Zulgad: Michael Pineda’s suspension means Jose Berrios must regain All-Star form

MINNEAPOLIS — There was a case made in this space early Saturday morning that the Twins would be wise to start Michael Pineda in their first postseason game. Pineda was coming off his latest impressive performance in the Twins’ 6-2, 11-inning loss to Cleveland on Friday at Target Field, having given up one run, four hits with two walks and a season-high 10 strikeouts in six innings.

Jose Berrios, whom the Twins want to consider their staff ace, had struggled since the All-Star break. Jake Odorizzi, who like Berrios was selected as an American League All-Star, had come back to earth. Kyle Gibson is anything but a big-game pitcher and Martin Perez likely was headed for the bullpen in the postseason. So with the Twins holding a 5.5-game lead on the Indians in the AL Central entering Saturday, the feeling was that Big Mike deserved the ball for Game 1.

The column on Pineda sat in the primary position on the front page of the SKOR North website from Saturday morning into the afternoon for all to read. The problem was that by  the middle of the afternoon the notion that Pineda should be atop the Twins’ rotation when the playoffs opened had become an impossibility.

There were many thoughts that ran through the mind of a Minnesota sports follower when the news broke that Pineda’s season was finished as a result of a 60-game suspension handed down by Major League Baseball because he had tested positive for Hydrochlorothiazide, a diuretic, in violation of MLB’s joint drug prevention and treatment program.

  1. How could Pineda be so careless as to take this product without consulting with the Twins’ training staff? In a rare ruling, the arbitrator reduced Pineda’s suspension from 80 games (the usual discipline for a first offense) to 60 because he or she agreed that the substance in Pineda’s system was not used as a masking agent for performance enhancing drugs. Nonetheless, Pineda admitted in a lengthy statement that he did not check with the Twins first and that’s just plain dumb.
  2. This sounded nearly identical to what the Vikings went through in 2008 (and beyond) when defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams were suspended for using StarCaps. It was considered a masking agent but, again, the players said they were trying to control their weight. The Williams Wall — as they were known — took the NFL to court and Pat never ended up serving a game of his suspension before he retired. Pineda is listed at 6-foot-7, 280 pounds and said he thought the diuretic he took “would safely help me manage my weight.” Still, that’s no excuse for any of these players.
  3. What will this mean to the Twins’ starting rotation as the playoffs approach? Barring an epic collapse, this team is going to make the playoffs. Minnesota already has set the single-season home run record (272 entering Saturday), but the starting rotation is an area of concern for the reasons listed above.

Manager Rocco Baldelli was noncommittal Saturday when asked about what the Twins might do in Pineda’s absence but nobody needs Baldelli to tell us what we already know. Even when the column was written that advocated giving the Game 1 start to Pineda, it was acknowledged that ideally Berrios would rebound in the coming weeks to prove he belonged as the opening game starter.

Saturday’s news means that Berrios needs to get his act together and do it quickly. If the Twins are to have any hope of getting out of the Division Series, Berrios needs to return to being the guy who had a 3.00 ERA and had opponents hit .238 against him in 18 starts before the All-Star break and not the guy who has a 5.37 ERA with a .286 average against in 10 starts since then.

This isn’t to say that Odorizzi, Gibson and now, even Perez, are off the hook. But the 30-year-old Pineda had been providing hope that he could be a key part of the Twins’ rotation in October and that is now gone.

“It’s definitely challenging to lose him,” Baldelli said. “Michael Pineda is a big member of this team in a lot of different ways, beyond the field as well as on it. Because of that, it does create a challenge. Our team has been pretty resilient with everything that’s been thrown at it to this point, and I think we’re going to have the ability to acknowledge this and process what’s going on and still continue to go out there and do our jobs. But I think that today the attention is going to be on Mike and everything going on around it, and that’s OK, and we will handle it as a group.”

Baldelli said that message will be kept “internal” but it no doubt will focus on the fact the Twins have been a resilient team in 2019. That has been a big part of the reason they have surprised many with an 87-54 record after a disappointing 78-84 finish last season got Paul Molitor fired as manager.

“We’ll discuss it amongst ourselves and run our business that way,” Baldelli said. “But one thing that we’ve been able to do is look to different guys to pick each other up, and we’ve talked about that since spring training and it’s been a very consistent way of doing things here. Guys have continued to fulfill their end of the obligation. You don’t know who it’s going to be. You don’t know how it’s going to play out. But our guys have found a way.”

Twins reliever Sergio Romo said Pineda’s absence “just creates opportunities for somebody else,” adding, “we’ve got a lot of quality arms here, too.”

Romo, acquired from the Miami Marlins near the trade deadline, is an extremely optimistic guy. Baldelli, in his first season as a manager, has spent his entire time in Minnesota trying to find the good in everything, even when things have gone wrong. It’s not surprising that even with Pineda’s season finished both are still looking for that ray of sunshine.

But both know the Twins need Berrios to regain his form as a staff ace in quick fashion or what appeared to be a magical season likely will come to a quick end in October.

Wetmore: How will Twins pick up the pieces after Michael Pineda’s suspension?