Berrios’ bounce back for Blue Jays in win over Yankees shows fighting spirit

NEW YORK — Jose Berrios knows he can’t be himself on the mound. Day-to-day, just moving through life, he’s warm, breezy, affable. He’ll ask you how your day’s going, make eye contact, give you a little time no matter how big or small your role is around him. But out on that field? Confronting the baddest, most-talented hitters on the planet? With tens of thousands screaming at him from every direction? He has to be someone else.

“I change. When I step on the mound, I try to not be a great person,” Berrios says. “It’s hard for me. Because that’s not who I am every day. But when we go out there and try to compete and get hitters out, I have to change. I can’t be nice. I can’t be a friend.”

So, how does he get there? What flips the switch? First, Berrios will look for something from the other team. Maybe a player who’s taunted him in the past. Someone that shot chirps from the dugout. A comment, a glare, any motivation to put that guy in his place. But it’s not always there. Some teams he just doesn’t have that much history with. A lot of guys he plays against are friends.

That’s when Berrios thinks of his kids. His daughter, Valentina, and two sons, Sebastian and Diego Jose. They’re who he does it all for. He wears their initials on the chain around his neck and the custom cleats on his feet. They’re why he’s worked so hard to overhaul his physical and mental approach to the game throughout his career. Why he’s so obsessive over his conditioning, sleep, nutrition, and any other marginal edge that could allow him to continue making 32 starts year after year. He wants them to have what he didn’t when he was their age, growing up in Bayamon, Puerto Rico without any reason to believe he’d arrive at the position he’s in today.

“I want the best for them. So, I have to do good. I have to push myself to the next level. If I don’t have the energy, or I don’t feel 100 per cent, I think of them and they push me to get to that level,” Berrios says. “That’s why I do what I do when I wake up every morning. Obviously, I love playing baseball. I’m passionate about what I do. But, at the same time, now I’ve got purpose, I’ve got reason to keep working. To wake up every morning and go and put 100 per cent into everything I do.”

Not that there was a motivation deficit Wednesday. Not after five nights spent stewing over the worst start of his MLB career, when he took the mound on opening day at Rogers Centre and left 34 pitches, four runs, and one out later. Not as he entered his second start of the season with a triple-digit ERA, a fractional innings pitched total, and unquantifiable amounts of mortification after flaming out so spectacularly in his debut. You don’t need anything extra to get up for a start like that.

And, if anything, Berrios’ problem last time was being too up for it. He was over-throwing. Trying to be make each pitch nastier than the last. It was his undoing, as curveballs spun off into the dirt and fastballs drifted over the heart of the plate rather than towards its edges. Just as Trevor Wittman told Justin Gaethje when he was fighting Tony Ferguson at UFC 249, Berrios needed to “take 10 per cent off” everything he was throwing. Precision beats power; timing beats speed.

Which is why it was so interesting to see Berrios take the hill Wednesday throwing a fastball that averaged 93-m.p.h., down a couple ticks from the 95 he averaged in his debut. He still ran it up to 96 when he needed to, but he spent his night pitching rather than throwing, dotting four-seamers in on the bodyline of right-handers before spinning breaking balls off the ends of their bats. He took a mile-and-a-half off that curveball, too, and 100 RPM off its spin rate. Usually, those are concerning signs for a pitcher. But on this occasion, it was an adjustment.

That’s how Berrios recovered from Friday’s nightmare outing, doing more with less to allow three earned over five innings in a 6-4 Blue Jays victory over the New York Yankees. He wasn’t exceptional, walking a couple more than he’d like, and leaving a few too many fastballs over the heart of the plate, which was how a scoreless-through-four night came undone in the fifth, as the Yankees went homer-homer, double-double to plate three. But he was better. He was a lot more like himself.

There were 10 swinging strikes, six with the curveball. There were well-spotted sinkers Alejandro Kirk vacuumed up at the bottom of the zone for called strikes. There was a PitchCom malfunction in the fourth that disrupted his rhythm, forcing Kirk to game call the old-fashioned way.

