MINNEAPOLIS -- Shortly before spring camp shut down, Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli named Jose Berrios his Opening Day starter for March 26 in Oakland, heaping on praise while explaining why the right-handed pitcher was the right man for the task.
That game never happened after MLB shut down all camps a day later due to the spread of COVID-19. More than 3 1/2 months later, Berrios hasn’t given any reason to expect it’d be anyone but him on the mound when the Twins begin their regular season later this month.
Berrios threw three innings against some of his teammates Friday at Target Field, looking fresh. Before spring training was canceled, the Twins had been working with Berrios on increasing his stamina to sustain his high level of performance over the course of a 162-game season. Now, during a pandemic-shortened 60-game season, the hope is that Berrios will be able to ward off some of the issues that plagued him late last season.
“In spring training, I (was) doing some adjustments of my routine day-by-day so I would be in my best position at the end of the season,” Berrios said. “Right now, we only have half a season, maybe less, so I don’t want to use any excuse or anything. (I’m) just trying to be ready every game when I go out there.”
Berrios’ velocity had ticked down as the season wore on. In August through early September, he had a stretch where he gave up 33 runs (29 earned) in 32 1/3 innings. The Twins and Berrios worked on a plan, incorporating massage, using the plyo ball more, and focusing on rest and recovery while working smarter, not harder.
Over the past few months, Berrios stayed ready by facing off against his brother-in-law, Chicago Cubs all-star Javy Baez at home in Puerto Rico, as well as a few other friends. Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson gave him a plan to follow that included throwing a bullpen on Tuesdays and live batting practice on Fridays.
“I think he was up to 95, 96 (miles per hour) in his first inning,” Baldelli said of Berrios’ work on Friday. “He couldn’t look any better. He looks like a bulldog.”
While every pitcher came into the summer training camp at a different stage of progression, Berrios said he would be 100 percent when the season starts. Baldelli said he could see pitchers throwing into the middle innings of the game at the beginning of the season.
“If they let me throw a complete game, I will,” Berrios said.
Friday, he faced off against Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, Jorge Polanco and Josh Donaldson, relishing the chance to once again face high-level hitters. Donaldson said he thought Berrios looked sharp when he stepped in against him and told Cruz how uncomfortable he had felt in the past stepping in the box against Berrios.
“You know what? When you want to be the best, you need to face the best. That’s where we’re at,” Berrios said.
The best — all season long, he hopes.
“We don’t know who’s going to pitch the first day,” Berrios said. “The only thing I know, the guy who’s going to pitch that day is going to be ready. I’m preparing myself to be one of that guy. If they give me that chance, I’m going to give my 100 percent.”