Berríos leads Twins' series win at Wrigley

September 21st, 2020

As struggled with his command at the start of the 2020 season, the Twins’ Opening Day starter was seemingly surpassed as the leader of the rotation by the ever-consistent , and it might have been fair to wonder where Berríos might fit in a possible playoff rotation.

Through all of that, the faith in Berríos never wavered from pitching coach Wes Johnson and manager Rocco Baldelli and the right-hander himself.

This is why. With the postseason right around the corner, Berríos is finding his best stuff at the right time, positioning him to earn a spot right next to Maeda at the top of the playoff rotation. On a big national stage against a first-place team, the 26-year-old seized the spotlight away from Cy Young Award hopeful Yu Darvish with six shutout innings in a 4-0 victory over the Cubs that secured a series win for the Twins at Wrigley Field.

With a loss by the Yankees on Sunday, the Twins regained the inside track for the No. 4 seed in the American League, putting them in position for home-field advantage in the Wild Card Series. The Reds’ victory over the White Sox also helped Minnesota move within two games of the division lead.

“We were talking about it with [Michael] Pineda yesterday after the game. He said, 'Yeah, we're celebrating and we won, but we want to start that first series at home, and also we still have a chance to win the division,'” Berríos said. “That's what I brought tonight with my mind out there. Just keep doing my thing.”

It’s a good thing for Berríos’ playoff positioning that he has turned in six consecutive effective outings, because he’s got plenty of competition. The Twins’ staff showcased its starting depth throughout this series, during which the Cubs were held to two runs in three games, culminating in Sunday’s shutout.

But Berríos has steadily removed any doubt over the last month, during which he has allowed eight earned runs in 33 2/3 innings (a 2.14 ERA). On Sunday, he allowed four hits and walked one while recording four strikeouts. The Cubs put runners on second and third with one out in the third, but he wiggled out of the jam. One inning later, Willson Contreras’ leadoff double didn’t lead to a run when Josh Donaldson threw him out at home plate on a grounder by Javier Báez.

With those speed bumps behind him, Berríos retired the last seven batters he faced to cap his second scoreless outing of the season.

"I turned the page,” said Berríos, who owned a 5.92 ERA on Aug. 15. “I just said, 'It's September. New month, new opportunity.' Obviously, I know I have great ability and great talent. The only thing is I have to execute better. That's what I did. I made my adjustment and also took the motivation from my teammates and all the Twins' staff because we have a great group and a lot of good talent.”

The rest of this series -- and the road trip as a whole -- showed that the Twins have plenty in the tank behind Maeda and Berríos in the starting rotation, too, leading to difficult decisions as to who could start a potential Game 3 in the best-of-three Wild Card Series, likely between Pineda, Rich Hill and Jake Odorizzi.

Hill turned in his best start of 2020 in Friday’s series opener, allowing one run and three hits over a season-high seven innings as he lost a tight pitchers’ duel to Kyle Hendricks. Pineda followed on Saturday with one run on four hits in five frames. In fact, no Twins starter other than Randy Dobnak (now on the taxi squad) has allowed more than three runs in a start since Aug. 21.

And don’t forget the contributions of the bullpen, which contributed 16 strikeouts and four walks in seven shutout innings during this series against the Cubs.

“[The pitchers have] impressed me, they’ve impressed our staff, they’ve impressed everybody in that clubhouse,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It’s not just one guy or two guys. Tonight, it was obviously José who was very sharp. And that lineup we just faced, that’s a good team. You look up and down that lineup, they have dangerous hitters everywhere you look and you can’t make mistakes.”

Entering Sunday, the Minnesota pitching staff owned a 3.18 ERA in September, the second-best mark in the AL. The bullpen led MLB with 1.4 WAR in the month, according to FanGraphs. The Twins have played 14 of their 19 games this month against teams in playoff position.

Though the Twins went 3-4 on this seven-game road trip through Chicago, Baldelli and his group will head to Minneapolis for their final homestand with some positive momentum, especially for the pitching staff. With the playoffs around the corner, it’s a good time for that.

“I’m very pleased with the effort across the board from our guys,” Baldelli said. “I thought we showed up on this trip. In the games we lost, we played some tight, really competitive ballgames that we just weren’t able to pull it out in, but our guys just never quit, they kept going. And now we get to go home, and I think we should feel good about what we’ve done.”