Berríos finding his stride at crucial time for Blue Jays

August 25th, 2022

BOSTON -- José Berríos has spent the season playing hide and seek with his old self.

He’s been hot, cold and one of baseball’s most generous suppliers of souvenirs to fans seated in outfield bleachers across Major League Baseball, but another sharp outing at Fenway Park on Wednesday has renewed optimism that the Berríos of old is back. This time, to stay.

The Blue Jays hung around long enough for a 3-2 win over the Red Sox in the 10th inning, with George Springer’s double off the wall making the late difference. Berríos was the one who set the table, though, and while he had some defensive help along the way -- including Matt Chapman’s submission for Toronto’s play of the year with a double play to end the third -- this continues a run of exceptional performances from this rotation.

“I saw those guys doing their thing out there. It motivated me to do the same thing or better,” Berríos said. “I think we have each other’s backs. That’s why we’re called a team.”

Berríos gave the Blue Jays six innings of two-run ball, striking out six, with the only damage of the night coming on a two-run shot by Franchy Cordero over the Green Monster. Home runs have been a major issue, with Berríos' 27 allowed ranking second in MLB and first in the American League, but he’s looked much sharper in between.

That’s where the curiosity of Berríos’ season lives, especially given that he spent five seasons from 2017-21 as one of the most consistent pitchers in the sport. Take Berríos and Yusei Kikuchi as examples, with ERAs of 5.28 and 5.25, respectively. They couldn’t possibly have taken two more different paths to those numbers.

Kikuchi has lost the zone entirely at times, which you saw to an uncomfortable extent in Tuesday’s win when he walked three batters, hit another and couldn’t escape an inning of mop-up duty without spilling more water on the floor. Berríos, on the other hand, hasn’t endured those blatant struggles from batter to batter.

Berríos will cruise for two or three innings, then allow a big blow. Wash, rinse, repeat. Walk by your television on any pitch that’s not a home run, though, and while you won’t see a pitcher with pinpoint control every night, you’ll still see a version of Berríos that looks fairly close to his version of “normal.”

And Berríos’ version of normal is better than most.

“We’re talking about a No. 1 pitcher,” manager John Schneider said. “We’re talking about a guy who we obviously believe in and we have shown that. His track record speaks for itself. If he can continue to do what he’s doing, that’s a huge shot in the arm for us down the stretch.”

For a stretch of the season, we talked about Berríos’ rebound potentially giving the Blue Jays a “big three” in their rotation alongside Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman. Ross Stripling has surged into a permanent rotation role, though, owning a 2.84 ERA over 95 innings, while finding a true groove lately. It’s shocking to have the conversation of who would start a potential Game 3 in the postseason between Berríos and Stripling, but if Berríos can continue down this path, he’ll swing that back in his favor.

“Hopefully this just gives him a little bit of a boost,” Schneider said. “He’s been really good for the last couple of starts in two tough environments. He was awesome in New York and awesome tonight, with just one mistake to Cordero. Right now, he’s feeling like the pitcher that he always has been over the course of his career.”

Don’t underestimate that mental element, either. Berríos is praised from top to bottom in this organization for his work ethic, but after spending so long as a rock solid starter in the big leagues, it can’t be comfortable to suddenly struggle. Especially so soon after signing a seven-year, $131 million extension in a new city.

It makes the reward all that sweeter.

“That’s why we work,” Berríos said. “That’s why we come here to the ballpark and try so hard to get results like I got tonight. I want to take that to keep motivating myself. I want to keep going forward.”

Berríos gets the Cubs next back home at Rogers Centre, where he’s been far better than on the road. We’ll need to see one or two more, but Berríos is allowing the Blue Jays to dream on his arm in the postseason once again.