The youngest member of the Twins delivered the youngest manager in baseball the first victory of his career Thursday, and his reward was a heartfelt handshake on the mound.
“I probably could have given him a little hug out there,” Rocco Baldelli said.
Kids these days, huh?
Jose Berrios, already an All-Star before his 25th birthday, turned in one of the most dominating Opening Day performances by a Twins pitcher in decades, shutting out the Indians for 7 ⅔ innings and leading his older teammates to a 2-0 victory over Cleveland at sold-out Target Field. It was the fourth shutout by the Twins on Opening Day, but their first in 49 years.
“It probably deserved more than a handshake,” Baldelli said with a grin after Berrios discombobulated an injury-ravaged Cleveland lineup with a 95 mph fastball, a looping curveball and a newfound changeup, holding the Indians to two hits and one walk while striking out 10, a franchise record for an opener. No wonder Baldelli congratulated him before asking for the ball in the eighth, though even a hug, he said, “probably wouldn’t have done the thing justice, either.”
The story line for the first outdoor game ever played in March in Minnesota could have involved snowdrifts and subzero temperatures, but on a sunny and springlike 49-degree day, the only things frozen were the bats. Berrios didn’t allow an Indians player to reach base until the fourth inning, and didn’t deal with a runner on third base all day.
“Like a young King Felix,” said designated hitter Nelson Cruz, offering just about the highest compliment an ex-Mariner — for four years a teammate of Felix Hernandez, Seattle’s Cy Young-winning righthander — can bestow. “Dominating all the way. Even in tough situations, like when he’s got a [leadoff] runner on second, he finds a way to get it done, get the outs.”
Yet the Twins ace was arguably being outpitched for much of the afternoon. Corey Kluber, making his fifth consecutive Opening Day start for Cleveland, retired the first 14 batters he faced, and didn’t give up a hit until Byron Buxton lined a one-out double over left fielder Jake Bauers’ head in the sixth.
Kluber, a two-time Cy Young winner, extinguished that threat, but the Twins’ new blood finally sicced themselves on the righthander in the seventh. Cruz, signed as a free agent in December, led off with a single to the wall in left field, and after Eddie Rosario struck out, new first baseman C.J. Cron singled him to second. Marwin Gonzalez — limited to a single RBI during a late-starting spring training — then smacked Kluber’s high-and-outside changeup into the left-center gap, and when it reached the warning track, both runners ahead of him scored.
That was all the offense Berrios would need. The righthander tore through an Indians lineup missing Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis because of injuries with ease, retiring them in order in six of the eight innings he took the mound. He recorded a strikeout in every inning but the second, whiffing leadoff batter Leonys Martin on a changeup in the first inning, then blowing fastballs past Brad Miller and Eric Stamets in the third. And five of his last six strikeouts came with his amazing curveball, a pitch that … well, let’s let his catcher, Jason Castro, describe it:
“It’s one of the best pitches in baseball, for sure,” Castro said.
Berrios won’t go that far, preferring to talk about how much better he still can be. Still, “I felt very good overall today,” he allowed. “I was using two different curveballs, I was using the changeup, keeping it low. I used my curveball when I got guys against a wall.”
In a different era, he probably would have been allowed to finish the job, as the starting pitchers in the Twins’ three previous Opening Day shutouts — Jim Perry in 1970, Dean Chance in 1968 and Pedro Ramos in 1961 — got to do. But when his pitch count got to 96, and with the tying run at the plate, the 37-year-old Baldelli made the first pitching change of his managerial career.
“It took me by surprise, because of the way the game was going,” Berrios said. “But he has authority over us on the field, and it was his decision, and I accepted it.”
Baldelli stuck out his hand, Berrios shook it, and then walked off to a raucous ovation, tipping his cap as he smiled broadly.
“Usually you get a fist bump or a ‘good job’ and then you walk off. But this was Opening Day, it’s a special day for all of us, and the first game for him as a manager,” Berrios said. “It was emotional out there, and the fans were cheering for us. It was a good moment.”