Berrios keeps rolling, Guerrero Jr. delivers late as Blue Jays beat Mets

Watch as Toronto Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. pulls an RBI double down the left field line to give his team a one-run lead in the top of the ninth inning against the New York Mets.

NEW YORK — It’s no exaggeration to say this has been the most consistent stretch of Jose BerriosToronto Blue Jays career. Maybe of Jose Berrios’ career, period.

After holding the New York Mets to a run on four hits and a walk while striking out six over a half-dozen innings Saturday, Berrios now has a 2.48 ERA over his last 10 outings with just a shade below a 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That’s the second-best ERA over a 10-start span since Berrios’ MLB debut.

Better yet, he’s thrown at least five innings each time out on this run. Since 2020, only three Blue Jays pitchers have longer streaks — Alek Manoah (39), Robbie Ray (14), and Hyun Jin Ryu (14). After a couple shaky outings to begin the season, Berrios has been a rock.

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Essentially, Berrios has been the guy the Blue Jays traded two top prospects for in 2021 and signed to a seven-year, $131-million extension months later. The dude who worked to a 3.74 ERA and didn’t miss a start from the point of his minor-league recall in May 2017, through the end of 2021. The dependable, mid-rotation stabilizer. Not whoever that guy was who struggled to a 5.23 ERA and led the AL in hits and earned runs allowed last season.

That’s the macro takeaway from the Blue Jays’ 2-1 victory over the Mets on Saturday. On a micro level, Toronto’s offence squandered a host of opportunities, stranding runners in each of the first five innings before finally scratching one across in the sixth, as Alejandro Kirk (who reached base three times on the day) drove in Brandon Belt (who also reached base three times on the day) with what was then the game-tying run.

But the Blue Jays blew another opportunity in the eighth, as Cavan Biggio — pinch-running for Belt, who led off with a double — was cut down at home trying to score from third on a contact play.  Nine pitches later, with runners now on second and third, Kirk went down swinging at a David Robertson curveball to end the inning.

Ultimately, the Blue Jays went 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position and stranded 11. Not what you want. But these things happen. And it must be said that home plate umpire Charlie Ramos didn’t have a banner day, which ultimately led to Blue Jays manager John Schneider’s ejection in the top of the ninth after this first-pitch Robertson cutter to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — with a runner on second and two out — was called a strike:

Of course, it wasn’t only that pitch. As Schneider told him in somewhat less diplomatic words than these, Ramos’ strike zone was inconsistent all day in both directions:

Credit to Guerrero, though, for hanging in. He evened the count and, after swinging through another cutter, went down to get a curveball practically at his ankles and rifled it down the left-field line for a double that plated George Springer — who led off the inning with a single and swiped second — with the game-winning run. Not the prettiest swing you’ll ever see. But one that saved us from more dreaded runners-in-scoring-position dialogue, not to mention the even-more dreaded Guerrero-isn’t-producing-in-big-spots dialogue.

“It’s huge, obviously. Everyone kind of knows where he’s at. One of the best players in the game. Hopefully that at-bat can get him rolling a little bit. It’s a big spot — and he came through,” Schneider said. “He’s been grinding. There’s been some really good swings. There’s been some hard-hit balls. Results aside, I think the time of the game that it was for him and what it meant for the outcome of it is going to be big for him.”

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Guerrero certainly enjoyed the moment, thumping his chest as he pulled into second base and yelling towards his dugout.

“I was full of emotion. Especially after that bad call. And then you get that big base hit — the emotions were unbelievable,” Guerrero said through club interpreter Hector Lebron. “It was a low pitch. And when I hit it, it was basically almost with one hand. But I got barrel on it. So, when I saw the ball down the line, I said, ‘They ain’t got no chance.’”

If we’re being honest, there isn’t a Blue Jay who needed a bit of batted-ball fortune more than Guerrero. He entered the day batting .241/.270/.337 over his last 20 starts with four walks against 20 strikeouts. It’s been one of the worst slumps of his young career. The last time Guerrero hit a home run off a pitcher was nearly a month ago on May 4. And as he stepped to the plate in the ninth inning Sunday, Guerrero was 0-for-3 on the day with a walk and a three groundballs.

