'I’m so impressed': Berríos' dazzling debut

August 1st, 2021

TORONTO -- The cheers for started 29 minutes prior to first pitch. He’d barely been in Toronto long enough to shake hands and sleep when he skipped out of the Blue Jays’ dugout and started to walk out into left field to warm up, but the fans who’d streamed into Rogers Centre early squinted to see a No. 17 jersey and “Berríos.”

By the time Berríos reached the mound, the curiosity faded and everyone saw exactly why the Blue Jays traded two top-end prospects for him in their biggest trade addition since the postseason runs of 2015-16. The 27-year-old threw six scoreless innings with seven strikeouts in the 5-1 win over the Royals, dancing around any danger with incredible poise for a pitcher who’d just been uprooted after a decade with the Twins organization and joined a new team in a new country.

Berríos got to bed on time last night after finally reaching Toronto, but he woke up early and had nerves about his first start for the Blue Jays. They didn’t show.

“It was different for sure,” Berrios said. “I’ve never been in this position in my career, but every day, there’s a first time for everything and we have to handle working around it. I do my best trying to get through my routines. I had a good rest, good food, and today I came to the ballpark and did my work. That’s what I did, and thank God we came out of the game with a win.”

The only trouble Berríos found came in the sixth, when he loaded the bases with two outs. He got a quick visit from pitching coach Pete Walker, then went to work with his trademark curveball. When Berríos got Edward Olivares to lunge at a swinging third strike to escape the inning and end his day, he pounded his right hand into his glove three times and pumped his fist as he left the mound. Walking back to the dugout, he got a standing ovation from the crowd, this one a little louder than his earlier welcome.

Waiting for Berríos when he got to Rogers Centre on Saturday around 8 p.m. ET was Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who hung back despite the fact some of his family had arrived that day. Charlie Montoyo was there too, passing the time after the 4-0 win by playing the congas, bongos and other instruments in his office. Just like Hyun Jin Ryu when he signed in the winter of 2019, Berríos got a welcome concert from his manager.

“I knew what he could do from talking to Rocco Baldelli. He told me everything. He loves this guy,” Montoyo said. “But you know why I’m so impressed about what he did? He was scheduled to pitch for the Twins on Friday, but in the past 48 hours, he had to relocate to another country during a pandemic with all the protocols that go with it, meet new teammates and coaches, and get mentally ready for a start to face a team he’s faced many times. I’m so impressed with what he did.”

The series sweep launches the Blue Jays (54-48) into August riding a wave of momentum. They came away from the Deadline a significantly more talented team and returned home to Toronto for the first time in nearly two years during this series, so it’s difficult to imagine a better weekend, and Berríos was a central part of that.

Toronto’s offense didn’t need to do much, but it did enough. Marcus Semien launched his 25th home run of the season, keeping him on pace to push past his career high of 33 (2019), and Santiago Espinal hit just the second home run of his young career, building on what’s quietly been one of the most encouraging seasons on this roster.

Semien is still the veteran of the bunch, having his share of fun on a young team overflowing with energy -- they taped Guerrero to the bench on Sunday to keep him out of trouble for a few innings -- but he typically acts as the steady voice. He knows the classic “pitching and defense” will be the key to Toronto making a run, like that 11-game winning streak the 2015 Blue Jays went on in early August, but he continues to highlight late-game hitting as an area for improvement. It’s hard to argue with this start, though, if this is really the start of something bigger.

“We couldn’t have had a better series to start out our Toronto season,” Semien said. “It’s finally just good to play in front of the home city. We played some good baseball, too. I think there’s better baseball to come in the next couple of months.”