And there was Vladimir Guerrero Jr. A moment, please, to discuss his evening. He took Gerrit Cole deep a dozen pitches into the game, parking a hung slider 416-feet over the wall in dead centre. He had his right hand trampled by Aaron Hicks an inning later while attempting a pick at first base, leaving the field of play momentarily to have a bloody, open wound temporarily trussed. He came back up to the plate against Cole an inning after that and hit one of the more absurd bombs you’re ever going to see.

That’s a 98-m.p.h. fastball running a good six inches in off the plate. The sheer audacity to even swing at it, let alone dent the bullpen’s back wall. Goodness. And what’d he do facing the best pitcher on the planet a third time? He falls behind, 0-2, cuts down his swing, claps another 98-mph heater into the opposite field corner, and makes him tip his cap.

Oh, and he came up again in the eighth:

First pitch, 95 middle-in, 443-feet into the night. What’s left to even say about this anymore? Is he Miguel Cabrera? He might be Miguel Cabrera. He might be better. He ended the game snaring a 108-m.p.h. Josh Donaldson liner at first, too, because, why not? Turns out precision beats power. And timing beats speed.

Which brings us back to Berrios. Back to the mental resilience he displayed Wednesday, pitching on hostile ground, making a significant between-starts adjustment, doing what’s made him one of baseball’s most reliable and consistent starters five year’s running.

He didn’t always know how to do that stuff. He only learned it in his 20’s. Remember, Berrios came to this late in life. Growing up, he couldn’t have imagined this reality. How could he? He’s not a product of privilege. He never even dreamed of pitching in the majors. It was too unrealistic. He dreamed of being a bat boy.

“Because the bat boy gets to be around baseball players and baseball every day. And I saw that and I thought, it’s easier to get to be a bat boy, you know what I mean?” Berrios says. “I said, hey, he gets to be at the ballpark every day. And I want to be there, too.”

Even as he became a young adult and flashed real potential as a pitcher, Berrios still limited his dreams to merely playing professionally. Maybe a little winterball somewhere in the Caribbean. It wasn’t until he signed his first deal with the Minnesota Twins in 2012 that Berrios actually let himself believe he could be a big-leaguer.

But getting there was only the start. Berrios struggled immensely during his rookie 2016 season, pitching to an 8.02 ERA over 14 starts with strikeout (17.4 per cent) and walk (12.5) rates that look almost unbelievable in hindsight considering the pitcher he’s been since. But Berrios was a different guy then. Not so much physically, but mentally.

He hadn’t yet learned how to focus through adversity and channel his emotions on the mound. When difficult in-game situations presented themselves, he didn’t mitigate the damage, he let it spiral. Returning to Puerto Rico that winter, Berrios knew he had to overhaul his approach.

“That was a tough, rough year for me. I didn’t pitch well. But it taught me and helped me grow — like a man, like a pitcher,” he says. “That off-season, I worked on myself. Mostly mentally.”

That’s when he built up the armour needed to rebound from a disastrous start like last week’s. He learned to let himself sit in the sting of adversity for a bit, to process the emotions and put them in perspective. He vowed not to criticize himself in the abstract — ‘I’m not good enough, I don’t belong in the majors’ — only in the material. Was his release point off? Was he over-throwing? Was he tipping pitches?

He learned to focus on the effort he put in rather than the results. He couldn’t control what occurred once the ball left his hand. But he could control every little thing that happened before. His preparation, his routines, his focus. His confidence, his compete level. The mentality he brought with him to the ballpark every start day.

He carried that reworked mental approach into 2017, when he began his season at triple-A and had to fight his way back to the majors. And when he finally did six weeks later, it all clicked. He worked 7.2 innings of two-hit, one-run ball in a gutsy effort on the road against Cleveland, a team that went on to win 102 games that season. He’ll never forget that day.

“May 13, 2017,” Berrios says. “That day, I said now I see myself pitching in this league for many years.”

Rallying outings like Wednesday’s are how you pitch in this league for many years. And transcendent nights like Guerrero’s are how you hit there, too. Precision, timing, unbelievable ability. Two special players, special in their own ways.

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