FORT MYERS, FLA. – The last time Jose Berrios was spotted in a major league dugout, the ground was the most important thing in his life.
After holding Houston to one run on 75 pitches in the win-or-go-home Game 2 of the AL wild-card series, Berrios walked off the mound after the fifth inning and into the dugout, where manager Rocco Baldelli told him he was turning to his bullpen. Television cameras showed a disappointed Berrios. He dropped his head and spent a long moment staring directly at the dirt.
This was brought up to Berrios last week following his first live batting practice session of spring training at Hammond Stadium. Berrios, the chiseled 26-year old righthander, dropped his head once again.
There's one way for Berrios to avoid experiencing such letdowns. Make them leave you in the game.
"Yeah, I took that for motivation," Berrios said. "and I see what I know I can be."
Berrios is now at the age and the experience level where his career will either take off or settle where it is now: a good but not top-tier starter.
Over five seasons, Berrios is 48-38 with a 4.19 ERA. His career includes two All-Star Game appearances and two seasons in which he went 14-8.
He took his lumps early in his career, to the point where pitching coach Neil Allen, righthander Ervin Santana and broadcaster Bert Blyleven joined him for a bullpen session during his rookie season in 2016, one that yielded his current delivery.
Berrios' curveball has embarrassed hitters, and he has enough of a fastball (93-94 mph) to finish them off. The more precision he shows with these pitches, the more scintillating he can be.
In recent seasons, he has increased his changeup usage. Last year, he worked on a second curveball, so he now has one that can break more vertically as well as one with more sweep. More tools for the toolbox.
Berrios is a member of baseball's "no offseason" gang, the players who can't take off more than two weeks before getting into offseason training mode. Berrios often posted workout videos from his home in Puerto Rico. The Twins tapped him on the shoulder after he posted one on Twitter of him pushing a car through a field a few offseasons ago.
That would not be the only time the Twins would speak with Berrios about his workout routines. He has a career 3.57 first-half ERA compared with a 4.79 ERA during the second half. Late in the 2019 season, the Twins met with Berrios to alter his offseason workouts so he could stay strong throughout a season. Berrios posted three workout videos this offseason, all on Instagram.
So there have been incremental improvements on the mound, in the weight room and between the ears to get Berrios, who turns 27 in May, to a point where he can become a force. A free agent following the 2022 season, Berrios — who will earn $6.1 million this year — has the financial benefits of raising his game dangling in front of him.
"Jose's got that look in his eye," pitching coach Wes Johnson said. "I think he's on a mission. We'll see. He's got to go out and do it, and he's not scared to go out and try. I thought what you were seeing towards the end of last year was hopefully what we're going to be able to carry over."
There only so many true aces in today's game. Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and a healthy Justin Verlander are part of that group. But there are years when a good pitcher can have an ace-type season, such as when Rick Porcello won the AL Cy Young in 2016 and when Jake Arrieta had a two-year run of dominance for the Cubs around the same time. The Twins' Kenta Maeda went 6-1 with a 2.70 ERA last season and was runner up to Shane Bieber for the AL Cy Young Award. But Maeda was only 27th in innings pitched — and devouring innings remains part of the equation.
Berrios is capable of having an ace-type season. If he doesn't want to be staring at the dirt again after five innings of a playoff game, he has to prove it to the Twins.