Berrios' acquisition turning into one of most significant moves for Blue Jays

Jose Berrios pitched into the seventh inning against his former team as the Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Minnesota Twins 5-3.

Jose Berrios’ acquisition by the Toronto Blue Jays didn’t have the "wow" factor to match that of David Price’s.

The Blue Jays have made significant starting pitching adds at various points of various seasons — not just trade deadline deals. At their best, they’ve helped win titles, breathe life into expectations, and change clubhouse dynamics.

But given where the Blue Jays are with Hyun Jin Ryu and where they might be with Robbie Ray, who was a deadline acquisition last season, this winter? And given where Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., and Bo Bichette seem destined to lead this team? It sure feels as if Berrios could become one of the most significant.

Facing the team that made him the 32nd choice overall in the 2012 draft and for whom he was a two-time all-star, Berrios made a five-run Blue Jays first hold up the rest of the way Sunday en route to a 5-3 win over the Minnesota Twins at the Rogers Centre, meaning that the Blue Jays hold down one of two American League wild-card spots going into a three-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays starting Monday in St. Petersburg, Fla.

It was the Blue Jays' seventh consecutive series win, their 15th in 18 games and their 21st in 30 games at the Rogers Centre.

Berrios’ outing came a little more than 90 minutes after Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins told a dug-out scrum that the team had put Ryu, the team's Opening Day starter, on the 10-day IL with what Atkins described as a neck strain. So as important as his performance – three runs on four hits with six strikeouts and a walk – was the fact Berrios said the abdominal issue that surfaced during his previous start was gone.

When the Blue Jays and Twins finalized the trade that saw Berrios join the Blue Jays for prospects Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson, Twins executive vice-president and chief baseball officer Derek Falvey sent a text to a friend in the Blue Jays organization raving about the quality of player and person they were getting. And Blue Jays officials have made clear – on and off the record – that they will put on a full-court press to get Berrios inked to an extension.

Berrios has one year left on his contract, but talks could begin as early as this off-season, in fact, should Ray leave as a free agent.

Berrios (12-8) exited after giving up a two-out home run to Ben Rortvedt in the seventh inning. As he did in his previous start at the Rogers Centre, Berrios tipped his cap in acknowledgement of the ovation he received from the 14,601 in attendance. He also pointed with his glove to the Twins dugout, acknowledging his former teammates. Manager Rocco Baldelli and several players applauded in return.

“I never had a day like that before,” said Berrios. “My mom called me yesterday and said: ‘Just do your work.’ I said: ‘Yes, mom, but they’re still like my good friends.'”

With Luke Farrell (1-1) starting in what was for the Twins a designated bullpen day, the Blue Jays batted around in the bottom of the first, with Bichette’s two-run home run keying the assault on an afternoon where Guerrero, Jr., went 3-for-4 with an RBI.

Bichette’s homer was his 26th, tying Tony Batista (1999) for the most homers in a season by a Blue Jays shortstop. Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., had a first-inning RBI single that gave him 27 RBIs in September, tying Willie Upshaw for the second-most in club history, three back of Kelly Gruber’s franchise record of 30 set in 1990.

Guerrero and Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson – who was named AL MVP in 2015 with the Blue Jays - exchanged signed jerseys behind home plate after the game, with Guerrero telling Sportsnet’s Hazel Mae: “Donaldson has been great to me since I was in spring training. He always helped me at third base.” Asked about Donaldson’s public support in his MVP bid, Guerrero added: “I mean, it feels great. He won it in 2015. I’m gonna keep working hard and stay focussed.”

Ryu’s last two starts were 2 1/3 and two innings, respectively, in which he allowed 13 hits and 12 earned runs. Atkins said that the neck strain was not related to the forearm tightness Ryu felt in his start before his two poor outings and added that the pitcher did not undergo an MRI before making the decision. Ryu, who started Friday, reported neck stiffness on Saturday morning after reporting.

“It wasn’t anything he felt pitching,” said Atkins. “At this point in the season, we just didn’t want to push through.”

Manager Charlie Montoyo said the Blue Jays would go with a bullpen day on Ryu’s next scheduled turn – Wednesday – but indicated Ross Stripling is an option, too. It’s possible Stripling could be used as the bulk pitcher in that game. In the meantime, reliever Tayler Saucedo was recalled from triple-A Buffalo to take Ryu’s roster spot.

The last — and only — time Ryu had back-to-back outings as poor as his last two was the end of the 2017 season when he went 5-9 (3.77) and was left off the Los Angeles Dodgers roster for all three post-season series, including their World Series loss to the Houston Astros. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts elected to go with a four-man rotation. He did take one starter to bolster the bullpen: Kenta Maeda. Ryu’s shaky final outings cost him a spot, even though at one point his second-half ERA was the best among Dodgers starters, in what was his first full season since 2014 due to shoulder and elbow injuries.

“He’s been one of our aces the last few years,” Montoyo said of Ryu. “Hopefully this won’t take that long.”

Asked what Berrios’ acquisition has meant, Montoyo said: “Join the club. Ray has been awesome. (Steven) Matz has been awesome, (Alek) Manoah has been awesome. He’s a guy who when he pitches, he gives us a chance to win. You cannot ask more than that.”

And so it’s on to Tampa. Berrios’ next start will again be against the Twins in Minnesota. His start after that will be at the Rogers Centre against the New York Yankees and he would get the ball if a 163rd, tie-breaker game is needed.

“I know it’s still a long way to go but since Jose got here, he’s been helping a lot,” said Guerrero. “He’s been great for the team pitching and in the clubhouse. He’s a hard worker, I’ll tell you that. A hard worker who helps us every time he goes out there.”

The Blue Jays went 42-18 after acquiring Price in 2015, with Price pitching to a 2.30 ERA en route to the playoffs, where he spit out the bit. He was so much of a flop that he effectively lost the trust of manager John Gibbons, then bolted as a free agent.

Since joining the Blue Jays, Berrios is 5-3 (3.39) with 61 strikeouts. His arrival has helped cement one of the best rotations in the majors — with the trickle-down effect being a more rested and robust bullpen. That was again the case Sunday, with Trevor Richards keeping the Twins at bay after Rortvedt’s homer and Jordan Romano collecting his 19th save, inducing Jake Cave to ground out to first after hitting Nick Gordon with a two-strike, two-out pitch.

When the Blue Jays signed Ryu to a four-year, $80 million contract before the start of the 2019 season, they did so knowing that it was likely Ryu would not be their ace by the time the contract ended — due to the (hopefully) emergence of in-house options and, yes, trades. But even before this IL stint, Ryu had become the least effective member of one of the majors’ best rotation. It’s doubtful they foresaw that happening, but Berrios has made it a little less worrisome in the short term while offering an exciting long-term option.

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