'I never lost my confidence': Berríos out to find his old self

March 22nd, 2023

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Can bounce back? That question casts a long shadow.

Berríos is one of the most important players on the Blue Jays’ roster. The gap between his career norms and what happened in 2022 is significant enough to make the difference of a handful of wins for Toronto. And as we’ve learned the past three seasons, a handful can be everything.

The 5.23 ERA next to Berríos’ name last year was the ultimate outlier. It was the highest among all qualified MLB starters and the last thing anyone expected after Berríos signed an offseason extension of $131 million over seven years that seemed to embody a win-win deal in November 2021. There’s still plenty of time for that to become true, but first Berríos needs to rediscover his old ways after an oddball season.

“It’s probably one of the more bizarre seasons [I’ve seen],” said pitching coach Pete Walker. “There were games I felt like he was really good and his normal self. There were games where it seemed to spiral and get out of control. It was atypical of him, to be honest with you. He’s always been a pretty consistent pitcher, so last year was very inconsistent.”

Consistency is all that matters here.

At no point did Berríos “lose it” in 2022, and his talent has not abandoned him in any sense. He wasn’t spraying fastballs, skipping curveballs or serving up sizzling meatballs on a regular basis. His pitches seemed just a bit off, catching too much of the plate here and there, which was enough for Major League hitters. The optimist’s view of the scenario is that Berríos should be able to correct this rather quickly.

“From a mechanical standpoint, I think his delivery is in a good place,” Walker said. “His stuff is actually really good right now. I think pitch selection in the WBC wasn’t great. I’ve told this to him. But I think that getting back to game planning and attacking guys here, I’m excited to see what he’s going to do. I don’t see why he’s not going to get back to the old Berríos.”

That World Baseball Classic outing didn’t help the discourse, of course. On March 12 against Venezuela, Berríos took the mound for his native Puerto Rico and allowed six runs (five earned) in one inning. Exiting after 38 pitches, Berríos threw more in the bullpen that day to keep his pitch count up, but that still added an uncomfortable wrinkle to his spring ramp-up.

It required Berríos to flip a mental switch ahead of schedule, too, from the game plan he and the Blue Jays have been developing to a win-now approach on that exact day. It didn’t work, but the opportunity itself meant a great deal to Berríos, like we’ve heard from so many players after a brilliant World Baseball Classic.

“Playing for our island, whether it’s baseball or basketball, any athlete representing our island is special,” Berríos said. “Having the opportunity to represent Puerto Rico was an honor for me and my family. To spend that two weeks with those guys was amazing and special. We’ll take that to motivate ourselves for the rest of the season.”

That season is coming quickly. The Blue Jays have built one of the American League’s best rotations, adding this past offseason to pitch alongside and . will need a bounce-back season of his own and the rotation’s depth beyond these five needs some answers, but Berríos has the potential to put this group over the top.

Wednesday’s 2-1 win over the Orioles was a fine step in that direction, as Berríos threw five-plus innings of one-run ball on 77 pitches (47 strikes), striking out five. His stated goal going in was landing his fastball to the glove side, something Berríos feels keeps his mechanics in check and keeps hitters honest -- and he nailed that exact pitch in some key counts.

“I never lost my confidence,” Berríos said. “This offseason, I’ve been working so hard. I want to get great results and today I saw it. I feel healthy and strong, and my pitches worked pretty well.”

Like Walker says, the next step is to carry this into the next start, then the next one. Berríos didn’t earn his reputation by accident, and as he works to string these starts together, the pitcher is trying to prove that 2022 was just an unexpected bump in the road, not a sign of things to come.