At a time when things were looking especially bleak for the starting rotation of the Minnesota Twins, Tuesday was the perfect time for the team’s stopper — righty ace Jose Berrios — to dig deep and find whatever had been eluding him over the last month or so.
Whether it was a mechanical adjustment, altering his between-game routine or something cretins outside the clubhouse might never understand, it was clear Berrios needed to turn things around — and fast.
Over the weekend, Michael Pineda was slapped with a 60-game ban that’ll stretch past this year, when the big righty might, in fact, be under the employ of another organization. Pineda was cruising in the second half with a 3.04 ERA, and was on the cusp of potentially getting his season mark under 4.00.
Jake Odorizzi has slumped a bit in the second half, posting a 4.30 ERA and 1.40 WHIP.
Martin Perez has been uneven, at best, with a 5.64 ERA and 1.63 WHIP.
Kyle Gibson’s ERA isn’t much better (5.43), and he’s just now coming off the injured list due to a stomach ailment that has bothered him for much of the season.
And then, there was Berrios. The 25-year-old righty was brilliant in the first half, posting a 3.00 ERA and 1.11 WHIP while keeping the ball in the ballpark and fanning a respectable 8.0 batters per nine innings.
In the second half, those numbers had swollen to 4.78 and 1.42, though he did start striking out more batters.
Worse yet, Berrios was absolutely crushed in six starts from Aug. 1 up until prior to Tuesday night. Over that stretch, his ERA looked like a toll-free service (8.07) and he was allowing nearly two baserunners per inning (1.92 WHIP) — both of which were troublesome with the playoffs less than three weeks away and still a magic number to chip away at in the meantime.
But on Tuesday night, Berrios quelled all those fears and then some, tossing seven innings of shutout ball while allowing just three Nationals hitters to reach. The only time the righty was really in trouble was either in the fifth, when Howie Kendrick reached with one out and took second when Berrios unleashed an errant pickoff throw past first baseman Willians Astudillo, or in the seventh, when Anthony Rendon opened the inning with a single.
Berrios bore down to strand Kendrick at second in the fifth, and in the seventh, he got Juan Soto to ground into a double play as Jonathan Schoop tagged out Rendon between the bases and threw onto first to get the second out.
Otherwise, Berrios was in cruise control for the entire night. He touched 95 mph on the gun and sat comfortably in the 93-94 range, with fewer 91s and 92s than recent starts. His curveball looked terrific, and he went with fewer two-seam fastballs in favor of his four-seamer.
“I was locating my pitches wherever I wanted to tonight,” Berrios said. “I was just working on keeping my chest closed when I’m delivering my pitches and just staying my downfall on the mound, just staying closed.”
The only thing that stood out as not necessarily an overwhelming positive was that Berrios induced just four swinging strikes in his 94 pitches — less than half of what would be expected in a sample size like that from a pitcher of this caliber.
But even if it was just baby steps towards the Berrios of old, that’s still a huge step in the right direction.
“I mean you can compliment basically every single thing that he had going on today,” said manager Rocco Baldelli. “I think his execution, his command was tremendous. It was exactly where he wants to be. When he missed, he didn’t miss by much. He made all the pitches that he wanted to and really the other team also tells you a lot with the swings, with the pitches they take, their body language sometimes.
“There’s a lot you can read from those types of situation and it’s really what leads you to stay that it was just a wonderful start.”
The game was a seesaw battle, with neither team scoring through the first six innings before the Twins broke through in the seventh. The game flew by at a brisk pace, and by the time Eddie Rosario roped a double into right-center and came home on Mitch Garver’s two-run home run — his 30th of the season — the vendors were shouting “Last Call!” and it wasn’t even 9:00 p.m. yet.
That was all the damage the Twins were able to get off Anibal Sanchez, who notably spent time during spring training in 2018 with the Twins before he was released to make room for Lance Lynn. Sanchez went on to have a renaissance in Atlanta, and signed with Washington in the offseason on a two-year deal.
