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Berrios maturing into Twins' second ace

Youngster could get key start should Twins advance to ALDS
MLB.com

It was inconceivable just a year ago that the Twins, limping to the end of a 103-loss season, would soon face the conundrum awaiting all Wild Card teams -- how to align their rotation after burning their ace in a winner-take-all.

But while Ervin Santana, terrific at many points this season, is fully deserving of a Wild Card Game start, the Twins have an ace in waiting should they get to Game 1 of the ALDS. At age 23, Jose Berrios already has an arsenal made for October baseball.

It was inconceivable just a year ago that the Twins, limping to the end of a 103-loss season, would soon face the conundrum awaiting all Wild Card teams -- how to align their rotation after burning their ace in a winner-take-all.

But while Ervin Santana, terrific at many points this season, is fully deserving of a Wild Card Game start, the Twins have an ace in waiting should they get to Game 1 of the ALDS. At age 23, Jose Berrios already has an arsenal made for October baseball.

"I would put his breaking ball up with Corey Kluber's," says Twins catcher Chris Gimenez -- a man who's caught aces ranging from David Price to Yu Darvish to Kluber last year in Cleveland. "As far as pure stuff, he's up there potentially with the top 10 guys already."

The word "potential" has saddled Berrios for years now. But after taking his lumps in 2016, the scrawny right-hander from Puerto Rico is slowly harnessing his Twitter-famous arsenal and evolving into the ace the Twins need to make a dent in October. Berrios' live arm is already there, but his mentality and maturity on the mound remain the biggest question marks.

"The most important thing is my mind," said Berrios before his recent start at Yankee Stadium. "I used to give too much credit to the hitters, but now I believe more in myself and in my stuff."

Berrios' stuff ignited his hype, rampant in the Twin Cities since he was striking out over 14 batters per nine innings in rookie ball. Twins pitching coach Neil Allen compares the horizontal movement on Berrios' two-seam fastball, which sits between 94-96 mph, to the rising action of young Doc Gooden's heater. Twins catcher Jason Castro, an Astro for the first six years of his career, compared Berrios curve to Lance McCullers'.

Like Kluber and McCullers, Berrios can start his curve with similar velocity as his fastball, tunneling it on the inner half to righties before it darts away like an old-timey UFO cartoon. It's centrifugal force turned into an artform; an ultimate frisbee trick performed from a pitching mound.

Gif: Berrios curveball

Berrios' movement is elite, but his anxiousness as a rookie was obvious. Injuries to the rotation forced the Twins to "throw him to the wolves," as Allen said, and call him up before he was ready. Berrios struggled to an 8.02 ERA over 14 starts in 2016, leading many to cast him off as another overhyped arm.

Minnesota has had to ride Berrios again to keep pace in the Wild Card hunt, but minor modifications have made a world of difference. Berrios, whose glove and leg used to meet at his chest, now raises his glove up over his head in an old-fashioned windup designed to keep his body upright over the rubber. When Berrios can keep his left hip from opening too early, his fastball maintains its life and his curve ball keeps its tilt.

Gif: Jose Berrios comparison

"I'll walk out to the mound and just look at his landing spot," says Allen. "I'll point to it and ask him, 'Why is that happening?' Right away he'll know he's rushing."

"He's one of the hardest workers I've had," Allen added. "He's not content with where he is right now, and he knows he can be a lot better."

Issues remain: Berrios' platoon numbers are uneven (.218 average, 4.3 percent walk rate against righties; .256 average, 12 percent walk rate against lefties), and he can still overthrow his breaking ball so that it flattens like a slider, either in the dirt or over the plate. But those around Berrios say his mental development has taken as big a step forward as his mechanics.

"You can see him developing his own plans for how he wants to attack the hitter," says Allen. "Last year he would never shake off the catcher. It was almost as if he was intimidated because the catchers were more experienced.

"Now Jose's throwing his pitches with conviction."

Video: Chatting Cage: Jose Berrios answers fans' questions

Berrios credited Santana, perhaps his biggest mentor on the team, for showing him how to get ahead of hitters.

"I've thrown after Erv for every start," Berrios said. "So I'm picking up things while he's pitching -- the way he attacks the hitters and dances around the strike zone -- and trying to translate that to my starts."

Santana and Berrios, now 13-8 with a 3.93 ERA after a two-run outing Sunday in Detroit, have stabilized the Twins rotation enough to get them to October. Berrios threw two wild pitches in that Sunday start and walked four batters in a loss to the Yankees in the outing before that, again pointing to work he has left to do. But there's no denying the potential, already evident in Berrios' lone start of the year against the Indians, his potential ALDS opponent, whom he limited to just one run on two hits in 7 2/3 innings back on May 13.

Video: MIN@CLE: Berrios fans four in solid 2017 debut

That was Berrios' very first start of the season -- the first glimpse of his maturation -- and his teammates feel he has come a long way since then. In fact, they feel like they have a pitcher who's ready to become a postseason star.

"I was a first-hand witness to it [last year]," said Gimenez, who watched from the dugout as Kluber led the Indians to within a game of a World Series title. "We've got a guy who can literally put a team on his back and take us the entire way through October. That's a special thing to have."

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.

Minnesota Twins, Jose Berrios