His fastballs were popping, and the curves dived for the dirt. But there might have been no more telling indication that something had changed about Jose Berrios than the answer he gave when asked what it was.
“I changed my underwear,” Berrios said with a straight face. “No, just kidding.”
OK, so he’s a better pitcher than comedian. Still, just the fact that the Twins’ All-Star righthander was lighthearted and smiling again, after a month of storm clouds and grim postmortems, demonstrated the relief he surely felt.
Berrios faced down the third-highest-scoring offense in the National League on Tuesday and allowed almost nothing, contributing seven shutout innings to the Twins’ 5-0 victory over the Nationals at Target Field.
“Bad outings are in the past,” Berrios declared after retiring the first 13 Nationals he faced, giving up only two singles and a walk, and reclaiming the mantle of staff ace. “Today, if you want to call it a new beginning — let’s move forward.”
The Twins will be happy to move forward with Berrios anchoring the pitching staff once again, and Mitch Garver providing the middle-of-the-order punch. Garver, who homered twice Saturday and once Sunday, delivered again for the third consecutive game, crushing an Anibal Sanchez slider into Washington’s bullpen in center field with Eddie Rosario on base, to break up a scoreless tie in the seventh inning.
“My first two at-bats I was frustrated with myself, because those were pitches I should normally swing at, try to attack,” Garver said of his 0-for-2 start. “That third at-bat, I wasn’t trying to pull the ball, I was trying to stay middle of the field, give Eddie a chance to get to third base. I just caught it out front and got it in the air.”
It got a lot of air, becoming Garver’s 30th home run of a spectacular season. Garver joined Max Kepler (36) and Nelson Cruz (35) with 30 or more homers, only the fourth time the Twins have had three 30-homer sluggers in one season, and first time since 1987. They’ve never had four in a season, and Rosario is sitting at 28 and Miguel Sano at 27 with 18 games to play.
“He’s been having really good at-bats,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said of Garver. “He’s been great for us and he’s come up big for us many, many times. He does thrive in those situations.”
So did Berrios, before a second-half slump set off alarms. Berrios’ 8.07 ERA in August and September had even raised speculation that he might not be the Game 1 starter in the postseason.
It even started to seep into his own head, he said.
“Yeah, obviously, I had a stretch of bad outings. But doing this [Tuesday], it was good for my confidence,” Berrios said after departing without allowing a run for the fourth time this season. “I was locating my pitches wherever I wanted. … It felt really good to do that.”
He still has three starts remaining, but Berrios undoubtedly calmed some of the fan base’s fears by dominating a playoff contender. He only got four swing-and-misses, but Berrios also induced weak contact all night. Berrios needed only 94 pitches to speed through seven innings, never facing more than four batters in an inning, and only once — because of his own throwing error on a pickoff throw — did he allow a runner to reach second base.
“I saw it in the bullpen. He was driving down the mound really, really well,” Garver said. “His velocity was up a little bit. Breaking ball was moving better. Changeup was a plus [Tuesday]. He threw the ball really well.”