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Home runs bite José Berríos in loss

TORONTO — For years, José Berríos built a reputation on being one of the most predictable pitchers in baseball. He still is, but not in the way you’re hoping.

Berríos was rocked by the Guardians Friday, allowing eight runs over four innings in the lopsided, 8-0 loss at Rogers Centre. It’s been a stunning turn for Berríos, who pitched with remarkable consistency from 2017-21, and his ability to rediscover himself is the single biggest factor facing this team down the stretch.

It all started so well, too, which we’ve said a dozen different times about Berríos in ’22. He breezed through the first two innings on just 21 pitches, setting the table for a quick, tight game, but then the wheels fell off. And once they fell off, the air was sucked out of the offense, the stadium and the game itself.

“He’s frustrated,” Blue Jays interim manager John Schneider said after the loss. “He’s trying. He’s working his ass off and he’s trying hard. Hopefully the next one is better, but I think it gets a little bit frustrating [for Berríos] when it’s kind of been the same thing over and over.”

When Berríos walked off the mound Friday, he owned a 5.61 ERA. Of the 58 qualified starters in Major League Baseball, that ranks him dead last, and it’s not particularly close. Only one other qualified starter, Germán Márquez (5.08), has an ERA over five. For the five seasons prior to this, Berríos’ ERA landed between 3.52 and 4.00 each season, with the 4.00 coming in the shortened ’20 campaign.

What’s been frustrating for Berríos and anyone watching has been how narrow these misses are. These don’t mirror the struggles of teammate Yusei Kikuchi, who has lost the zone completely at times. Instead, Berríos tends to be inches off, but his mistakes over the plate are getting crushed.

That bit Berríos again Friday. First was Josh Naylor with a two-run shot to cap a five-run third inning. In the very next frame, José Ramírez took Berríos deep for a three-run shot. Berríos has now allowed 26 home runs, second in baseball behind only Josiah Gray. It already ties Berríos’ career high, and it’s only Aug. 12.

“I don’t feel happy right now with the way I’ve been throwing my last two starts,” Berríos said. “I always have that on my mind. I’m a competitive guy and I want to go out there and do well. I don’t feel happy.”

This gets to some of the broader inconsistencies facing the Blue Jays. They’re still 60-51, holding a Wild Card spot, but that race is uncomfortably tight, magnifying every misstep. Toronto’s lineup is one of the best in baseball, and while there will still be days that the Blue Jays lack the firepower necessary at the back end of their bullpen, the uneven performances from this rotation are most worrying.

Beyond Berríos, the Blue Jays have dealt with Kikuchi’s struggles, currently owning a 5.13 ERA. Mitch White, who starts Saturday, is filling in for Ross Stripling, who pitched five shutout innings in a Triple-A rehab start Friday. Stripling’s return will help, but between Berríos and Kikuchi, the Blue Jays will still be rolling the dice two out of every five days.

Kikuchi’s inconsistencies are tough on a three-year, $36 million deal. On Berríos’ seven-year, $131 million extension? It’s been shocking. There’s a reason Berríos earned that deal, though, which was viewed positively at the time, and that’s where the club’s optimism still lies.

“We still think he’s a great pitcher,” Schneider said. “Obviously, we believe in him very, very much. Hopefully he turns it around, but he’s a guy we’re going to bank on not only this year, but going forward for a lot of years. We have confidence he’s going to get it figured out.”

Even with how poorly this season has gone, Berríos’ career points to Schneider being right. It’s far likelier Berríos rebounds instead of living in this rut ​​forever, but it’s a matter of timing at this point.

The Blue Jays are positioned to be in a tight race down to the very last day, and as we learned in ’21, the very last day can be what decides it all. Berríos is the Blue Jays’ clear best chance at having a “big three” in the postseason alongside Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah, but first, Berríos and the Blue Jays need to reach the big stage playing their best baseball.