Kirk connects for 2 HRs as Blue Jays romp

Catching competition with Jansen tight as season heats up

May 1st, 2021

All April, the Blue Jays have been waiting for signs of life from their catchers at the plate. woke up on Friday night, and all that noise woke up the rest of the lineup with him.

The Blue Jays’ bats were so impressive in their 13-5 win over Atlanta that it almost overshadowed a fantastic performance from starter Robbie Ray. It was Kirk’s breakout game, though, that teased just how deep and productive this lineup can be when it’s operating at full capacity.

That depth has been projected as the Blue Jays’ strength all along, and while it hasn’t been the case through April, the recent returns of George Springer and Teoscar Hernández have lengthened the order. That’s how a bat of Kirk’s caliber ended up in the nine spot, launching home runs of 428 and 435 feet for the first multihomer game of his young career. Hernández, Bo Bichette, Randal Grichuk and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. also homered in Friday’s outburst, all of them no-doubters.

Kirk’s first home run came on a 3-0 count, when he got the green light from the dugout to swing away. That’s not always the case for a player of Kirk’s age and experience, but it worked.

“To be honest with you guys, I was not expecting to get the green light,” Kirk said through a club translator. “I was very happy when they gave it to me. I was just ready. I wanted to put good contact on the ball and try to hit the ball far to score the guys. Thank God I hit a homer.”

While the Blue Jays believe in Danny Jansen, particularly when it comes to handling the pitching staff, Jansen has opened the season by hitting just .045 with 12 strikeouts over his first 14 games. He’s been making stronger contact lately and, eventually, some of those balls will start to fall, but this catching situation is yet another example of how the Blue Jays will be operating differently in 2021 compared to, say, 2019.

“Believe me, I’m a big fan of Danny Jansen,” said manager Charlie Montoyo, not tipping his hand. “One of the reasons we’re pitching good is because of our catching. Danny and Kirk have done a great job behind the plate, so I don’t want to forget about that. But again, Kirky had a great game, and yes, he’s got a chance to play tomorrow.”

As the club moves from its development phase into competing, with sky-high expectations following a big offseason, numbers matter, and they matter earlier in the season than they once did. Home run power won’t always be Kirk’s game, but the 22-year-old puts the ball in play as much as anyone on this roster with an exceptional contact rate. No hitter is slump-proof, but a high contact rate and low strikeout rate is a good start.

Kirk’s defense is a major variable in this catching timeshare, of course. He’s taken strides in recent years, particularly when it comes to his preparation and mapping out a game plan at the Major League level, but there’s still room to grow. Remember, despite Kirk’s quick jump to the big leagues in late 2020, he’d never caught a game above High-A and has just 151 games of Minor League experience.

Kirk looked comfortable behind the plate Friday, but with Ray pitching as well as he did, it would be hard not to. Ray allowed a late two-run home run in the seventh, but otherwise pitched as well as he has since joining the Blue Jays in 2020. The left-hander struck out five over 6 2/3 innings, allowing five hits and lowering his ERA to 2.78. Ray also cranked his fastball up to a peak of 98.3 mph for the second consecutive start, the first time he’s cracked 98 mph since 2016.

“I feel like I may have found something,” Ray said. “Just playing catch, I’m trying to be a little more aggressive out front, aggressive with my extension. That, I feel, has caused the uptick in velocity, just having that aggression out front. It’s huge. Being able to go in on guys with 97 or 98 mph, it’s not comfortable.”

So often this season, performances like Ray’s or Kirk’s have happened in a vacuum. A strong showing from the pitching staff and lineup on the same night is new, but Friday’s win highlighted just how high this club’s ceiling can be when the entire roster is clicking at the same time, not just one or two players.