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Zulgad: Reality check: Jose Berrios' rocky start to season is latest indication he might never be an ace

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Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Jose Berrios throws to the Kansas City Royals in the second inning of game two of a baseball double-header Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

MINNEAPOLIS — Jose Berrios has represented the Twins in two All-Star Games, made two Opening Day starts and mixed in a few dazzling outings. What Berrios hasn’t done is shown the ability to become the pitcher so many expected when he arrived at Target Field in 2016.

The feeling then was that one day (and by now) Berrios would be the homegrown ace of the Twins’ starting staff. Not just Minnesota’s top pitcher, but the type of guy who operates in the exclusive company of the few real big-league aces that exist.

The 26-year-old righthander has shown flashes of getting there, but flashes aren’t enough and his five starts this season have to be considered a disappointment by the Twins’ brass and manager Rocco Baldelli. The latest setback came Saturday as Berrios started the second game of the Twins’ doubleheader against the Kansas City Royals at Target Field.

The teams had been rained out on Friday — forcing two seven-inning games. The Twins won the opener, 4-2, to take the first of the four-game series. This came a weekend after the Twins were swept by the retooling Royals in Kansas City. That series ended last Sunday with Berrios giving up two runs in the first inning and four runs total in a 4-2 loss.

Berrios faced six hitters in the first inning of that game. On Saturday, in what became another 4-2 Twins loss, Berrios did the same and although he did not give up a run, he did load the bases before getting Maikel Franco on a 94-mile-per-hour sinker on a 3-2 pitch. Berrios brought his glove to his face after the strikeout and let out a yell.

It was difficult to tell if Berrios was celebrating getting out of the jam or expressing frustration for again finding himself in that situation. If it wasn’t the latter, it should have been. Berrios surrendered a run to tie the score in the top of the second inning after giving up two hits to the bottom of the Kansas City order, and Whit Merrifield broke the tie in the top of the fourth inning with a three-run homer to left on a curveball. Berrios had walked two before Merrifield’s deep drive. The homer came immediately after pitching coach Wes Johnson had made his second trip of the game to the mound to try to settle down Berrios.

Berrios’ start marked the second time this season that he lasted only four innings. His final line this time: Four innings, five hits, four runs, four walks and seven strikeouts. The walk total was a season high. Berrios entered Saturday with an unimpressive 5.32 ERA and left with that figure having bloated to 5.92. He is now 1-3.

Baldelli, who never criticizes a struggling player, defended Berrios after Saturday’s loss. “His stuff has been good,” Baldelli said. “We saw the swings and misses and the strikeouts today. Those are encouraging things. You know what he has and the stuff looks like Jose. That’s what he brings to the table every time he starts. It’s just that the execution isn’t exactly where he wants it to be.”

Berrios’ struggles since this 60-game season started on July 24 have been reminiscent of his struggles around the same time last year. In six starts from Aug. 6 to Sept. 4 of 2019, Berrios went 1-3 with an 8.07 ERA, giving up 29 earned runs in 32.1 innings. He then rebounded in his final four starts of the regular season to post a 3-0 record with a 3.08 ERA, giving up nine earned runs in 26.1 innings.

The speculation was that Berrios’ grueling offseason work had backfired and tired him out as the season progressed. The Twins made some adjustments in Berrios’ workload last winter and the hope was that he would have more success in August 2020. That, of course, was before COVID-19 shut down the season until late July, so while Berrios’ struggles resemble last season, there is absolutely no reason why he has looked so shaky.

The guy has fantastic stuff when he’s on, but he doesn’t look like a guy who trusts that stuff right now or has full command of it. Shortly after the pandemic shut down baseball, Berrios reportedly worked on changing the trajectory of his changeup and curveball as complementary pitches to his four-seam fastball. He also said after Saturday’s loss that he had shifted more toward the third base side of the pitching rubber this season to help himself.

That’s the thing with Berrios. His work ethic has never been the problem, his confidence seems to be another matter.

The issue is in which direction the Twins want to go with Berrios. He will be eligible for arbitration in 2021 and can become a free agent two years after that. It has been no secret that Berrios wants to be rewarded with the type of contract given to a guy who has turned himself into an All-Star. He also would like the type of financial windfall that comes with being an ace. Unfortunately, for Berrios and the Twins, it’s looking more and more like the ace part will never happen.