TORONTO – If you think about it, the ask was pretty considerable.
At 21 years old, Alejandro Kirk had never played above class A. And setting experience aside, there was also the question of reps. Though he faced live pitching at the Blue Jays’ alternate training site this summer, Kirk hadn't played in a regular season game since Aug. 28 of last year, when the Dunedin Blue Jays faced the Fort Myers Miracle to wrap up the Florida State League season.
This time around, the stakes are much higher. Kirk, the 5-foot-8, 265 lbs. catching prospect who was officially added to the Blue Jays' roster Friday, isn’t just around to learn how it’s done. He’s there to contribute – sooner rather than later, preferably – and not only on defence but at the plate, too. So what if he hasn't played in a game that counts for 13 months? The Blue Jays need offence, and they want it from Kirk.
In the face of those expectations, it would have been understandable if Kirk had taken a while to adjust to the demands of his new role. Instead, he figured prominently in a 3-2 Blue Jays win, helping Robbie Ray hold the New York Mets to one run over five innings, drawing a walk to spark a rally and collecting his first major-league hit.
This is exactly what manager Charlie Montoyo was hoping for when the Blue Jays promoted Kirk.
"It's not that easy," Montoyo said afterwards. "It was awesome to watch. I'm excited about that: watching a kid that young ... it was awesome for me to watch.”
Throughout his minor-league career, Kirk showed himself to be a patient hitter with exceptional contact skills. That ability was on display against the Mets Saturday, as Kirk walked to lead off the bottom of the fifth inning before scoring on a Travis Shaw sacrifice fly. The next inning, he lined a single through the left side for his first big-league hit, one of three balls that left his bat traveling at least 106 m.p.h.
Along the way, Kirk became just the second catcher in franchise history to skip double-A and triple-A, joining Brian Milner, who went straight from high school to the majors in 1978. Afterwards, he explained that his nerves disappeared after he grounded out to second his first time up.
"No pressure at all," Kirk said through interpreter Hector Lebron. "Like I always say, I go out there to compete and try to do the best I can."
Of course Kirk wasn’t the only notable addition to the Blue Jays’ lineup. Bo Bichette, who missed nearly a month after injuring his knee stretching in the on-deck circle on August 15, returned as well.
At the plate Bichette went one-for-four with a single, but his baserunning effort in the fourth inning was perhaps most telling of all. With nobody out and Bichette at first, Travis Shaw hit a double into the right-centre field gap. Bichette read the ball well off the bat and didn’t stop sprinting until he had crossed home plate.
"It's huge for us," Montoyo said. "He was our best hitter when he got hurt and you could tell he looked pretty good at the plate again. He hasn't lost anything."
While a technicality in the rules ended up forcing Bichette back to third base for the moment, he seemed comfortable sprinting at full speed and scored easily on a Randal Grichuk infield single one batter later (the umpires ruled that Shaw’s double was a dead ball once it stopped under the outfield wall, even though centre fielder Jake Marisnick played it with apparent ease).
Thanks to Ray and some strong work from the bullpen, the Blue Jays didn't need much offence. Ray allowed just one run over five innings while striking out five. His fastball was especially effective, topping out at 97.2 m.p.h. and generating 11 swinging strikes.
"You could tell from the beginning that he had his good fastball," Montoyo said. "He was great ... it's great news since we wanted him to go deep and he did a great job."
"He was locating his pitches perfectly," Kirk added. "Everything was great."
Julian Merryweather followed and -- as is becoming his trademark -- delivered two scoreless innings. With each passing outing, Merryweather looks more and more like a pitcher who should pitch high-leverage innings if the Blue Jays advance to the post-season.
From there, Montoyo turned to Anthony Bass, who pitched a clean eighth and Rafael Dolis, who converted his fourth save of the season. A welcome contrast for a team that allowed 18 runs the previous night, and an effort that improves the Blue Jays' record to 25-20.
With 15 games remaining in the season, there's still plenty of work to be done. But the return of Bichette changes things for the better. And while no one’s counting on Kirk in quite the same way, the Blue Jays will take all of the offence they can get. One game in, he’s given this team plenty of reason to look forward to what he’ll do next.