Calm approach and killer swing turning Jays’ Alejandro Kirk into star

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MILWAUKEE — Alek Manoah’s primary relationship with Blue Jays catching phenom is as the guy he throws to every five days and then watches in wonder at what the 23-year-old does at the plate.

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But as a dude who studies hitters in his quest to be the best, just for kicks, Manoah sometimes lets his mind drift to what it would be like to attack his sweet-swinging, fire hydrant of a teammate.

“He’s pretty tough to pitch to,” said Manoah, who has had the opportunity during live batting practice sessions during spring training. “Safe to say, I haven’t figured it out. But I don’t think the league has, either.”

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No, they haven’t.

Bruised hand be damned, Kirk was back in the Jays lineup on Saturday at American Family Field, coming off a stretch in which he has hit home runs in three consecutive games.

On Friday, the rocket he hit in the seventh inning was a line-drive rope that just cleared the wall in left field. It was one of the knocks on a four-for-four night, something he has done twice this month.

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The 23-year-old native of Tijuana, Mexico, isn’t just the hottest catcher in the game and a lock starter for the American League in next month’s all-star game, he’s one of the most scorching hitters in the game right now.

And how’s this for crazy: In a lineup that boasts Vlad Guerrero Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, George Springer and Bo Bichette, Kirk has become the lead must-watch hitter when he comes to the plate.

Though shy by nature — even his teammates have to cajole him to dig out a smile — Kirk is clearly enjoying the ride, albeit with perspective.

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“It feels great,” the 5-foot-8, 265-pound backstop said. “I just don’t want to lose sight (of what I’m doing). I want to stay focused and not worry about my personal numbers. I just want to go out there and earn it … find a way to keep helping the team and eventually be in the playoffs.”

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When he gets to Dodger Stadium for the all-star game, the wider baseball-watching world will have caught on to one of the more compelling acts in the game right now.

And he’s starting to turn heads.

Entering Saturday’s play, Kirk led all qualified MLB catchers in batting average (.321), on base percentage (.406) and slugging (.513.) Since May 23, his batting average (.393) is the second highest in all of baseball.

So how does a young player with that rather, uh, distinct build turn some of the game’s best pitchers on their ear regularly.

“It’s his approach,” Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “How do you pitch to him. He can hit the ball inside. He doesn’t chase bad pitches. He’s always ahead in the count. He can go the other way.

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“He’s doing what it takes to be one of the best hitters in baseball. He doesn’t chase and if you don’t chase, you’re going to get pitches to hit. And then when he gets pitches to hit, he doesn’t miss them.”

If that sounds simple enough, it’s not. Kirk’s teammates have marvelled at him since he first showed up at big league training camp in Dunedin in 2020.

Kirk got his usual share of ribbing, especially since he didn’t look like your prototypical big league ball player. But it didn’t take long for the chatter to focus on what he could do with a bat in his hands.

Now, of course, he has become as popular as any of this teammates.

On Friday, he signed autographs for fellow catcher Danny Jansen’s nephews, decked out as they were with Brewers T-shirts and Jays ball caps.

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“It’s something you really have to appreciate,” Kirk said of the way his fellow Jays have embraced both his presence and his success. “But they’ve always been like that with me, even if I’m not doing great. I really appreciate that with all of my teammates.”

While that adoration has been building for a while now, it has certainly blossom further since the first round of all-star game balloting came out last week to reveal that Kirk had a bulge of almost 700,000 votes on his nearest competitor for the AL starting catching gig.

And then, as if on cue, he launched home runs in consecutive games against the White Sox before adding a third here against the Brew Crew on Friday night.

“It’s unbelievable,” Manoah aid of the Kirk phenomenon. “He comes in every day and works hard, keeps his head down. He never gets too big or too down, he just stays super consistent every day.

“It’s definitely not a surprise to us. We love to see him succeed. He’s a great teammate and he gives us his all every time he’s out there.”

But what about that personality that rarely wavers as well?

“He’s just as calm and cool as can be,” Manoah said. “I try to poke the bear to get a smile out of him. He’s pretty awesome.”

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