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Berrios focused on claiming spot in Twins' rotation

Puerto Rico pitcher Jose Berrios (37) throws in the seventh inning against USA during the 2017 World Baseball Classic at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on March 22, 2017. Gary A. Vasquez / USA TODAY Sports

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Upon returning Friday afternoon from the World Baseball Classic, Twins right-hander Jose Berrios reaffirmed his intent to claim the final spot in the starting rotation.

"That's why I'm here," the 22-year-old pitching prospect said. "I don't want to lose anything. So I keep competing and do my job and see what they want to do."

First, however, Berrios slowly made his way through the entire clubhouse so he could shake the hand of every teammate. Literally welcomed back with open arms, the talented pitcher with the mid-90s fastball wasted no time washing out the bleach blond hair that became the trademark of Team Puerto Rico (aka "Team Rubio") during its riveting run to a second straight WBC runner-up finish.

"I did that (Thursday)," Berrios said. "I didn't want to be here with blond hair."

Fellow Twins Hector Santiago, Eddie Rosario and Kennys Vargas returned from the WBC and Thursday's six-hour celebration back in San Juan with their frosted tops intact, but that figures to be temporary. The high from going 7-1 on the world stage could last a lifetime.

"The people in Puerto Rico, they love us," Berrios said. "We were impressed with the love they showed us."

Vargas, who played sparingly in the tournament, took it even further.

"That's the biggest parade I've seen in my life," he said. "We are heroes back home. We didn't win, but we are heroes because we did the yellow hair. We got everybody together."

Despite being charged with three earned runs in a 40-pitch relief outing in Wednesday's 8-0 loss to Team USA, Berrios stole the show with strikeouts of Giancarlo Stanton, Jonathan Lucroy, Ian Kinsler and Christian Yelich.

"It was great for me, but you know what?" he said. "I prepare every day my stuff and my mind, to do that. I have to do that because if I have to play at that level, I'm going to face a lot of people like that. You have to do your job, whatever it is, up there (in the majors)."

He threw 62 pitches on March 12 in a five-inning start against Italy and then threw a pair of bullpen sessions with a 50-pitch live batting practice during the nine-day break between outings.

"I feel great; I feel healthy," Berrios said. "I know they used different starting pitchers but I prepared myself to start the game. My body and my mind feel strong. I feel ready."

Tentatively set to start on Monday, either against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton or against minor leaguers on the back fields of the Twins' complex, Berrios was expected to meet with manager Paul Molitor and pitching coach Neil Allen before firming up those plans.

"I don't know what they want me to do, but I'm ready for that," Berrios said. "Right now I'm here, and I'll prepare myself to do it again."

And if it turns out that he won't have enough time to win a rotation spot before the season opener on April 3 against Kansas City?

"I accept that because I went to the WBC and played in that," he said. "I'm OK with what decision they make, so I will prepare myself to be ready for that one day."

Berrios threw just four innings against Grapefruit League competition before departing for the WBC on March 6. In his absence, right-hander Tyler Duffey and lefty Adalberto Mejia have separated themselves from the pack as strong candidates to claim the final rotation spot.

Santiago, scheduled to make the three-hour roundtrip to start Saturday night at the Baltimore Orioles, laughed when asked how he's going to come back down from the high of WBC competition.

"I don't know," he said. "Coming back from something like that, you're ready for the season, man. You're not going to face any lineup like that. I just saw the best of the best."

Normally a starter, Santiago worked out of the bullpen three times at the WBC. His fastball velocity jumped into the mid-90s and his earned-run average was 2.08 with nine strikeouts in 8⅔ innings.

"I couldn't believe how good I felt coming out of the pen," he said. "You'd be two or three pitches into warming up, and you were ready to go. Adrenaline was pumping. It's completely different from a spring training game. The crowds are going crazy and you're there to win."

Riding back to the San Juan airport Friday morning, Santiago snapped a picture that summed up what this Puerto Rican national team meant to the island nation.

"It was kids on a baseball field," Santiago said. "They had their hair tanned and they were playing with a stick and a rock. That's what the whole thing was all about. We didn't win a gold medal but we won the hearts of all the Puerto Rican fans and all the kids over there. It was pretty amazing."

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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