Jose Berrios ready to ‘turn the page’ after rough Blue Jays opener
TORONTO — The excuses were just sitting there on platters for Jose Berrios if he wanted them.
His first start after a condensed spring training. The anxiety, pressure, and nerves of pitching on opening day before 45,000 baseball-starved Torontonians only months after signing a franchise-record, seven-year, $131-million extension that will see him throwing in front of them for a long time to come.
Throwing to a catcher who caught him only three times last season. Going up against a Texas Rangers lineup laden with five left-handed hitters, the platoon side that’s hit him better both recently (left-handed hitters put up a .789 OPS vs. Berrios in 2021 while righties struggled to a .540 mark) and over the course of his career (.750 OPS vs. lefties; .641 OPS vs. right-handers).
Starting a game scheduled to begin at 7:07 p.m. ET that actually got under way at 7:40, following a lengthy pre-game ceremony that included multiple award presentations, individual introductions of 14 Olympians, and dramatic, piano-recited anthems. Berrios knew all that was coming, mind you, and didn’t begin warming up in the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen until around 7 p.m. But for a routine-oriented individual like him, this pre-start preparation was anything but normal.
Of course, Berrios wasn’t having any of that. He never would. The Blue Jays starter simply didn’t have it Friday, as he took the mound at a raucous Rogers Centre to start a season of big hope, big promise, and big expectations. And as he walked off that mound with three hits, two walks, three runs — a fourth still to come — and only one out next to his name on the scoreboard, he didn’t blame anyone, or anything, but himself.
“Obviously, tonight didn’t go the way I wanted,” Berrios said after Toronto’s hell-raising, come-from-behind, 10-8 victory over the Rangers Friday. “I wasn’t locating well. I was throwing around the plate. But on those days, you have to go out there and just try to keep competing. And I will. I feel good and proud that I still competed. I’m upset with the way I pitched, obviously. But I’m happy and I’m glad I have great teammates and a great team. They’ve got my back. And we still won the game.”
So, how much of the gory detail do you want?
Berrios began his outing by falling behind Brad Miller, wrestling the count back in his favour, and ultimately watching the Rangers left fielder take a not-terribly-located-but-also-not-where-he-wanted-it curveball for a ride 412-feet over the left-centre field wall. Or put another way: first batter of the year, first homer of the year, off his best pitch.
A blink of an eye later, Berrios was 3-0 to Marcus Semien, who drew a five-pitch walk. Then he was 3-1 to Corey Seager, who dropped a single into right, pushing Semien to third. Semien scored and Seager advanced on a passed ball called a wild pitch during a fierce battle with Mitch Garver, which Berrios lost as his 10th pitch of the plate appearance — a pretty nasty curveball, to be fair — spun into the dirt.
Out came his pitching coach, Pete Walker, for the second mound visit of the inning, which did help get Berrios in the zone. Problem was Nathaniel Lowe recognized the fastball and rifled Berrios’ very next pitch, a 93-m.p.h. heater, right back up the middle, plating Texas’s third run. In an already-stirring Blue Jays bullpen, Tayler Saucedo began to throw.
Back on the mound, ahead of the speedy Adolis Garcia, 1-2, Berrios missed with both his curveball and heater before getting the ground ball he needed but only one out. Ahead of Kole Calhoun, 0-2, Berrios lost the handle on a back-foot curveball that went from purposeful to literal, clipping the right fielder’s toes.
And that was it. Charlie Montoyo didn’t even let Berrios face the next batter, right-handed hitting Andy Ibanez, so that Saucedo could at least begin his outing with the platoon advantage over lefties Willie Calhoun and Miller. Only an out into his team’s season, the Blue Jays manager was walking to the mound to lift his opening day starter and ask his bullpen to record the final 26 outs.
“His stuff was there — he was throwing 95 and hard. But his command was off,” Montoyo said. “And that’s a good lineup over there. So, if you pitch behind, they’re going to make you pay.”
Which is to say nothing of the defence played behind Berrios, which wasn’t doing him any favours. Danny Jansen let a fastball off the plate ride past his glove and to the backstop, allowing Semien to score and Seager to advance from first to second. Later, with runners on first and second, Matt Chapman couldn’t transfer Garcia’s six-hole groundball cleanly from glove to hand, removing any possibility of a double play. And Berrios watched his fourth run cross the plate from the dugout as Cavan Biggio botched a transfer at second base on an Ibanez ground ball that should have ended the inning with another double play.
“There was a couple of balls that we didn’t turn double plays on,” Montoyo said. “And I always talk about that. There’s only so much you can hit. You still have to pitch and catch the ball. So, that first inning, we didn’t make some plays, and they took advantage of that.”
Ultimately, Berrios threw 34 pitches, just 18 of them for strikes, and only one of those swinging. His curveball ran too far away from righties; his fastball sat up over the heart of the plate for lefties; he barely even got to his changeup. It was the shortest outing of his career — only the second time in 148 starts since his 2016 debut that Berrios didn’t get out of the first inning. It’s not what you want.
“I didn’t come to the ballpark thinking I don’t feel like my command is there or not. I just came with my confidence, trying to compete, throw my pitches. But then, during the game, we see we are throwing around the plate, not locating well,” he said. “I just tried to go with my plan, with my strengths. But they didn’t chase much. So, that’s why I pitched the way I pitched.”
Berrios didn’t enter the game not thinking it’d go this way. He said he felt great in his pre-game bullpen. And the pitch data he produced supports that. There was no dip in the velocity, spin rate, or action on Berrios’s pitches. They were all coming out the way they’re supposed to. Berrios just couldn’t put them where he wanted.
“Yeah, I was really good in the bullpen. But then when it came to the game, I was trying to be too perfect, I think. Like, too nasty,” he said. “I think I didn’t pitch — I just threw. But that’s part of the game. It’s something I’ve been learning. I’m upset because I wasn’t able to make that adjustment early in the game. But I just tried to keep competing.”
This is no cause for alarm, of course. Surely you already know that. We’re talking about a guy with a 3.74 ERA over 134 outings since 2017, a top-50 mark across MLB in that span. Berrios knows what went wrong and knows how to account for it. He just needs to take a little bit off. Like he said, he needs to pitch, not throw.
These things happen at the highest level. Even the game’s very best pitchers have disastrous outings from time to time. Berrios has had them before and he’ll have them again. After his shortest outing of 2021 — a three-inning, nine-hit, four-run debacle against the White Sox in late August – Berrios went seven strong with 11 strikeouts his next time out. He knows he can do that again. The worst part for him will be the four days he has to withstand before he gets to take the mound again and make amends.
“I understand and I know what I’m able to do out there. Tonight just wasn’t my night,” Berrios said. “There’s another day, another ballgame. So, now I turn the page and get ready for the next one.”