In ‘awesome’ spring start, Blue Jays’ Berrios rebounds from WBC struggles

Hazel Mae and Ben Nicholson-Smith discuss Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Jose Berrios' bounce-back performance against the Baltimore Orioles as well as what the Blue Jays pitching order could look like for the season opener.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Like so many others, Jose Berrios enjoyed watching the World Baseball Classic’s memorable finish. Shohei Ohtani against Mike Trout with the tournament on the line. It’s a matchup that had Berrios’s full attention.

“I mean, that was amazing,” the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander said. “One of the best pitchers against one of the best hitters. What more do you want?”

But while Trout and Ohtani performed at the peak of their abilities throughout the WBC, Berrios struggled in his lone appearance for Puerto Rico, an abbreviated start against Venezuela in which eight of the 11 hitters he faced reached. Fastball command eluded Berrios, much as it did during a 2022 season that ended with a 5.23 ERA. He allowed six runs, five of which were earned, before getting pulled.

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Far from ideal, and to further complicate matters, the WBC disrupted the typical rhythm of the 28-year-old’s ramp-up. He went 10 days between starts, throwing bullpen sessions to stay sharp but missing valuable chances to face opposing hitters.

With that in mind, Wednesday’s outing against the visiting Baltimore Orioles took on added significance. As opening day approaches, it’s becoming harder to brush aside struggles as early-spring noise and there’s also the matter of building up stamina.

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On Wednesday, Berrios delivered on both fronts, shutting Baltimore down for five-plus innings while building up to 77 pitches. He allowed some hard contact, including a home run to Terrin Vavra, and his velocity was a little lower than normal (92.8 m.p.h. compared to 94 m.p.h. a year ago) but he struck out five, generated six ground ball outs and – most importantly – established fastball command to his glove side.

“I thought he was awesome,” manager John Schneider said. “Fastball command was really good. He was making a very deliberate effort to throw that (pitch) more than he would in a game during the season. (He was) landing his breaking ball to all those lefties well. A really, really positive outing for him to build off of.”

Working with Alejandro Kirk, Berrios pitched into the sixth inning – easily the deepest he’s worked in any of his three Grapefruit League starts – while looking like someone capable of bouncing back from a disappointing 2022 campaign and returning closer to the pitcher who’s been selected to two all-star games.

“I never lost my confidence,” Berrios said afterwards. “This off-season I’ve been working so hard. I want to get great results, and today I saw it. I feel healthy and strong and my pitches worked well so I feel really good”

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To be fair, this wasn’t the Orioles’ best lineup with the likes of Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and Cedric Mullins nowhere to be found.

At the same time, it did present a real test for Berrios since seven of Baltimore’s hitters batted from the left side, including the first five. Such a configuration is rare during the regular season, though Berrios will certainly see his share of lefties after a year in which they combined to hit .298/.351/.514 against him.

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“You’ve got to adjust your game plan a little bit,” Schneider said. “That’s where the back-door breaking ball came in early and then trying to bury it back-foot late. But it comes down to the heater for him.”

In that respect, Berrios took a clear step forward. As the image below shows, he didn’t leave fastballs up over the middle of the plate – one reason the Orioles had trouble scoring. Many in the organization believe that command will be critical to the right-hander, who’s signed through 2028 on a $132-million deal.

Even beyond Berrios, the Blue Jays’ rotation continues to take shape with opening day rapidly approaching. While Mitch White was slated to throw 45 pitches in a minor-league game Wednesday, a shoulder impingement delayed his spring debut to the point that he’s behind the team’s other starters.

Under those circumstances, it’d be a major surprise if anyone other than Yusei Kikuchi broke camp as the team’s fifth starter. Following Kikuchi’s outing Thursday, Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman are slated to pitch Friday and Saturday, respectively.

While the Blue Jays aren’t expected to make an official announcement on their opening day starter until MLB’s coordinated reveal Friday, Manoah’s placement ahead of Gausman in the rotation may be telling. Unless the Blue Jays flip the two, Manoah appears to be on track to start the season opener in St. Louis against the Cardinals next Thursday, followed by Gausman next Saturday.

Wherever he slots into the Blue Jays’ rotation, Berrios remains a pivotal player for the team in 2023. As such, Wednesday’s start was certainly encouraging. But of course if one bad WBC outing shouldn’t lead to panic, one strong spring start can’t ease all concerns either.

Far bigger tests await Berrios and he knows it. Still, passing this one was a necessary step forward.

“His stuff is electric,” Schneider said. “When he’s sticking the heater, he’s really good.”

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