MINNEAPOLIS — Since Jose Berrios made his major league debut with the Twins in 2016, many had waited for the day the talented righthander took the ball in a game of massive importance and pitched like an ace who welcomed the pressure of the moment.
That day finally arrived on Wednesday afternoon at Target Field.
Berrios, who got off to a rocky start in this pandemic-shortened season before beginning to emerge, did everything the Twins (and their fans) asked of him in an elimination game against the Houston Astros. He got George Springer to fly to center to open the first inning and retired the next 10 batters he faced. Berrios was at 29 pitches through three innings.
Berrios, who too often has seemed burdened by the expectations placed on him, was pitching free and easy. The fourth got a bit rocky when he issued two two-out walks before Kyle Tucker beat Twins’ the shift by hitting a run-scoring single through where shortstop Jorge Polanco normally would be positioned. Berrios rebounded to get Yuli Gurriel to ground to third with runners on first and third to end the inning. He then gave up a single to Carlos Correa to open the fifth before getting the next three hitters.
The Twins tied the score 1-1 in the bottom of the fifth as Berrios had given up the one run, two hits, two walks and four strikeouts through five innings. His pitch count was at only 75. It was during the bottom half of the fifth that ESPN’s cameras caught manager Rocco Baldelli having a conversation with Berrios in the Twins’ dugout that made it obvious the pitcher’s day was done.
Berrios crushed he's being removed pic.twitter.com/Qawiv59CBM
— CJ Fogler (@cjzer0) September 30, 2020
Berrios looked frustrated, perplexed and disappointed. He could not be blamed if he also was furious. Baldelli’s reasoning for making the move, at least in his mind, was simple. Berrios was about to go through the Astros order for the third time in the game — he had gotten Springer, the lead off hitter, to end the fifth — and the numbers said that sending Berrios back out wouldn’t be a good idea.
The first time through the order in the regular season, Berrios had given up a .247 batting average, .324 on-base percentage and .268 slugging this season, according to Baseball Reference. The second time, it was .211/.287/.421 and the third time it was .271/.364/.542. So, by the book, Baldelli did the right thing.
But this wasn’t a by the book situation. This was a guy the Twins have been begging to be their ace pitcher turning into that guy in front of their eyes, and Baldelli, somehow, deciding the same strategy he would employ in April, May or June should be used in a must-win playoff game. Sometimes one has to mix gut feeling for the situation with what the analytics might say. Baldelli failed in this area. His answer was to turn to reliever Cody Stashak, who after retiring the Astros in order in the sixth, gave up what proved to be the winning home run to Carlos Correa in the seventh in a 3-1 loss that gave Houston a two-game sweep in the series.
That’s right, Berrios was yanked so Stashak could get two innings of work.
There are a few things that are troubling about Berrios’ removal from the game. The first was it marked the second consecutive day that Baldelli got five mostly strong innings from his starter and yet went to the bullpen. In Game 1, Kenta Maeda, who had a fantastic first season with the Twins, had given up no runs, two hits, walked three and struck out five in five innings when he was lifted. Maeda, at least, was at 91 pitches.
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) September 30, 2020
Berrios, who has great stuff but at times had clearly questioned himself and lacked confidence, had nearly everything going for him on Wednesday. Baldelli had a chance to provide him with a tremendous vote of confidence and, instead, elected to do the opposite because the numbers told him that was the right call.
It was a misguided decision both in the short and long term. Stashak could have been warmed up and ready to go if Berrios struggled, but Baldelli wasn’t willing to take the chance. This isn’t to say Baldelli’s decision cost the Twins the game. The team’s offense was an embarrassment, hitting .119 (7-for-59) in the two games with two runs. Nelson Cruz doubled in each game to knock in the Twins’ only two runs of the series and other than that the club had five singles.
That’s why the Twins’ postseason losing streak has reached 18 games, extending their record for all-time playoff skids for MLB, NHL, NBA and NFL teams. But one has to wonder if Baldelli, now two years into his managerial career, is ever going to adjust his thinking when it comes to the playoffs. Baldelli goes out of his way to empower his players and treat them like adults both on the field and off.
On Wednesday, he had an opportunity to send a message to Berrios that, for one day at least, the stats be damned. The ball is yours, now go out there and continue to pitch. It could have been an absolutely key moment in Berrios’ growth. Instead, the manager told Berrios his day was done. That moment said more about the growth Baldelli needs to show than Berrios.