Berrios decision will linger with disappointed Blue Jays fanbase
Special performances at special moments seems a thing of the past
The misguided decision by the Blue Jays to prematurely remove starter Jose Berrios from Game 2 of the Wildcard Series on Wednesday, after 47 pitches, while he was dominating the Twins, was always going to be wrong. It was wrong at the time. It is wrong now and the wrongness is not clouded by the fact it resulted in a 2-0 loss and post-season elimination. A sour taste will surely linger with the club’s fanbase far into the future as they individually must consider whether they can ever truly give themselves heart and soul to this group again.
This Berrios gaffe was likely not the manager’s decision, nor the pitching coach. It was more likely a strategic, organizational move to take Berrios out after 12 hitters, at a time that was leading towards, perhaps, the defining moment of a classy, sublime pitching career. The 29-year-old righthander has felt pressure before and no matter what a computer may tell you, baseball is a game of emotion, littered with an array of ordinary players stepping up in the glare of the post-season spotlight to accomplish extraordinary things, outperforming logic.
Need extraordinary? Think of Jack Morris in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, pitching a 10-inning complete game, insisting to manager Tom Kelley, that he be allowed to finish what he started in the biggest of moments, at a time when the Twins bullpen was ready to step in.
Want unlikely? Consider a gimpy Kirk Gibson in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series hobbling to the plate as a pinch-hitter against future Hall-of-Fame closer, Dennis Eckersley, launching a game-winning homer and punching the air as he limped around the bases. He was not healthy enough to play. What would the computer have recommended at that moment?
Seeking special? Remember journeyman Yankees righthander Don Larsen, handed the ball in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, on only two days of rest, posting the first and only perfect game in Fall Classic history. He had been out late with friends and showed up at Yankee Stadium to find the game ball in his shoe, signalling that he had this start vs. the Dodgers.
Given the Berrios quick hook, at a time he had something special going on, it seems perhaps the human element is becoming less of a factor and is being unintentionally exorcised from the sport.
Think about the illogic of the Berrios logic. All year, the Jays have been touting the strength of this five-man rotation as one of the best in the majors. They have been right about that. Four veteran starters with 30-plus starts, all healthy, all year, and combining as being good enough for 89 team wins, despite wildly inconsistent offensive support. These starters need to be your guys in October.
Let’s examine the facts. In order to reach the ultimate championship goal, a wildcard team needs 13 wins through four series. The Berrios game would only have been the Jays’ first of those 13 W’s. The front office group, in making this Berrios/Kikuchi decision, treated it as if they had never had their backs to the wall. The marathon is over. Trust your players in the sprint. Dance with the ones that brung you. You are not going to be ahead in every series and you have won two in a row many times.
Here is a detailed summary of what went down in Game 2 and why.
Berrios breezed through three innings, allowing three weak hits, requiring just 39 pitches. He was fuelled by talent, adrenaline and motivation that may have allowed his overall performance on this day to rise above any in the regular season. He was facing the team that drafted him and was pitching in the ballpark he had grown up in as a major-leaguer, with 33 career wins at Target Field.
Every time on Wednesday that Jose finished an inning and strode off the hill, his fist pumps and primal yells showed how much this game meant. His body language screamed “This is my game” while his pitch count seemed like seven innings was within reach. There were no runs scored through three, but he was at his best, matching Sonny Gray – even more dominant than the Twins’ veteran. If later in the game, Berrios was in trouble, yielding a couple, maybe even three runs, the Jays had a trio of lefties in the bullpen ready to go. But computers can’t deal with emotions.
The Jays already had their pro-active plan. It seems they wanted to show how smart the front office was. They clearly had pre-planned, no matter what unfolded. They would bring lefthander Yusei Kikuchi into the game, the second time through, at a point the Twins lineup reached the cleanup spot held by lefty-swinging Max Kepler. They knew Kepler would not be pinch-hit for, but the right fielder led off a sequence of three out of four lefthanded hitters and the Jays felt they might get Twins manager Rocco Baldelli to pinch-hit for Alex Kiriloff and Matt Wallner.
The logic then was that, when the Jays had the lead in the eighth/ninth innings, righthanders, Jordan Romano, Jordan Hicks and Erik Swanson would not have those pesky lefthanded bats to face. Wait a second. So, getting Kiriloff and Wallner out of the lineup was that important to the Jays planning? We’re not talking Rod Carew and Tony Oliva. Call that Overthinking 101.
Here’s another basic point of humanity that can’t be measured in anyone’s database. Consider the Jays were matching up with another team’s equally highly-regarded rotation that on this day featured Sonny Gray. The revised perception after lifting Berrios may have been in the Twins dugout that, they are trying to trick the result by playing a left-right matchup and it’s only the fourth. Basically, the interpretation might have been, following the Kikuchi for Berrios move that the Jays were saying, “Hey Twins, we feel your guy is better than ours.” It’s a bad message that could have also been deflating and percolated in the Jays dugout.
To be clear, Berrios was not surprised that the move to Kikuchi was going to happen. The plan would likely have been communicated to him in some form or another, at some pre-game meeting by the coaching staff. But he would likely have been surprised by the timing of his removal. How about letting him go twice through the order, the way he was dealing at his finest. Save Kikuchi for Game 3 if Chris Bassitt struggles.
If ever a pitcher had earned the right to stay in a game, Berrios on Wednesday was it. When John Schneider came to get him, Jose did not look directly at the manager, simply handing him the ball, offering sincere, spirited backslaps and fist bumps to teammates gathered on the hill for the change, then walking dejectedly to the dugout looking up briefly to acknowledge the bi-partisan ovation from the crowd of Twins and Jays supporters who appreciated his performance.
What separates baseball from other major sports is baseball’s special moments from any era can readily and effortlessly be brought up from a mind’s eye library to be relived and enjoyed. These memory-bank moments are lasting, easy to describe and ready to be handed down to the next generation. Hopefully for the Jays, this defining Berrios moment will pass quickly and can be replaced by some positive moments, moving forward. But it’s going to take hard work for the Jays, to get past this post-season misplay both with their fans and the players.