MINNEAPOLIS — J.O. Berrios had a couple starts in a row in which he didn’t look quite like himself, and wasn’t getting his typical results. Granted, it’s easy to fall short of the high bar he set for himself earlier this season with a complete game shutout against the Orioles his first time on the mound.
A couple rocky outings are apparently in his rearview mirror, though, after Tuesday’s impressive start against the St. Louis Cardinals. For one thing, he earned the win after the Twins had lost 3 of his past 4 outings, including a couple short starts.
In his previous 4 outings, Berrios had allowed 18 earned runs in 18 1/3 innings (8.84 ERA). He also walked 8 hitters and struck out just 11 of the 88 that he faced (12.5%). That’s the other encouraging sign about Berrios’ latest back-on-track outing: He struck out 10 St. Louis hitters and they had all sorts of trouble making contact with his curveball.
My amateur assessment of Berrios’ rocky stretch was that he did not get the curves to where he wanted them to go consistently enough. He left pitches in hitting zones, it seemed, for right-handed hitters especially. And I’ve never stood 60 feet in front of him while he’s uncorking that filthy pitch, but I had to wonder during that stretch if hitters were able to somehow pick it up just a split-second sooner than before. Manager Paul Molitor said before the game that the film study suggested that he needed to stay on top of his curve ball; Berrios himself said Tuesday that it’s a matter of “staying behind” the pitch as he lets it go.
His course correction must have worked. The good breaking balls that Berrios threw Tuesday were not detected very often. Or maybe they were detected, and the 15 swings that missed everything were just a sign that he’s got great stuff. He set it up with good command of his fastball, worked quickly, and he often finished off hitters when he had the chance.
The reaction of several Twins teammates in the clubhouse after Tuesday’s start was universal. It’s the sound you make if words don’t immediately do justice to the performance.
“I think snapping off a couple good curveballs earlier helped him trust that pitch,”manager Paul Molitor said, who noted that Berrios did focused work on his curve during his between-start bullpen session. “But his fastball played — he used it wisely when he needed to to get ahead. And he did a nice job.”
Berrios had a strong outing in Puerto Rico in mid-April, with 7 innings against the Indians in a Twins win. Then 4 consecutive starts in which he allowed 4, 5, 5 and 4 earned runs, respectively. The Twins’ pitching staff this year looks better than previous seasons, but if Berrios isn’t at or near the top of his game, there seems to be a definite ceiling.
Tuesday, with catcher Bobby Wilson calling things behind the plate, Berrios was at or near the top of his game. He didn’t even use too many changeups, and wasn’t overly reliant on either of his good fastballs as put-away pitches.
“For me, it’s throwing it deeper in the zone,” Wilson said, “so it’s coming out more [looking like a] fastball instead of popping up a little bit.”
Molitor reminded an audience before the game that he’d cautioned about getting too caried away earlier this season with a label like “ace” for Berrios, “because he’s not quite at the consistent point that I think he’s going to get to.”
To that end, the Twins got some good news Tuesday. Not only did Berrios move on from a string of so-so starts. He also dusted off that filthy curveball that can bury a big league hitter. If he strings together a few more outings like Tuesday, the Twins will be in a better spot because of it. And maybe we can revisit that age-old “ace” debate.