MINNEAPOLIS – Paul Molitor found himself in an unfamiliar situation Thursday evening at Target Field as he made his way to the mound to remove starter Jose Berrios with two outs in the eighth inning.
The small gathering that showed up for the nightcap of the Twins’ split doubleheader against the Colorado Rockies, booed the manager as he took each step toward the young righthander.
“I don’t know if we’ve had that a ton,” Molitor said, referring to being booed for taking out a starting pitcher at home. “I kind of anticipated that it was going to happen. That’s why I called for (reliever Taylor Rogers) early so I didn’t change my mind on the way out.”
Molitor couldn’t be blamed for removing Berrios 106 pitches into his second big-league start of the season, but the crowd also couldn’t be faulted for its reaction. Twins fans simply aren’t accustomed to seeing the type of performance they got from Berrios in Minnesota’s 2-0 victory over the NL West-leading Rockies.
Coming off an impressive outing in a victory last Saturday in Cleveland, Berrios threw 7 2/3 innings, giving up two hits, no runs, one walk and striking out 11 in improving to 2-0. The Rockies did not get their first hit until Gerardo Parra led off the fifth with a single; Berrios faced only three hitters in the inning as Parra was thrown out trying to steal second.
Berrios threw 72 of his pitches for strikes and lowered his earned-run average to 0.59. He is the first Twins starter to record 11 or more strikeouts since Ervin Santana did it on Sept. 5, 2015 at Houston (11) and the first Twins starter to do it at Target Field since Francisco Liriano accomplished the feat on July 13, 2012 against Oakland (15).
There’s more. Berrios is the first Twins’ starter to record double-digit strikeouts since Santana on Aug. 21, 2016 at Kansas City (10) and the first one at Target Field since Santana on Aug. 30, 2015 against Houston (10).
There was plenty of hype surrounding Berrios when the Twins’ top pitching prospect arrived in Minnesota a year ago. He simply wasn’t ready and went 3-7 with an 8.02 earned-run average. Berrios ended up making three more starts at Triple-A Rochester (17) than he did with the Twins (14).
The Twins knew Berrios had the talent to succeed in the big leagues but decided to exercise more patience this year. The soon-to-be 23-year-old made six starts at Rochester this spring, going 3-0 with a 1.82 ERA, before earning a promotion. After shutting down quality-hitting teams in the Indians and Rockies, Berrios looks like he has no plans of returning to the minors.
He has given up one run, four hits, walked two, hit three batters and struck out 15 in 15 1/3 innings in his two starts. Berrios did not pitch more than six innings in 14 big-league starts last season but has gone 7 2/3 innings in each start this year. He attributes his success to a confidence that was lacking last season when he seemed to fall apart when things went wrong.
“It’s just the confidence,” he said through an interpreter after Thursday’s game. “The work I put in during the offseason and during spring training. Being able to be ahead of the hitters, it’s what gives me the confidence. I can tell you guys I’m 100 percent compared to last year (with) my confidence. I didn’t have that last year.”
Berrios had his fastball, curveball and changeup working for him and consistently got ahead of Rockies hitters to help the Twins end a three-game losing streak. He struck out five of the first 11 batters he faced and threw first-pitch strikes to 10 of those 11 hitters.
“He backed up the (Cleveland outing),” Molitor said. “It might have even been a touch better in that I just think it was maybe even a touch more dominant. But all the things that we’ve asked him to do in terms of trying to help him find success at this level, he’s been trying to address and it’s showing up so far in his first couple of starts. You don’t want to get too crazy about it yet, but to throw as many strikes as he has and getting ahead of as many hitters as he has and just attacking with his fastball. …”
Berrios hit Colorado’s Nolan Arenado with a pitch with two outs in the first inning, but struck out cleanup hitter Carlos Gonzalez to end the inning. He then hit Ian Desmond with a pitch leading off the second before a balk enabled Desmond to go to second and wild pitch put him on third. But Berrios, as he did against Cleveland, kept his cool and ended the inning with back-to-back strikeouts.
“We talked about the difficulty of expectations and always hoping that the next time you get a chance it’s going to be the right time and you can run with it,” Molitor said. “A couple of big starts against a couple of really good teams in Cleveland and Colorado. That kind of adds to the positivity surrounding what he’s done so far.”
Berrios’ 11th and final strikeout Thursday came when Raimel Tapia swung and missed on a 94-mile-per-hour fastball to lead off the eighth. Berrios then got Pat Valaika to pop up to second baseman Brian Dozier before pinch-hitter Tony Wolters walked and Molitor made the slow walk to the mound.
Berrios, like Molitor, heard the catcalls from the crowd who then gave the pitcher a nice ovation as he departed.
“I understand the fans wanted to see me finish the inning, but at the end of the day we all have a job and it was a lefthanded hitter coming,” Berrios said. “We all have roles and it was time for the bullpen to take over.”
Berrios, once again, had certainly done his job.