Big-league debuts are difficult, especially for a starting pitcher. Only 11 starters in Twins history have earned a victory on their first day on the job, and only four since 2000. So by that measure, Jose Berrios’ inaugural start — as widely anticipated as any by a Minnesota pitcher since Matt Garza a decade ago, at least — was unsurprising.
He flashed potential. He showed off 95-mph velocity. He displayed a wicked curveball. He demonstrated poise and stamina.
And, like the great majority of new-blood starters in Minnesota, he walked away without a victory.
Berrios allowed five runs in four-plus promising-but-inconsistent innings on a cold and drizzly night before an announced crowd of 17,746 at Target Field and was charged with the Twins’ 6-5 loss to the Cleveland Indians. The 12 outs recorded over 93 pitches was a mild disappointment for the franchise’s No. 1 pitching prospect, but manager Paul Molitor said he was impressed enough to give the 21-year-old rookie another start.
“Jose obviously [was] a little amped up. I don’t think we saw him at his best,” Molitor said. “His command wasn’t particularly sharp. … Most likely, he’s going to get another shot.”
Speaking of shots, Byung Ho Park hit one in the sixth inning, his fifth of the season, a blast that somehow sliced through a stiff wind in the outfield to carry more than 440 feet. “On a cold, chilly night, the ball wasn’t carrying particularly well,” Molitor said, “and to hit one off the backdrop gives you an idea of the man’s strength.”
But given a shot an inning later of rallying the Twins to their third consecutive victory, Park disappointed himself by striking out on a shoulder-high fastball.
“I haven’t been very successful with runners in scoring position so far, and today I stepped in the box with the bases loaded, and again I didn’t get my job done. So it was very disappointing,” Park said through an interpreter. “I thought a couple pitches, he was trying to elevate me, but the last pitch was just a mistake on my part.”
The Twins had another chance in the ninth, when Danny Santana singled with one out and stole second. But Brian Dozier struck out on the eighth pitch of his at-bat, and Joe Mauer drove a ball deep to left-center, where the wind knocked it down and Tyler Naquin easily caught it.
The night didn’t live up to the anticipation, but that’s true of many debuts. Not since Andrew Albers, who coincidentally signed a minor-league contract with the Twins on Wednesday, shut out the Royals for more than eight innings in 2013 has a Twins rookie starter debuted with a victory. But Berrios left little doubt he has the ability to win games at this level, eventually.
“There were other times where he was making pitches that he was accustomed to having people swing and miss at. Yet they were fouling them off,” Molitor said. “It’s just a little bit of a different battle because of the hitters you’re facing.”
The 21-year-old Puerto Rican, with more than a dozen friends and family members braving the 40-degree night, allowed a leadoff single to Carlos Santana to open the game, but immediately won an eight-pitch battle with Jason Kipnis, finally getting him to swing through a 94-mph fastball for strike three. Two ground balls later, his first inning was a scoreless success.
“I felt great. I felt strong. I was throwing 93, 94, sometimes 96 [mph],” Berrios said. He said he needs to work on “my command, throwing less pitches per inning. … [But] my confidence is up and I keep trying every day, I’ll be ready for the next one.”
After the Twins staked him to a 3-0 lead, Berrios also got through the second inning with little trouble, but a leadoff walk followed by a sharp single to right led to his first career runs allowed in the third. After he struck out Kipnis again, Berrios surrendered a double by Francisco Lindor that was just out of center fielder Danny Santana’s reach. That hit scored two runs, but Berrios recovered by striking out Michael Brantley on a curveball for a called strike three, then getting Mike Napoli on another fastball.
In the fifth, with his pitch count mounting, Berrios gave up a single to Naquin, the fourth time in five innings that Cleveland’s leadoff hitter reached base. A walk to Carlos Santana brought pitching coach Neil Allen to the mound to confer; a double into the right-field corner by Kipnis scored the tying run and convinced Molitor to pull Berrios.
After he left, Berrios was charged with two more runs when Lindor grounded out, scoring Santana, and Brantley lofted a fly ball to left that Eddie Rosario dropped for an error.