MINNEAPOLIS -- What on earth changed for Jose Berrios?
“I changed my underwear,” Berrios said.
To be clear, he was kidding.
But what wasn’t a joke was how loose and enthusiastic the Twins’ 25-year-old ace was after emerging from a rough stretch of starts by throwing seven much-needed brilliant innings in the Twins’ 5-0 win over Washington on Tuesday night at Target Field. Berrios looks like he’s back on track. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Twins lost their most consistent starter of the second half three days ago, when Michael Pineda was issued a season-ending suspension. The Twins lost their defensive sparkplug earlier Tuesday, when Byron Buxton underwent season-ending surgery. They needed a jolt. Their Opening Day starter gave them one.
“I don’t consider it a relief -- I just consider it a fantastic start, and we’ve seen several starts like this from him this year,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It reminded me a lot of the Opening Day start that he had here, when he just threw the heck out of the ball and carried it late into the game. In just a lot of ways, that kind of brought me back to that point, and it’s wonderful to see.”
Facing off against one of the most potent offenses in the National League, Berrios didn’t allow a baserunner until the fifth inning and dodged hard contact, allowing only a pair of singles. The only problem was that Washington starter Anibal Sanchez was similarly dominant, but catcher Mitch Garver took care of that with one swing in the bottom of the seventh, when he crushed a two-run blast to break the scoreless tie, his 30th long ball of the season.
The Twins tacked on with three runs in the eighth against the Nationals' bullpen, sealing a victory that kept them five games ahead of the second-place Indians in the American League Central.
Berrios’ fastball velocity was back again, as he averaged 93.6 mph and topped out at 95.0 mph with his four-seamer. But more importantly, he had the command of all of his pitches that had eluded him during a brutal six-start stretch since the beginning of August, during which he posted an 8.07 ERA.
Berrios acknowledged during that stretch that he had been working through mechanical struggles. Though both he and Baldelli have indicated over the last few weeks that the right-hander hadn’t been trying to make significant changes, Garver definitely noticed a difference on Tuesday, starting from when he was catching Berrios in the bullpen before the game.
“He was driving down the mound really, really well,” Garver said. “He was staying in line, and it didn't look as rotational as it had been recently. So he was really, really attacking down the mound, and I thought the ball was coming out of his hand incredible. His velocity was up a little bit. Breaking ball was moving better. Changeup was plus tonight. He threw the ball really well."
Berrios, who said that he’s been trying to keep his chest more closed in his delivery, threw strikes with 19 of his 37 four-seamers and 14 of his 23 curveballs. Though he only notched four strikeouts, he also only walked one batter, his fewest free passes since Aug. 11.
The Nationals’ offense entered the game third in the NL in slugging percentage (.456) and second in wOBA (.339), but Berrios retired the first 13 batters in order before Howie Kendrick punched a solid single to right field with one out in the fifth inning. Trea Turner also singled in the sixth, and Anthony Rendon drew a walk in the seventh, but that was it against Berrios, who completed seven scoreless innings for the fourth time this season.
“He was about as sharp as anyone could ever be,” Baldelli said. “He made every pitch he wanted to, the stuff was excellent, he just looked great from beginning to end. You could even make an argument he could have continued pitching out there the way he was going. It was a magnificent start, it really was.”
Berrios’ stellar outing loomed particularly large in light of Pineda’s season-ending suspension, which came during a tough stretch for the Twins’ rotation, which had been struggling with Berrios’ mechanical issues and Kyle Gibson’s inconsistency, which the Twins recently revealed was caused by a season-long battle with ulcerative colitis.
With Pineda no longer in the fold, the margin of error is gone for all four of the Twins’ remaining starters in Berrios, Gibson, Perez and Jake Odorizzi, who will all need to be relied upon in a possible postseason run by the Twins. Odorizzi has been consistent in the second half, and Perez has started to settle into a groove, but renewed ace-level production from Berrios would be the most significant development yet.
“Obviously, I had like a stretch of bad outings, but doing this tonight, it was good for my confidence, and I believe I have like three more outings or so, so I’m just trying to do the same thing I did tonight to help the team win,” Berrios said.
Tuesday certainly marked a step in the right direction.
“We needed that against a good team like that," Garver said.