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Opinion | Can the Blue Jays afford to depend on José Berrios in the playoffs? Right now, the answer is no

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ST. PETERSBURG—The Blue Jays’ crucial four-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays got off to an inauspicious start and once again most of the blame fell on the right arm of José Berrios.

The Jays’ opening day starter hit yet another bump on what has been a treacherous road through the 2022 season. Every time there appears to be a glimmer of hope that the high-upside starter has figured out his issues, something happens that causes the doubts to start creeping back in.

Berrios was charged with six runs on seven hits across just two innings of work in the Jays’ 10-5 lopsided defeat at the hands of the Rays on Thursday night. The loss dropped the Jays lead over Tampa Bay in the wild card standings to just one game while the Seattle Mariners pulled to within 1 1/2 with 12 games remaining.

“I think early in the year, yeah it was a bit inconsistent,” Jays manager John Schneider said of Berrios following Thursday’s loss. “Today was just a bit weird with getting ahead and then not putting guys away. Minus the leadoff homer, it wasn’t balls hit terribly hard … Compared to earlier in the year, where he is right now, different story. I think he just wasn’t putting guys away tonight.”

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Berrios was supposed to be the Jays’ best pitcher this season and the leader of their staff. It’s why general manager Ross Atkins orchestrated a big mid-season deal to acquire him a year ago for a package of promising prospects and it’s why the Jays later handed Berrios a seven-year contract worth $131 million (U.S.) to make sure he didn’t get away.

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Instead of becoming the Jays’ ace, the 28-year-old has surprisingly turned into one of their biggest liabilities. Thursday’s outing marked the eighth time this season he allowed at least five runs, which equates to more than a quarter of his outings. Among the 46 qualified big-league starters, Berrios ranks last with a 5.27 ERA. Prior to this year, he never pitched a full season with an ERA above 3.89.

The issues were present again on Thursday. After being staked to an early 1-0 lead, Berrios coughed up three runs in the first and three more in the second before he was pulled from the game. Tampa Bay’s Jonathan Aranda homered but this outing was death by 1,000 papercuts as the Rays hit one double and six singles to take a commanding lead they would not relinquish.

The problem, as it has been for much of the season, was Berrios’ inability to miss bats with his fastball. He got 17 swings on his sinker from the Rays with just one whiff. The four-seamer wasn’t much better with three whiffs, yet velocity wasn’t an issue with across-the-board numbers that were slightly above his season averages.

“I’m going to come back,” Berrios said. “I felt strong my last two outings and I know we’re in the last stretch so I want to help my team. I want to turn the page on tonight and keep moving forward … I’ve been throwing pretty well, so I want to keep that (confidence), hopefully through the next one and through November.”

Even more concerning than Berrios’ jarring ERA has been his inability to keep the Jays in games when he doesn’t have his best stuff. If one of his non-competitive starts happens in the playoffs, it could be enough to bring a premature end to the Jays’ season. Trust is a big thing this time of the year and right now the Jays don’t have it with their prized starter.

As mentioned before in this space, the situation is reminiscent of 2015 when opening day starter R.A. Dickey fell out of favour following a series of periodic blowups. After a breakdown in faith, former manager John Gibbons used Dickey in the post-season only because he had to.

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In the ALDS, Gibbons brought David Price out of the bullpen to protect a six-run lead in the fifth inning because he didn’t have enough confidence in Dickey. In the ALCS, the knuckleballer lost a pivotal Game 4 matchup against the Kansas City Royals after allowing five runs over 1 2/3 innings. Leading into that post-season, Dickey allowed five or more runs in eight starts. Through 30 appearances, Berrios has the same number.

The most discouraging part of Thursday’s performance for the Jays was that Berrios appeared to be over some of the problems that previously plagued him. He was 3-0 with a 2.95 ERA while tossing at least six innings in all but one of his last six starts. That seemed to solidify his spot in the Jays’ post-season rotation, yet his latest performance might have erased all that progress.

If the Jays make it to Game 3 of a wild card series, they’ll likely have to choose between Berrios and Ross Stripling as their starter. Until recently, the consensus would have been Berrios. Now it might be Stripling, who offers more reliability and has a better ERA by more than two runs.

“There have been some ups and downs for him this season for sure,” Schneider said of Berrios. “But I think when you’re at this point in the season you’re looking for lately and I think lately he has been really good. You trust a guy with a really good track record in the big leagues to flush it and move on.”

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The Jays have a lot of business to take care of before they can afford to worry about post-season matchups, but that Berrios’s spot is even remotely in jeopardy shows how far he has fallen since April.

At the start of the year, Berrios was the clear-cut choice to lead the Jays’ rotation. As the playoffs approach, he might now be the obvious choice to be taken off the starting staff entirely. That’s not how Berrios, the Jays, or anyone else for that matter, expected this year to go.

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