DUNEDIN, Fla. — With El Mechón blasting on the TD Ballpark speakers on Monday afternoon, it could only mean one thing — Alejandro Kirk was back in the Toronto Blue Jays lineup. The home crowd burst into a big applause in the bottom of the first inning when the catchy Banda MS de Sergio Lizárraga tune signalled a plate appearance by the fan-favourite catcher.
Spring training is normally a vital time for catchers to acquaint themselves with a pitching staff, but this year, backstops around the league will need to do that while simultaneously adjusting to baseball’s new rules and pitch clock.
“This is a new game,” said Alek Manoah, Monday’s starting pitcher in the 16-3 win over the Boston Red Sox.
In that regard, Kirk got an early welcome to the new rules.
Manoah had a 3-1 count on Niko Goodrum in the inning and as the pitch clock was winding down, he hadn’t yet decided on the offering he wanted to throw. He stepped off the mound thinking that it would reset the clock and act as one of his two disengagements. However, since there was no baserunner, according to baseball’s new rules, that didn’t count as a disengagement.
Instead, the result was a violation of the pitch clock that awarded a ball to Goodrum, sending him to first base with a walk.
“In a perfect world, a catcher’s calling time out and making a mound visit,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider explained. “So, I’m glad they’re calling it in spring. It won’t happen again, during the season.
“As many times as you run down all the rules, when you get into a game and they get exposed, I think it’s the best learning spot.”
Kirk was behind the plate for four innings, catching the fourth Grapefruit League start of Manoah on what was a muggy, sun-baked Florida afternoon. The all-star backstop said he’s focusing on finding his rhythm now.
“Of course with the new rules, it was a little bit difficult but you adjust to that,” Kirk said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “You have to have that connection with your pitcher and be on the same page all the time. But with time, we’ll get there.”
Manaoh, for whom Kirk is the defacto personal catcher, acknowledges that Kirk, along with all catchers, has an interesting learning curve to go through.
“There’s so many rules with this new pitch clock,” Manoah said. “That was one of the times where I was on the mound but didn’t have the pitch that I wanted. And it being Kirk’s first day as well [was tough]. If I’ve [started] three times already and I don’t know all the rules, [it’s hard to expect it from Kirk].”
Manoah spoke to Schneider and pitching coach Pete Walker following the game about plans to wear the PitchCom on his glove during his next start. If anything, it’ll act as a safety net to prevent situations like the one that arose Monday. The device hasn’t been approved for usage during the regular season yet, but Schneider said teams are operating as though it will be.
Manoah wasn’t as sharp on Monday as he was in previous outings and was chased from the game in the second inning after Miguel Bleis hit a bases-loaded single to right field to cash in two runs. He was relieved by right-hander Jackson Rees, who allowed an inherited runner to score before closing out the inning. Manoah then returned to the mound in the third — a move that could only happen in the spring.
“That rule’s great in spring training, just so we can get our work in,” said Schneider.
Manoah exited for good with two outs in the fourth inning. In total, he allowed three runs on three hits and four walks over his 3.1 innings. He topped out at 95.3 mph and struck out five while inducing 12 whiffs on 67 pitches to a Red Sox lineup devoid of its regulars.
Kirk collected a single and walked twice. His return is the latest positive for a Blue Jays team whose projected Opening Day lineup is now rounding nicely into form with just under three weeks left before the season-opener on March 30 against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Brandon Belt, slowed by a return from knee surgery, played in his second game of the spring, smacking a double and walking twice. Bo Bichette took Red Sox left-hander Chris Murphy deep in the opening frame for his first homer of the spring, then launched a massive, 453-foot shot that left the stadium in the fourth inning.
Schneider quipped that Bichette has been in midseason form since January, while Bichette said he likes where he’s at now. The homers don’t matter to him, but the at-bats do.
The shortstop said he’s been able to carry into spring training the mindset he developed during his torrid run at the plate last September when he hit .403/.445/.689 with seven homers and 27 RBI.
“Every athlete finds themselves at some point,” said Bichette. “It doesn’t mean that I’m not going to struggle again, but I have a pretty good idea of who I am now, and I just look to take that forward.
“I just think I found out that I’m really good, to be honest,” he added. “I always knew what I was capable of. But I think I just now understand who I am. And that player’s good. I just go out there and compete every day and not worry about the results because I know what I can do at the end of the day and just let the process come.”
More good vibes appear to be on the way for the offence as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is inching closer to a return. The first baseman, who’s been sidelined with knee inflammation, enjoyed a positive weekend of running the bases and could appear in a game later this week.
On Monday, though, the Blue Jays were just happy to have Kirk back. And perhaps nobody was more content than Manoah.
“We work really well with each other,” said Manoah. “Kind of a Ying and Yang thing. I bring more of the energy, he’s more relaxed and gives his opinion where he thinks he needs to give it. We feed well off each other.
“It was good to have him back there and get him in the swing of games again.”
Berrios in the WBC
Schneider said that he watched Blue Jays starter Jose Berrios’s WBC outing on Sunday for Team Puerto Rico. Facing off against Venezuela, the right-hander allowed six runs (five earned) and five hits over one-plus inning of work. Despite the ugly stat line, the Blue Jays skipper said he was able to take away some positives.
“It was an awesome atmosphere [in Miami] and I keep telling myself these were spring training outings, for better or for worse,” Schneider said, noting that he was pleased with Berrios’s changeup and fastball velocity. “I thought everything that he was working on here, he was doing there. I thought he made really good pitches … but everything that he’s been working on, he translated into the game. You got to take it for what it is.
“I think everything is magnified a little bit in that WBC environment, but he’ll have a better one next time.”
Springer’s strong spring
George Springer, who did not play on Monday, has looked in fine form lately, homering in three straight games. “Physically, I think it’s a healthy George Springer,” Schneider said of the right-fielder who played hurt most of 2022 and had surgery on his right elbow during the off-season.
“The work that he did in the off-season was great … the rehab stuff and getting through everything, having his elbow feel good and having his body feel good. He was here [in Dunedin] the whole off-season instead of [his home in] Connecticut, so was very proactive with it. It’s paying off right now.”