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Zulgad: About time: Jose Berrios gives Twins a much-needed, ace-like performance

MINNEAPOLIS — Jose Berrios looked like anything but an ace during a miserable August. His first start of September didn’t go much better, but things had gotten so bad by that point that some found the good in giving up six runs in five innings in a loss at Boston.

The nonsense finally ended Tuesday and this time no one had to make excuses for Berrios as the righthander returned to his All-Star form in a 5-0 victory over Washington at Target Field. Facing a Nationals lineup that was seventh in the big leagues in runs, Berrios gave up no runs, two hits, walked one and struck out four as he threw 94 pitches (63 for strikes) in seven innings.

Tuesday marked Berrios’ best start since he surrendered no runs, two hits and struck out 11 in seven innings in a 7-4 victory on July 31 in Miami.

“It was a dominant start,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He was about as sharp as anyone could ever be. He made every pitch he wanted to, the stuff was excellent, he just looked great from beginning to end. You could even make an argument he could have continued pitching out there the way he was going. It was a magnificent start, it really was.”

It was long overdue. After his strong outing against the Marlins, Berrios’ earned-run average was at 2.80. But for the second consecutive year, Berrios fell apart in August. In five outings, he went 1-2 with a 7.57 ERA and had opponents register a slash line of .333/.395/.556 against him.

Things got so bad that following an Aug. 23 loss to lowly Detroit, the normally ultra-professional Berrios bolted from Target Field without talking to the media. Throw in the loss in Boston, a start that came after Berrios was given an extra day of rest, and he entered Tuesday with an 8.07 ERA in his past six starts. That increased his ERA at a season-high 3.78.

The case was made on Friday that Michael Pineda should start the Twins’ opening playoff game and not Berrios because Pineda had pitched so well and Berrios looked so lost on the mound. Hours later we learned that Pineda’s season was over, because of a 60-game PED suspension, and a new case was presented that it was time for Berrios to get his act together if the Twins wanted to have any hope of postseason success.

Berrios did exactly that against the Nationals, retiring the first 13 batters he faced before giving up a single to Howie Kendrick in the fifth. Berrios’ only real hiccup came when he made an errant pickoff throw with Kendrick on first and was charged with his first error of the season and the fourth over 101 career games. Kendrick was the only Nationals base runner to get as far as second base.

Tuesday marked the fifth time this season that Berrios threw six scoreless innings but the first time since that July 31 game against the Marlins.

“I don’t consider it a relief, I just consider it a fantastic start and we’ve seen several starts like this from him this year,” Baldelli said. “It reminded me a lot of the Opening Day start that he had here when he just threw the heck out of the ball and carried it late into the game. In just a lot of ways that kind of brought me back to that point and it’s wonderful to see. We’re here in September right now and it’s great to see him doing that.”

In that Opening Day start on March 28 against Cleveland at Target Field, Berrios gave up no runs, two hits, walked one and struck out 10 in 7.2 innings in a 2-0 victory. Berrios, who became the 26th pitcher in Twins history to start 100 games for the franchise, said his success on Tuesday started while he was warming up in the bullpen and carried into the game. “I was locating my pitches wherever I wanted to tonight,” he said. “It felt really good to do that, after a little bit, and I just went out there and executed my pitches.”

Berrios’ catcher Mitch Garver also felt the starter had good stuff before the first pitch was thrown. “I saw it in the bullpen,” Garver said. “He was driving down the mound really, really well. He was staying in line and it didn’t look as rotational as normal. I wouldn’t say as normal, but as it had been recently. So he was really, really attacking down the mound, and I thought the ball was coming out of his hand incredible. His velocity was up a little bit. Breaking ball was moving better. Changeup was plus tonight. He threw the ball really well.”

Berrios’ performance came on the day the Twins got the bad news that center fielder Byron Buxton had undergone season-ending shoulder surgery. Minnesota’s starting lineup also was missing the injured Marwin Gonzalez, Miguel Sano, Max Kepler and C.J. Cron (who entered in the eighth inning as a defensive replacement). That ended up being no problem as Garver continued to punish the baseball.

The Twins had only two hits through six innings against National starter Anibal Sanchez but Eddie Rosario led off with a double and Garver then smacked a 425-foot home run into the second deck in left field for his 30th of the season. With the Twins in the lead, Baldelli decided to go to reliever Sergio Romo in the eighth and then Trevor May in the ninth after the Twins had added three runs in the bottom of the eighth.

Baldelli said Berrios “might have looked a little surprised” when he came over to inform his starter that his night was done, but added he did not make the move because of concern that Berrios might have lost the confidence if he ran into trouble.

“For one, I don’t think there’s anyway we could look at that start … really any other way except it was just a very impressive start,” Baldelli said. “I think where we were in the game, where he was workload wise, the fact that we just came off an off day, we had a very fresh group at that point, it was 2-0 and it made a lot of sense to get our guys in there who pitched in the eighth and ninth inning for a while now and have done a great job for us. They thrive in those situations, too, so I think it made a lot of sense.”

It worked as the Twins completed their 89th victory of the season in 2 hours, 32 minutes. The Twins arrived to the bad news about Buxton but departed Target Field with the hope the guy they call La Makina (the Machine) is back to being exactly that.

“Bad outings are in the past,” Berrios said. “Today, if you want to call it a new beginning, let’s move forward. Like I said before, I have three more outings or so (in the regular season), and I’m just going to plan to do the same thing I did tonight and help the team win and just move forward.”


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