TORONTO — Good pitchers have talent, but the great ones have timing.
José Berríos has spent the first six weeks of the season as if everything was an inch off, never quite unraveled, but never as his true self. That changed in Tuesday’s 3-0 win over the Mariners at Rogers Center when the Blue Jays needed him most.
With closer Jordan Romano sick and setup man Tim Mayza on the IL, Berríos put the Blue Jays on his back with over seven innings of scoreless ball. He didn’t overpower the Mariners, striking out only four, but Berríos returned to his roots as one of the most consistent starting pitchers of the game, hitting the right pitches at the right times.
“That’s the only way you can come back like this, stay” [steady]’ says manager Charlie Montoyo. “He’s worked really hard. He’s one of the hardest workers I know. It was great to see that outing. He was in control the whole time. That second inning was the whole game.”
Montoyo pointed to a basesloaded jam that Berríos escaped with a timed double play to give his team the lead in the bottom of the second on a George Springer triple that cleared the bases. That doubles ball is exactly the throw that Berríos missed on his previous starts, but eventually found.
Even with all the outliers this Blue Jays team has experienced in 2022, especially with its struggling lineup, nothing felt less natural than Berríos’ 5.82 ERA that came into play on Tuesday. He also made two ugly appearances against the Guardians and Yankees earlier in May, giving up 11 runs in 10 innings. What made Berríos’ start particularly strange, however, is that he never looked downright terrible. Not close.
Rather than lose the zone completely or give up moonshots, Berríos has just been a little off the beaten track. That’s plenty in the big leagues, especially if you tinker with some early adjustments and play against a strong schedule through April and May. Berríos is the type of pitcher who also stays in a groove once he finds it. In the past five seasons of Berríos, he recorded a 3.74 ERA and scored 190 innings in three of his four complete campaigns. With each passing season, consistent quality over that number of innings becomes rarer.
“My last two starts were not what I want, but that’s part of the game,” Berríos said. “I just keep trying, keep working hard between starts, and tonight I was able to throw the game I wanted. l [wished for] and I [wanted] this game so much. Thank God I had it tonight.”
Fortunately for the Blue Jays, the top of the rotation was supported by Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah. Gausman is off to a great start on his five-year $110 million deal, running a 2.40 ERA with just two walks and not a single home run allowed in 45 innings. Manoah also shone as a sophomore, opening the year with a 1.71 ERA over seven starts. Between this and the attack, it was easy to miss Berríos’ slow start.
However, when this rotation works as it should, Berríos doesn’t have to be the clear ace. He, Manoah and Gausman make up a three-headed monster no matter what order they roll out, while Yusei Kikuchi’s awesome outing on Monday sparks optimism that better days are ahead. If Hyun Jin Ryu can return to something close to his 2020 and early ’21 forms, that’s a great rotation.
“We believe in each other and we know we are a great pitching staff,” Berríos said. “All we have to do now is keep going out, doing our job and working together like we’ve done until now. Yesterday I saw Kikuchi, the way he throws, and I took that into my outing tonight. He inspired me. I did well like he did last night.”
Just as the silent attack took some of the spotlight away from Berríos, he might have returned that favor too. Springer’s three-run triple may seem like a big punch to the box score, but it was a blooper that left his bat at just 71.5 mph and in front of a diving Steven Souza Jr. fell before rolling past him. However, the Blue Jays aren’t complaining about a week of some heavy-hit ball luck.
But getting Berríos back to who he can be would be one of the biggest boosts for this organization. Able to be one of the game’s most reliable front-line starters, Berríos should be a winning machine once this lineup plays to its capabilities, and like any great pitcher, will know how and when to take the opportunity.