Ray's spring success: 'It's not luck. It's real.'

March 19th, 2021

Charlie Montoyo isn’t a big fan of pitchers having personal catchers, but after watching post another strong outing with behind the plate, the pair is making a strong case to stay together.

Ray allowed one run over 5 1/3 innings in Toronto’s 8-1 win over the Tigers at Joker Marchant Field on Friday, allowing four hits and a walk while striking out seven. The left-hander threw 53 of his 73 pitches for strikes, pounding the zone all afternoon.

“He’s throwing so many strikes,” Montoyo said. “He's throwing his breaking pitches for strikes, so he’s keeping hitters off-balance. His last pitch is 97 [mph], so he’s on. It’s not luck. It’s real.”

Ray’s fastball averaged 96.2 mph on Friday, up more than 2 mph from his first few outings this spring. He credited some more intense work in the gym of late, which he believes will help him throughout the season.

“I've been getting after it a little bit in the gym, just trying to simulate going hard,” Ray said. “I feel like that's one thing that's really tough as a starting pitcher in general, because you only have so many throws you can make every day. Those days where it should be a high-intensity day, you should practice going hard, so I feel like that's one thing that I've done, not only in the offseason, but also coming into Spring Training.”

Kirk’s presence behind the plate has also been a plus for Ray, who is in his first full season with Toronto after signing a one-year, $8 million pact on Nov. 10. The 22-year-old catcher has quickly developed a solid rapport with his veteran batterymate, catching Ray in three of his four spring starts.

“Every day, every outing, he looks better and better,” Kirk said through a translator. “Our communication, it's growing. We feel great right now together.”

Kirk did more for Ray than call a good game, belting his second homer of the spring as he continued to impress at the plate. Kirk walloped a high 95 mph fastball from Tigers No. 2 prospect Casey Mize, sending it to the opposite field and over the right-field fence.

“I’ve seen a lot of baseball,” Montoyo said. “This kid just hit a 96 mph [pitch] ... on top of the zone to right field. That’s not easy to do. That’s a credit to this kid; that young and to do that, that’s impressive to me.”

Still, it was Kirk’s work behind the plate with Ray that stood out to Montoyo. He might not love the concept of personal catchers, but the Blue Jays appear set to enter the season with two such pairings: and , and now Ray and Kirk.

“That's very important when the guys are on the same page; you don’t see people shaking their head all the time,” Montoyo said. “I think that's key for a pitcher: to be comfortable throwing to somebody. They’re a pretty good combo right now. They complement each other pretty good. ... Pitching is the name of the game.”

Ray has been trending in the wrong direction since his 2017 All-Star season, his ERA rising annually over the past three years. This spring’s renaissance -- he has a 1.98 ERA over four starts -- has Ray feeling optimistic about the season ahead, saying he hasn’t felt this consistent since his breakout four years ago.

“That's probably the last time it really felt like things were rolling like this,” Ray said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself. It's good pressure, not bad pressure. I definitely feel like I'm where I should be.”