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Berrios, Jays ready to turn page on 2023 disappointment

Jose Berrios Toronto Blue Jays Jose Berrios - The Canadian Press

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The 2024 season for the Toronto Blue Jays is going to start the same way the final game of last year began — with Jose Berrios on the mound.

This time, however, there won’t be any overthinking or multiple plans and moving parts based on scenarios unfolding on the field.

Berrios will simply be looking to get as many Opening Day outs as possible.

Once the 29-year-old hurls his first pitch late Thursday afternoon at The Trop, it will officially turn the page on the bitter finish to 2023 and give this club another chance at redemption.

“It’s an honour for me,” Berrios said of the opening day nod. “Everybody knows how last season ended, but we are grown men and we talked and everything was clear. We’ve turned the page already.

“Now I know they kept belief in me and trust in me. They are giving me the ball for a reason and I’m going to be ready.”

Pulling a cruising starting pitcher, one you had enough confidence in at one point to sign to a $131-million extension, in the fourth inning of a postseason game was a head-scratcher, but not the reason the Jays lost to the Minnesota Twins.

It did, however, potentially expose some organizational flaws and process weaknesses that the front office worked hard to uncover this winter, and many conversations were had throughout the organization.

“I just asked and they responded honestly,” Berrios said of figuring out the why behind last October’s early hook. “That’s the only thing I wanted. Just be honest with me. That’s why we’re able to be on the same page now and turn that experience or situation (around). It’s a new year and a new opportunity.”

While the Blue Jays believe some organizational changes will help them take the next step on the field, they come into 2024 essentially running back the same group of talent as last year.

In a couple months, that will either look really smart or the complete opposite, and it’s fairly reasonable to predict that failing to get over the hump this season will be the last chance for this group as a whole.

“To compete and ultimately to contend for a World Series,” GM Ross Atkins said when asked what his expectations are.

We may learn a ton about this team in the first two weeks, as well.

A 13-game run will take the Jays through four different playoff contenders — Tampa, Houston, New York and Seattle — and it’s a great litmus test for the psyche of this club.

A hot start, especially with the bats, would quiet a lot of naysayers for the time being, while a cold start would immediately place a ton of pressure on a group that’s already facing more than they have in any previous year.

“We’re in the AL East, so it’s not something that feels too foreign for us,” Atkins said of the schedule.

“There’s always a sense of urgency,” he added. “A game at a time, an inning at a time, a series at a time. There’s a few people in the organization who have started to think about the Houston Astros, but 98 per cent of us are focused on the Tampa Bay Rays.”

When the Jays send out their official Opening Day roster by the noon deadline Thursday, a handful of key names will be missing.

Closer Jordan Romano (elbow inflammation), Erik Swanson (forearm) and Alek Manoah (shoulder) are all expected to land on the IL.

One key player who avoided an IL stint was Kevin Gausman, who will start either Sunday in the series finale in Tampa or open up the series against the Astros on Monday.

With the bullpen banged up, Gausman’s availability — even if it’s only 70 pitches — is huge.

But it’s clear the early-season pressure point is in the ‘pen, even if Atkins is holding out hope for minimal IL stays for Romano and Swanson.

“I was with them both this morning and they both looked great,” Atkins said. “They’re recovering well, they feel strong. Barring no setbacks, I think this could be a minimal (IL) stint. A little bit different with Swanny because he didn’t have as much of a workload until the end of spring training. We’re hopeful it could be a very short stint and we could see them within a month, but that’s barring no setbacks.

“It could be that Romano is getting on a mound relatively soon and Swanny is not far behind. They’re both long tossing.”

Meanwhile, Joey Votto is “days from baseball activities” at the club’s complex in Dunedin and Atkins says he’ll likely head to Triple-A Buffalo to ramp up.

“He still feels a little bit of tightness in his ankle, and then he’ll want to get into essentially having a full Spring Training and getting that workload built up on his legs and his swing so that he can recover and bounce back and be ready on a daily basis,” Atkins said.