Sanchez kept the Twins off-balance with a mix of pitches that cut, faded and did all sorts of things despite his lack of high-end velocity, as Baldelli called him a pitcher who has “reinvented himself multiple times.”
“Well, I mean this is a very smart, crafty veteran pitcher and he’s been around for a long time,” Baldelli said. “He throws a lot of different things at you, some different looks. He’ll throw pitches I mean to the hitter, these pitches look similar and some are cutting and some are sinking and some are riding and he’ll mix in those — I don’t know if it’s too changeup, split-type pitches — but you really don’t know what’s going to come at you and he does a good job of staying away from the middle of the plate.”
How long has Sanchez been around? While Baldelli never faced him, he’s only two-and-a-half years older than the Nationals righty, and their careers had five years of overlap from 2006-10 before Rocco retired.
That the Twins got to the Nationals bullpen — namely, flamethrower Tanner Rainey — wasn’t especially surprising. The Nationals have the National League’s worst bullpen ERA this season (5.76 coming into Tuesday, 29th in MLB overall), and it hasn’t gotten much better despite some new faces joining at the trade deadline.
They still came into Tuesday’s game with a 5.30 bullpen ERA in the second half, and the Twins pounced on that. In the eighth, Jonathan Schoop led off by getting hit by a pitch. Luis Arraez followed with a single — his second hit of the night — and Jorge Polanco doubled to left, plating both runners.
Rosario was intentionally walked, Garver was unintentionally walked and Ehire Adrianza hit a sac fly to center to cap the scoring at 5-0.
Sergio Romo and Trevor May were called on to pitch the final two innings, and did so without allowing a single baserunner. Romo closed his inning by striking out catcher Yan Gomes on a slider way out of the strike zone, leading to a massive fist pump that fired up the fans and his teammates, alike.
Garver said he really enjoyed catching a two-hitter — in more ways than one.
“(It was) really nice, because it was two-and-a-half hours and a win,” he said with a laugh. “No, it was good. Trev did a great job coming in as well. I know that’s not his usual situation, to come in and do it, and I understand that’s a little more difficult, for bullpen guys to do those things, but after the first few pitches, he found the zone, and he was able to attack and compete really well. And then Romo did his thing. That was a huge eighth inning for us.”
Notes & Quotes
- Tuesday was the 100th start in Berrios’ big-league career.
- Arraez was the only Twin with multiple hits — his 23rd multi-hit game of the season.
- Garver’s homer helped him join the 30-homer trio with Nelson Cruz (35) and Max Kepler (36), making them the fifth trio in franchise history to hit 30-plus long balls apiece.
- Garver on catching Romo: “It’s just like catching a frisbee, pretty much. Puts the ball where he wants to. We’re on the same page most of the time. We have a really good plan, and I just like the way he competes. He’s not going to try to trick anybody, but you know what’s coming, and he’s going to challenge you.”
- Garver on what was different for Berrios: “”I didn’t catch his start in Boston, so I wasn’t quite sure if it was going on there, but from the last time I caught him, it looked like he was really driving down the mound. He’s able to throw his fastball to the glove side and it stays glove side. It doesn’t leak back over the middle of the plate. For me, that’s the biggest thing. When he wants to the four-spot down and away, it stays there, and then his breaking ball can tunnel off that and start on the outer third and go away. That’s where you get some of those ugly swings and misses on the breaking ball, because it wasn’t starting behind the right-handed batter and ending up middle. It was starting middle of the plate and driving off.”
- Baldelli on Rosario snapping a bit of a slump with a double that led to two runs: “The one thing with Rosie is that no matter what’s going on, whether he’s on one of those hot streaks or not, he wants to be the guy up at the plate. He never shies away from anything. He wants to play every day. That’s all you can ask for from your players. He wants to out there and he gives it what he has when he’s out there and he wants those at-bats and it was a nice swing late in the game, it really was.”