NEW YORK – Jose Berrios’ 2019 season seemed to be marked by one adjustment after another.
Throwing more changeups was a season-long priority. There was a stretch where he threw more sinking fastballs to give hitters something with more movement. Later in the season, when he started to slip, he even changed his postgame maintenance to help him rediscover lost velocity.
It’s always good for a pitcher to strive to be the best version of himself. But he had to put out fires at times rather than being a tinkerer.
There’s no time for tinkering now. On Thursday, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli named Berrios the starting pitcher for Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Yankees, and the righthander has to go with what he’s got. Berrios insists his pitches are where he wants them to be to get the Twins off to a good start in the postseason.
“Yes, obviously,” Berrios said. “I can’t say no because I pitch tomorrow.”
That brought the second round of laughs during his news conference. The first round came moments after he entered the interview and pretended to get sick in a nearby garbage can.
“In reality, I’m just really happy, excited to be here,” Berrios said. “Honored I was chosen to throw the first game of the series, and I’m just happy to be here.”
Berrios finished 14-8 with a 3.68 ERA this year, when he pitched in his second consecutive All-Star Game. However, the solid numbers don’t reveal the streaks the 25-year-old Puerto Rican endured. He had a 2.53 ERA over his first eight starts, then had a 3.54 ERA over his next 11. Then came his August swoon, when his velocity dipped to under 93 miles per hour and he posted a 8.07 ERA during a five-start stretch.
By the end of the year, however, Berrios’ velocity was back up to 95 mph after agreeing to soft tissue massages following his outings. He recovered better following starts and saw more life on his pitches. He went 3-0 with a 3.08 ERA over his final three starts as he returned to flinging 95 mph heaters by hitters, and he says he is ready to pitch in Yankee Stadium.
The Twins could have selected righthander Jake Odorizzi for the Game 1 assignment, as Odorizzi finished the season with a 2.89 ERA over his last 10 starts, but went with the man who had led the starting rotation all season.
“There’s not one reason for it. I think there are a number of reasons for it,” Baldelli said. “Jose’s had a very, very nice year. He’s thrown the ball very well. I think the way that our pitching lines up, we can talk about performance. We can talk about matchups. We can talk about the ballpark that we’re playing in. We can talk about a lot of different things. There’s not one reason for it. I thought Jose fit very well in this spot.”
Odorizzi, who could start Game 2 on Saturday in New York or Game 3 on Monday at Target Field, said Berrios is well-qualified to try to give the Twins a 1-0 series lead. And the adjustments he has had to make during the year will make him a better pitcher.
“It was a good season for him in the sense that he went through a lot of different stages and it still was a good season overall. Nothing that he did and went through wrecked his season,” Odorizzi said. “That’s what builds a good high-caliber starter over the course of time, is weathering those different points throughout the season and being able to make the adjustment to get back to where he thought he was successful.”
That might need to come quickly Friday. Berrios’ only playoff experience came during the 2017 AL wild-card game at Yankee Stadium, when he replaced a struggling Ervin Santana and gave up three runs over three innings in a game the Twins lost 8-4. The first few games of these playoffs have seen teams score early, so Berrios’ ability to adjust to situations will determine how long he pitches.
He feels like he learned a lot from that wild-card game too.
“I think a lot,” Berrios said. “Since then, I’ve grown a lot as a player, inning by inning, game by game, I gain a lot of experience, and I think that’s going to help me [Friday] night.”