Jose Berrios is a two-time All-Star, a maniacal worker, a career overachiever and the ace of a team coming off a 101-victory season.
But is he a league ace, or just a team ace?
That question may finally be answered this season. And after two starts in this strange, empty-ballpark, virtual-fan season, Berrios still has much to prove.
Thursday night at Target Field, Berrios allowed just two runs in five innings, taking the loss as Cleveland beat the Twins 2-0 before zero actual fans, or 50,000 drunken mannequins if you were watching the FOX broadcast.
Over his first two starts of the season, Berrios is 0-1 with a 7.00 ERA.
Small sample size? Sure. But this season will be a small sample size, and someone will get a trophy at the end.
What could prompt worry is that Berrios hasn’t put together a dominant month since last July.
Last August, his ERA was 7.57. For the rest of the 2019 regular season, it was 4.31. In his playoff start at Yankee Stadium, he allowed just one earned run, but left after four innings.
His ERAs the last three seasons: 3.89, 3.84 and 3.68.
Every big-league team would want Berrios on its staff.
How many playoff teams would want him as their ace?
To ask so much of Berrios may seem unfair, except that he wants to be paid like an ace, and seems to crave the responsibilities of an ace.
Berrios finds himself in this position in part because the Twins have done such a terrible job for so long when it comes to developing starting pitchers.
When they went to the playoffs in 2010, four of their top five starters were products of their farm system They are expected to make the playoffs this year with a starting rotation that includes two free agents (Homer Bailey and Rich Hill) and two products of trades (Jake Odorizzi and Kenta Maeda).
If the Twins had developed a true ace this decade, Berrios might be viewed as an exceptional No. 2 starter. Or No. 3, considering the way Odorizzi pitched last year.
Instead, the Twins were reminded on Thursday of what a true ace looks like. Last year, Shane Bieber posted a 3.28 ERA while pitching three complete games and two shutouts. Berrios had one complete game and no shutouts.
Thursday, Bieber left after eight innings and 102 pitches, having allowed three hits and striking out 13. And he did it against a team that set a big-league record for home runs last year, then added Josh Donaldson.
“I thought his breaking ball was phenomenal,’’ Donaldson said. “Had a good slider to go with it, as well as the cutter and the changeup. … I took one fastball in the heart of the plate in my first at-bat. Other than that, I didn’t see him miss too many times tonight.’’
Berrios was pulled after five innings because he had thrown 96 pitches, an inefficient ratio, although it might play well in MLB’s new seven-inning doubleheader games.
Bieber threw his 96th pitch with one out in the eighth. Two pitches later, he struck out Miguel Sano, giving Bieber 26 strikeouts in his first two starts this season — a league record. Nolan Ryan struck out 25 in his first two starts in 1978.
Then Bieber struck out Byron Buxton to make it 27. That tied him with Karl Spooner for the most strikeouts in his first two games. Spooner did it in 1954 for Brooklyn.
Spooner made only two big-league starts that season, after dominating in the minors. He injured his shoulder in the spring of 1955 and never pitched in the big leagues after ’55.
The difference between Bieber and Berrios was one pitch. In the third inning, Francisco Lindor hit an 0-2 fastball for a two-run homer. “He got me,’’ Berrios said.
In a close game with a good team, one pitch — or a high pitch count — can separate the true aces from the aspirants.