February 3, 2023

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Polanco homers off Berríos, his friend since the Minors

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TORONTO — Former Twins pitcher Jose Berríos will always be remembered fondly for his nine-plus years in the Minnesota organization, but as manager Rocco Baldelli explains it, the dynamic is different now that the right-hander dons a different uniform.

“It’s hard not to think about him as a friend and a guy that has done so many great things for the Twins,” Baldelli said in his pregame session on Saturday. “But once the game starts, both for him and for us, things get competitive very quickly.”

The 423-foot blast was Polanco’s sixth of the season. More important, perhaps, it got him off the schneid against his former teammate Berríos.

“It feels really good to get a homer off anybody,” said Polanco, who was 0-for-6 with three strikeouts against his pal last season. “But off Berríos, it feels really good.”

Polanco and Berríos go back a decade, when the latter signed with the Twins as the 32nd overall choice in the 2012 MLB Draft. Three summers prior, Polanco had signed as an international free agent, which matches him with Max Kepler for the title as the longest-tenured Twin.

Much of Berríos and Polanco’s respective paths to the big leagues were carved in tandem. They made the same Minor League stops in the same seasons, from Rookie-level Elizabethton in 2012 to Triple-A Rochester in 2015. They even roomed together in some cities.

By 2016, atop the organizational ladder at last, the duo continued to foster their friendship in the big league clubhouse. They were mainstays with the Twins from then on, until Minnesota dealt Berríos to the Blue Jays at last year’s Trade Deadline.

Opportunities to catch up are far more limited now, so Berríos and Polanco take advantage when they can. They got together before Friday’s game, sharing updates about their day-to-day lives, their families and their efforts this season.

“We chatted a little bit yesterday as friends,” Polanco said. “And we [told each other] today was the today. It’s all business. It’s not about friendship. So I got him the first at-bat, and he got me the next two at-bats.”

Aside from Polanco’s early salvo, the Twins struggled to do much damage against Berríos, who only allowed three hits in seven innings. In many instances, Minnesota struggled merely to put the ball in play. Berríos fanned a career-high 13 batters, surpassing the 12-strikeout mark he accomplished twice with the Twins — against the Rangers on June 24, 2018, and against the Brewers on April 3, 2021.

In three starts against the Twins since last July’s trade, Berríos owns a 3.66 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings. Saturday’s start was easily his best of the three.​​

“I think this was the best Jose Berríos that’s probably pitched in 2022,” Baldelli said. “I’m not surprised to see it against us. I’m sure he was excited to come out here and face a bunch of his guys, his friends, and he showed up.”

Despite Saturday’s blowout loss, the Twins will have a crack at a series win on Sunday against a fellow team in playoff position. Losing to an old friend might hurt, but surely Polanco could be happy for his longtime buddy, couldn’t he?

Polanco laughed and flashed a quick smile as he considered the question.

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