TORONTO -- When manager John Schneider’s office door swung open for his pregame media session at the beginning of this series against the Astros, something smelled good.
There were candles burning. Schneider’s office in New York had candles over the weekend when the Blue Jays swept the Mets, and in baseball, you don’t mess with a good thing.
Burning through this series has been “Grey Suede." If you can get past the idea that neither of those two words are a scent, you’ll read that Grey Suede is subtle, “sophisticated and alluring.” There was nothing sophisticated about José Berríos’ performance in Thursday’s 3-2 win over the Astros, but his recent run certainly is alluring.
It’s all happened so subtly, too, how Berríos has gone from a weak link with a big contract back to an absolute rock in the middle of this rotation. It shouldn’t shock you, given that Berríos spent five seasons as one of the most consistent pitchers in Major League Baseball before inking that seven-year, $131 million extension with the Blue Jays, but the 29-year-old right-hander spent over a full season straying from that well-earned reputation.
“Even last year, he was still the same inside the clubhouse because that’s just the kind of teammate that he is,” Schneider said. “I think when you’re going good, and you have a string of quality starts in a row -- basically for the whole year -- you feel a little bit more free and more comfortable with what you’re doing.”
Berríos tossed up a 5.23 ERA last season, and every inning seemed laborious. The most frustrating part of Berríos’ struggles is that he never looked completely lost. He didn’t lose 5 mph off his fastball, he didn’t walk the world and he didn’t give up 50 home runs. Everything felt just a bit off, and when he opened this season by allowing eight runs to the Royals, the sirens started wailing again.
That’s all changed. Berríos entered Thursday with a 2.48 ERA over his last 10 starts, going at least five innings in all 10 and six innings or more in seven of those. It’s 2017-’21 all over again.
“I remember those last seven outings in 2021 with the Blue Jays. I feel the same way,” Berríos said.
The result? Confidence, something that’s so important for a pitcher whose line between good and bad has been so thin over the past two seasons.
“It’s really high,” Berríos said. “I’ve been able to throw the ball pretty well so far. Having a night like tonight, I didn’t even have a lot of swing and miss or strikeouts, but we still had a lot of ground balls and got the hitters out. I have that confidence to keep pitching, keep competing, and [catcher Alejandro Kirk] and I did good work tonight."
Berríos’ six innings of two-run ball represent his classic stat line. He struck out just two, but found a way to make it work and attacked all night, like "La Makina" of old. When Chris Bassitt’s night ended Wednesday, he implored Berríos to attack the Astros like they’re in an 0-2 count all night long, throwing away any get-me-over-pitches and instead going right after hitters.
Toronto’s rotation has carried the team lately, even in the wake of Alek Manoah’s jarring demotion to the Minor Leagues as he begins a potentially long journey back at the club’s complex in Dunedin, Fla. Some nights, Berríos’ outing will allow the Blue Jays to cruise to a win, but they’re still waiting for this offense to turn into a locomotive. Thanks to Berríos, though, an RBI double from Kirk to tie the game and a go-ahead single from Brandon Belt all the way back in the fifth inning were enough.
Pitching can be contagious too, and you’re suddenly seeing that again in Toronto.
“In a perfect world, all five would be doing pretty well, but life is never perfect,” Berríos said. “Having [Kevin] Gausman and Bassitt doing awesome so far, then me helping them and [Yusei] Kikuchi, too. Manoah is going to get back, and he’s going to work and be with us soon. I want to keep rolling. We have the team. We have the group.”
In the early days of this run, it was easy to look at Berríos and say, “do it again.” Besides, that 2022 season fractured the image of Berríos we’d all come to accept as the norm.
Berríos has put the pieces back together, though. It doesn’t need to be sophisticated. It just needs to work, and Berríos is finally back to making that happen.