'Everybody was surprised': Berríos' early exit backfires on Blue Jays

October 5th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- One question will hang over the Blue Jays’ offseason, which began on Wednesday with a sudden thud after they were swept in the American League Wild Card Series.

Why, with steamrolling through the Twins’ lineup, did they make the switch to Yusei Kikuchi?

Berríos had just walked the leadoff batter in the bottom of the fourth with the score still tied, 0-0, when manager John Schneider strolled to the mound to make the surprise move. Kikuchi’s renaissance as a starter was one of the stories of the season for the Blue Jays, but he hadn’t come out of the bullpen since late 2022. Still, Toronto targeted this early pivot to force the Twins’ hand with their platoon-heavy lineup. It was, in theory, the chess move that would flip the deadlocked game.

Well… checkmate Twins.

Kikuchi allowed the next three batters to reach, putting the Blue Jays behind for the final time in 2023, as they were handed a 2-0 loss at Target Field.

“Obviously, everybody was surprised,” said Vladimir Guerrero Jr., through a club interpreter. “Everybody was surprised with the decision, but there are things you cannot control. You can ask yourself many times, but it’s not our decision. We were surprised.”

Berríos, whose reputation as a professional stretches back to his days pitching in this very stadium, said after the loss that it was frustrating for him as a competitor. Much like Kikuchi, Berríos bounced back in a major way this season, rediscovering the form that had made him one of baseball’s most reliable pitchers for years.

The Blue Jays were obviously trying to target a matchup here -- this move wasn’t made without internal reasoning -- but Berríos couldn’t explain what that was as his teammates said their goodbyes around him.

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Berríos said. “Other than that, I can’t control that. Like I said, I did my best for those first 12 batters.”

The frustration was clear on Berríos’ face and in his eyes. He’d just watched his old team, still full of many meaningful people in his life, celebrate on the field he once called home. Berríos had pitched to the absolute height of his talent, but it still wasn’t enough. Give him more runway and this could have turned into a true moment for him, saving the Blue Jays from the brink of elimination. But now we’ll never know.

This decision is not Schneider’s alone, of course. That’s not how this works. Schneider is the messenger, and the one who has to answer for the decision under the glare of bright lights after the loss, but a matter of strategy like this is determined by a much larger group, including coaches and the front office.

“I don’t have control of that. I control what I can control,” Berríos said. “I pitched my [butt] off from the first pitch to the last pitch.”

The veterans of the Blue Jays’ clubhouse, like George Springer and Brandon Belt, also recognized the obvious. Regardless of a pitching decision, Toronto scored zero runs after posting just one in the series opener. There’s no way to think yourself out of that box, regardless of how well-executed a strategy is.

Both veterans praised the Blue Jays’ bullpen, which emerged as one of baseball’s best in 2023 behind an exceptional rotation. This pitching staff, as a whole, is one we’ll talk about for years -- the perfect storm of health, consistency and upside that deserved the shot to take a long run into October.

Across the diamond, the Twins aren’t questioning the move for a moment.

Berríos had blown through their lineup with his best stuff, pitching with incredible confidence. The move to anyone else, even if they were sharp that night, was a welcome sight.

“I mean, I would have left [Berríos] in,” said the Twins’ Kyle Farmer, who entered the game late. “He was throwing pretty well. His slider was looking good, his fastball as well. He was getting us out. And fortunately for us, we got the big knock [off Kikuchi] when we needed it by Carlos [Correa].”

Hindsight can be a dangerous thing. If Kikuchi had turned around the Twins’ lineup and held them scoreless through six before handing off to the back end of the bullpen in a series-saving win, then this move would be held up as a bold stroke of strategy that paid off.

That’s not what happened, though, and as the Blue Jays stare down a long offseason filled with decisions that will determine the direction of this franchise, this will be one of the thoughts that continues to gnaw away.