When Kevin Kiermaier brought Guerrero his glove from the dugout in the middle of the ninth, the veteran told the 24-year-old first baseman, “that’s the way you respond.”

“He loved that I stayed calm through the at-bat,” Guerrero said. “I was just trying to stay focused, trusting myself, talking to myself. ‘OK, you’ve got to trust yourself. I’m looking for a good pitch.’

“I always say you have to stay positive. Regardless of whether you’re struggling a little bit, going through ups and downs. Mentally, you’ve got to stay positive. And, eventually, good things are going to happen. They’re going to come.”

Maybe no one knows that better than Berrios, who’s continuing to make his roughshod 2022 look like an extreme outlier in the greater context of his MLB career.

Berrios’ recent run of success is really a constellation of minor adjustments and improvements coming together to juice his results. Mechanical tweaks that are allowing him to maintain a consistent release point. Balanced pitch usage that’s keeping hitters guessing. A hardened mentality and mindset that’s kept Berrios on the front foot attacking.

But one of the more notable ones has been fastball command. He’s greatly diminished the amount of two- and four-seamers he leaves on the fat part of the plate — a persistent issue for him in 2022. His last time out against the Twins, Berrios located over half of the fastballs he threw on the edges of the strike zone. Entering Saturday’s start, he’d dropped his sinker hard-hit rate by over 15 percentage points to a career low.

“I think he’s comfortable with his delivery and mechanics,” Schneider said before Saturday’s game. “When he’s glove-side sinker and then breaking ball or changeup after that — if he’s got command with his heater and then at least one of the other two — it’s pretty damn good. So, I think he’s confident with it right now. He’s throwing the ball with conviction. And just making pitches in the right spot of the zone.”

Another noticeable difference is the way Berrios is throwing his slurve. His average velocity on the pitch in May — 81.1-m.p.h. — was the lowest its been since 2019. That’s purposeful. Berrios has taken something off the pitch in order to give it more horizontal break and command it more effectively. In his last two starts prior to Saturday, Berrios averaged 17 inches of horizontal break on the pitch — up from the 15 inches he averaged over the six starts prior. A higher chase rate and lower hard-hit rate followed in lockstep.

“He’s really athletic and has a good feel for it,” Schneider said. “So, he can kind of manipulate it a little bit slower or a little bit harder.”

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No surprise, then, to see Berrios leaning heavily on his slurve against the Mets, throwing it nearly half the time. His velocity on the pitch ranged from as low as 75 m.p.h. to as high as 85, but his average settled right into that 81-82 mph sweet spot. Of the 41 he threw, 13 landed for called strikes while seven were whiffed at, producing a massive 49 per cent called-strike-plus-whiff rate.

For context, a league average CSW% is typically around 29 per cent. A really good one is above 35. A 49 per cent one on a starter’s most-used pitch is bonkers.

That’s how good Berrios’ slurve was Saturday, as he back-doored it up arm-side and drove it down glove-side against the five hitters in New York’s lineup batting left-handed. The four righties saw it plenty, too, typically right along the bottom edge of the zone. Berrios allowed only a Jeff McNeil single and the three walks on it all afternoon.

“He was landing it back-door at will. He was putting it out of the zone when he wanted to,” Schneider said. “[Blue Jays pitching coach] Pete [Walker] mentioned he had a really good one in the bullpen before the game. It’s a really, really good pitch. And I think the confidence that he has in that and his fastball is what has made him really consistent.”

Which is the perfect word for what Berrios has been since mid-April. The 29-year-old entered the season shrouded by questions about how he’d respond to 2022’s struggles — and didn’t exactly inspire optimism with a rocky World Baseball Classic inning and two uneven starts to begin 2023. But over 10 outings since, he’s been his old self again. The dude with the rock-solid ERA who pitches deep into games and doesn’t miss starts. The guy the Blue Jays traded for and extended. Someone you can count on — which is what his team needs most.

“That’s what we work for. We prepare ourselves to be in this position. In the beginning of the season, I had two rough starts. But that didn’t make me give up or lose my confidence. I just kept working, kept trying,” Berrios said. “The way I’ve been pitching, I have to enjoy it. But at the same time, I want to keep working and keep consistent with what I’ve been doing so far.”

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