’t working properly for me,” Berrios said. “I’m using my trainers now and they’re taking care of me after postgame.”
Berrios added that he’s been doing it for three weeks.
Whether it’s the return of his fastball or the return of his confidence — or both — everything is rolling right now for Berrios.
“Confidence is real and every single guy here needs it to succeed to be their best self and their best version of them on the field,” Baldelli said. “Jose certainly had it (tonight).”
Notes & Quotes
- The Twins improved to 12-5 against the White Sox this season, and 5-2 at Target Field.
- The Twins improved to 92-58 — their second-most wins through 150 games in team history (1965, 95 wins).
- Arraez posted his 26th multi-hit game of the season.
- Lucas Giolito was scratched from Tuesday’s start and will be replaced by lefty Ross Detwiler, the team announced after Monday night’s game. Giolito was diagnosed with a mild right lat strain and will miss the rest of the season. It was a breakout year for Giolito, who’ll finish with a 3.41 ERA in 176.2 innings.
- Baldelli on Berrios’ pickoff move, which he used to nab Moncada in the sixth inning: “I think he’s got one of the better pickoff moves in baseball and he has really good feel for controlling the run game. You can also look at even his lift, it looks like a big lift but it’s a difficult lift to get a good jump off of. I think he does a really nice job paying attention to runners but not being consumed by the fact that they’re on base. He still allows himself to execute his pitches and not get distracted by what’s going on. I think he does a nice job when there are people on.”
- Baldelli on if the team will keep Berrios on regular rest the rest of the regular season: “As of right now, we haven’t made any decisions further than our next three starters. We normally will just start there. We look long-term but we don’t have to make any of those long-term decisions at the moment. We have pushed our guys back several times this year. Not just Jose. All of our starters. We’ve given guys multiple extra days. Sometimes they’re pitching on seven or eight days. That’s happened, too. We’ve taken advantage of that every opportunity we can. We believe that the rest, the extra days do matter and do help in a lot of ways. It’s a bigger discussion, but we talk about workload. We talk about workload in terms of innings. I think it goes beyond innings. It turns into a discussion of how those innings come about, really. If you throw 200 innings in five months, that’s a lot different than throwing 200 innings over the course of seven months. I think a lot of that matters and has to be taken into consideration.”
- Berrios on wanting to save the bullpen: “In reality when I went out there, in the back of my mind (I knew) the last three games we used the bullpen games like you said. But I wasn’t thinking about that too much when I went out there, I was thinking about myself and my game plan and executed that tonight and I am grateful for doing that.”
- Garver on what the Twins need down the stretch: “We need everybody, man. We need every body to give everything we’ve got here in the end. I don’t know how things are going to shake out here in the end, but obviously it’s best to have the horses you rode all year be healthy for the end.”