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Zulgad: Twins will give Jose Berrios a chance to ace Game 1 test against Yankees

NEW YORK — Jose Berrios’ frustration reached its zenith on Aug. 23 when the Twins righthander gave up five runs and 10 hits in 5.1 innings of a loss to the lowly Detroit Tigers and then bolted from Target Field before conducting his usual postgame interview.

That was the fourth start in a six-start span during which Berrios looked nothing like the Twins’ top pitcher, posting a 1-4 record, an 8.07 ERA and having opponents put up a slash line of .336/.400/.571 against him. At the time, any faith that Berrios could start the opening game of a playoff series for the Twins had been lost.

But as a smiling Berrios sat in an interview room on Thursday in Yankee Stadium discussing the fact he would get the ball for Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Friday, the confidence that Berrios was the right choice had returned. Even though he is only four starts removed from that bumpy stretch.

“I have complete confidence in Jose,” said Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, who told Berrios he would get the ball in the playoff opener a week ago. “Getting a chance to know him even going back into this offseason, the one thing that stood out was his maturity level for being a guy who’s still pretty young. He’s at the early stages of his career. This is a guy who does have, not everything — none of us have everything figured out — but he has some things figured out. He’s going to be OK. I feel really good with him being OK in any situation and in any particular spot we throw him in.

“That’s really probably as good of a compliment as you can give someone. We can talk about specific situations, but when you have guys where you go, ‘This guy’s going to be fine. He’s going to respond really well to no matter what happens. He can handle anything.’ Again, for a guy that’s at this point in his career, to feel that level of confidence in him — and I know I’m not alone in that clubhouse — it’s a great feeling being us and knowing that we have him.”

The 25-year-old Berrios went 14-8 with a 3.68 ERA in 32 starts for the Twins in his fourth big-league season. He was picked to start Friday’s game after rebounding and posting a 3-0 record with a 3.08 ERA in his last four starts of the regular season. That included outstanding back-to-back efforts in which he gave up two runs and seven hits in 14.1 innings against Washington and the Chicago White Sox.

This won’t be Berrios’ first opportunity to pitch in a playoff game. He replaced Ervin Santana in the Twins’ 8-4 wild card loss in 2017 at Yankee Stadium, giving up three runs and five hits with four strikeouts in three innings. That came after the Twins jumped to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning, but Santana gave it right back and left after surrendering four runs and three hits in two innings.

Berrios said his biggest takeaway from that night was the “intensity” of the game.

“It’s going to be good, it’s going to be fun,” Berrios said of his expectation for Friday. “I remember playing in Puerto Rico. The atmosphere is different. I think it’s going to feel like this here in this ballpark. Just looking forward to that. … It’s not an easy place to play in. There will be a lot of pressure and emotions, but I’m just going to prepare like a regular game and go out there and try to execute and do the things that I’ve done the entire season.”

Baldelli is making the right call by going with Berrios because if the Twins are going to finally win a playoff series against the Yankees they are going to need him to pitch like he did on Sept. 10 against a tough Nationals lineups. Berrios gave up no runs and two hits in seven innings in a 5-0 victory over Washington. The game in Puerto Rico to which Berrios is referring was in April 2018 when he gave up no runs and three hits in seven innings in a 2-1 victory over Cleveland. Berrios is from Bayamon, Puerto Rico.

The expectation is that the Twins-Yankees series will be decided by home runs — both clubs became the first to hit more than 300 homers in a season — but that makes Game 1 even more important when it comes to pitching. If Berrios can outduel Yankees starter James Paxton, who went 10-0 with a 2.25 ERA in his last 10 starts (that does not include his final one-inning start against Texas), on Friday that could give the Twins at least a split to open at Yankee Stadium.

It also would put Berrios in a position to pitch the fifth and final game of the series, should it go the distance.

“He lives for these moments,” Twins reliever Tyler Duffey said. “He’s always shown when we needed him. I guarantee he’ll be firing on all cylinders come Friday again. He’s going to be locked in, ready to rock. Everybody in that locker room is going to be ready. I think we’re excited about this. We’ve been playing great baseball all year, and now it’s time to really show everybody what we’ve got.

Said Baldelli: “I thought Jose fit very well in this spot. … I just thought he was the right guy.”

Berrios appeared appreciative of the confidence being shown in him as he tries to distance himself from the struggling starter who bolted from the clubhouse without talking and received a talking to the next day from Twins officials who know he’s better than that.

This is a guy whom the Twins still expect can become a big-league ace and, for now, is clearly considered their top pitcher. Berrios spent this year trying to fulfill those expectations by making adjustments on how he mixed of his pitches, including his two-seam and four-seam fastballs, his changeup and curveball. A reporter asked Berrios if he has all of his pitches where he wants them.

“Yes, obviously,” Berrios said.  “I can’t say no because I pitch tomorrow.”

This drew laughter from the room but Berrios wasn’t done.

“Tomorrow, I’m going to go out there, do my thing, have fun,” he said. “All guys, all my teammates there in the clubhouse, we’re so excited for tomorrow. So tomorrow is another opportunity in my life, and I’m going to give it my best effort.”

If that effort is good enough to slow the Yankees, Berrios will have gone a long way toward making us forget the hiccup that was his August.


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