TORONTO – José Berrios uncorked some bottled-up emotions during last Tuesday’s start at Rogers Centre.
For the first time in what felt like forever, the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander was thriving on the mound. He exploded for three strikeouts in the first frame, hitting 97 mph with his heater, and the passion intensified as the night went on. A perfectly placed breaking ball in the sixth for another punchout – one of nine on the evening – prompted an emphatic pivot off the mound and a scream into his glove.
"I'm feeling like I can throw the ball where I want it and how I want it," Berríos said after carving up the Chicago White Sox for seven shutout innings. "I've been manipulating my velocity with the fastball [and] being really aggressive all the time."
Berríos finally feels in control, and that even-keeled headspace allows his intensity to bubble out. He’s tapped back into the swagger that made him so effective earlier in his MLB career, and the 1.42 ERA in his last three outings proves it. But, over the last two seasons, it’s been a grind to achieve even just a short moment of bliss.
“He’s his [own] harshest critic,” manager John Schneider said of Berríos. “And he was extremely accountable to some rough starts and … I think like any player, hitter, or pitcher, when it's not really going your way, you can kind of let it eat at you a little bit, but he never got down or lost confidence in himself.”
Berríos took last year (and his 5.23 ERA) very hard, but his Blue Jays teammates never questioned him. The 28-year-old will receive plenty of support as he climbs the mountain again in 2023, but this early success is a product of his own diligent work.
“He’s a star, man, and he’s got great stuff,” said catcher Danny Jansen, who was behind the plate Tuesday. “I just try to lead him with the presence of fastballs away and getting out there just to limit the misses … but he’s a dog, so he’s obviously great at what he does.”
There have been many tangible components in Berríos’s come-up. He’s developed his changeup into a massive swing-and-miss weapon and opposing hitters are slugging just .333 off him, but there are other factors at play.
Last season was the first year of his seven-year, $131-million extension with Toronto, and it wasn’t outrageous to suggest he became too comfortable after snagging a big payday. Kevin Gausman, however, didn’t think that was the case.
“I think it's the exact opposite,” Gausman said. “I think you want to prove that you’re worth it, right? That’s the way I look at it.”
Gausman’s theory makes sense. There were grand expectations for Berríos, who got the ball on Opening Day in 2022 but never really established his footing. These last three smooth starts have put the Puerto Rican’s mind at ease and opened him up to enjoying life off the field.
And a big part of Berríos’s rhythm comes from the camaraderie in the starting rotation. Much of that chemistry was nurtured last year, but the addition of Chris Bassitt has further stabilized this group. The five amigos now spend tons of time together eating meals, goofing off, and chatting pitching. The vibes have been immaculate, too, as Blue Jays starters have enjoyed an impressive run of success over the past two weeks.
“They're competitive; they're close,” Schneider said of his rotation. “They talk a lot about what they're doing and how they're doing it, what's working for them. [They’re] obviously different pitchers, but I think it gets a little bit contagious, just like it can with an offence, when you get on a roll like this.”
Gausman said this Blue Jays rotation is different than the staffs from earlier in his career.
“All these guys are gamers and love the process and love all the little things that go into it,” the right-hander said. “So I think that makes them a little bit more competitive than maybe other teams that I've been on.”
For everyone’s sake, the Blue Jays hope their rotation continues to pitch with conviction and twirl gems as the 162-game season chugs along. Thanks to a fully charged Berríos and Yusei Kikuchi on the back end, the club’s ceiling, which is already sky-high thanks to a punchy offence, grows with every sparkling outing.