Gabriel Moreno impresses in home debut as Blue Jays fall to Orioles

Ryan Mountcastle went 3-for-5 and hit a two-run shot to spoil Gabriel Moreno's three-hit game, and the Baltimore Orioles defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 6-5.

TORONTO -- At only 23 years old, with 122 games and counting on his ledger, Alejandro Kirk is no grizzled veteran. But back in September 2020, as a talented but relatively inexperienced top prospect promoted somewhat unexpectedly by the contending Toronto Blue Jays, he lived the type of crash-course introduction to the majors Gabriel Moreno is undergoing right now.

“It’s very similar,” Kirk said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “I don't have much experience myself, but I'm capable of giving him a lot of advice on how to make adjustments. He’s always asking me different things. He's always wants to know, wants to learn. I'm doing my best to help him out.”

That the two happen to be close friends -- “Gabby is like my brother,” he added -- has only made Kirk all the more uniquely suited to serve as a sounding board for Moreno through the early days of his transition to the big-leagues, one the 22-year-old is leaning on.

“We are really good friends, really close,” said Moreno. “We talk about everything. Alejandro is having a great year. He knows how everything works, so he’s showed me (what to do) at different times. He’s helped me with all the little things. He’s helped me a lot.”

Their connection has no doubt helped Moreno impress right out of the gate, with his third game the most productive one yet. He collected three hits, two of them run-scoring singles for the first RBIs of his career, in Tuesday night’s 6-5 loss to the Baltimore Orioles.

Moreno’s night also included easily throwing out Jorge Mateo trying to steal second base in the second inning and a lesson in heat-of-the-moment decision-making in the sixth, when Mateo broke for third as Richie Martin struck out on a pitch in the dirt. Though he deftly picked the ball on a bounce, Moreno neglected to tag Martin to record the out and threw to third trying to get Mateo, and both Orioles ended up safe in the unusual play.

Still, the raw tools were beyond obvious and his unflappability at the plate really shone through in the eighth, when his RBI single pulled the Blue Jays within one at 6-5. A George Springer liner to first base ended the inning with the tying run at second and Jorge Lopez managed to shut the door in the ninth before a crowd of 23,106.

“I was comfortable,” Moreno said of his Rogers Centre debut. “I got nervous for a little bit, but after the first inning, I played my game and got results.”

Not getting results was left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, who was better than his last time out in Kansas City when he didn’t escape the first, but still only made it one batter into the fifth inning, when Austin Hays greeted him with a home run that ended his night.

Kikuchi struck out four but also walked four and manager Charlie Montoyo felt he threw “too many non-competitive pitches.”

“At the end of the day it's about throwing strikes,” he added. “For somebody with the stuff that he has, that's all it's going to take.”

Kikuchi, sensing that opponents are adjusting to the changes he’s made this season, feels he needs to be better pitching to the inner and outer thirds of the plate with the four-seamer he’s featuring more often.

“Moving the location of the fastball around more, I feel would definitely make my slider more effective,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “Felt like they were laying off some pretty good off-speed pitches tonight. Especially establishing the fastball inside a little bit more would definitely make my secondary pitches more effective.”

Moreno is doing his part to ensure the Blue Jays’ catching tandem remains effective while Danny Jansen recovers from a broken hand.

Moreno and Kirk first met back in 2016 at the Blue Jays’ complex in the Dominican Republic, where they reported after signing as international free agents. A bond developed quickly and “from that point on me and him were like inseparable,” said Kirk. “We had great chemistry between us.”

A year older than Moreno, Kirk moved through the system a step ahead of his friend. During off-seasons they’d reconnect at fall instructional league or other development camps staged by the Blue Jays, where Luis Hurtado, now a bullpen catcher with the big-league club, would lead their mentoring.

When they reunited in the majors last weekend in Detroit, Kirk was “super excited and very, very happy to have him here in the big-leagues.”

In the days since, Kirk’s answered countless questions, ranging from dress code rules to and from the ballpark, to how to structure his day around meetings and field work, to building relationships with pitchers, to how to approach different hitters, to how to work PitchCom.

There’s an attention to detail in each realm.

“To stay in the big-leagues as a catcher, it's hard work. I need to prepare for that,” said Moreno. “I need to go through the game-plans. It's a lot of information but that's why I'm here. I need to take that and put it in the games.”

Kirk has sat in on each of Moreno’s daily prep meetings, where the catchers must process a daily data dump for use later in the game. He remembers the entire process being “a little bit difficult for me” upon his arrival and he wants to ease the learning curve for Moreno.

“Things are going to be a little bit complicated for him at the beginning,” said Kirk. “But that's what I'm here for. I went through that already and I'm going to make sure that he gets everything and learns everything the right way.”

So far, so good and if Moreno continues to impress, the Blue Jays will have an interesting decision to make once Jansen is ready to return from the injured list. They’ve carried three catchers before and GM Ross Atkins said it’s something they very well could do again, as long as they could ensure enough work for each.

Such depth at a position of scarcity is a unique luxury, one the Blue Jays couldn’t have imagined six years ago when Kirk and Moreno first became fast friends and started down a path that’s reunited them in the big-leagues.

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