When Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Alek Manoah first met battery mate Alejandro Kirk at 2020 spring training, he realized something that struck him right away: he couldn’t get him out.
“I’m just gonna start hitting you and just putting you on first, instead of wasting 10 pitches every at-bat,” Manoah joked in an interview with Daily Hive. “I think just facing him as a hitter, was a pretty tough challenge for me, we would always joke around about how tough of an out he was.”
While most Toronto fans weren’t all too sure about how the young catcher would fit into the Blue Jays’ long-term plans when he made his debut in 2020, it’s clear Manoah was onto something with Kirk.
On a team with so much focus on young stars in Vladimir Guerrero and Bo Bichette, Kirk has emerged as a breakout star that’s garnered a massive fanbase both among Jays supporters as well as across the league.
This past season, Kirk has suited up in 135 games for Toronto, while being named to the starting catching position in the MLB All-Star Game at just age 23. His batting average of .291 is tied for the team lead, while he’s also picked up the second highest WAR on the team (behind Manoah) at 4.0 wins above replacement.
But Kirk (and subsequently Manoah) were in headlines recently for a more contentious reason, with a Montreal-based TSN radio host calling a video the Blue Jays shared of Kirk rounding the bases “embarrassing for the sport” while making a series of now-deleted follow-up comments about Kirk’s weight.
Manoah said he sees “a lot of tweets” about him and Kirk’s size: he’s listed at 6-foot-6, 285 pounds, while Kirk measures up at 5-foot-8, 245 pounds.
“[There’s] plenty of guys in the league that tend to not have the perfect body to people’s standards,” he said.
While most of the comments he shrugs off, Ross’ tweet struck a particular nerve with Manoah, who felt it was necessary to stick up for his teammate.
“I thought it was terrible. I thought it was it was completely opposite of what Alejandro was actually doing,” Manoah added. “I think this was one of the tweets that I had seen that there was a verified account, somebody with a voice, somebody that worked for a big network that can potentially change the way that people think.”
As a result of sticking up for his teammate, Manoah was awarded a $100,000 sponsorship with Dove Men+Care, and will be donating his proceeds to KidSport, a Canadian non-profit that gives children the opportunity to participate in organized sport.
I’m truly honored to be the very first recipient of the Dove Men+Care SPONSORSHIP FOR SPORTSMANSHIP. Real #SportsMenCare – let’s bring more care to the world of sport. #DoveMenCare pic.twitter.com/oPkNVHnee3
— MANOAH (@Alek_Manoah6) September 27, 2022
“The biggest thing for me was the words he used, that it was ’embarrassing for the game’ and that people weren’t going to love the game anymore because of it. And it’s ‘bad for the game.’ I just thought it was terrible,” Manoah said. “There’s a bunch of other kids out there that are inspired by him and, they shouldn’t stop playing or anything like that just because they don’t have the right body type.”
But while it’s been a great year for Kirk, it’s easy to say the same of Manoah, who has a 15-7 record with an ERA of 2.31 and 176 strikeouts in 30 appearances this season, while also making his first career All-Star Game.
“Everything is amazing,” Manoah said. “Everything feels great, body-wise, recovery-wise and arm-wise, and definitely mentality-wise. We’re focused right now.”
Manoah believes his Blue Jays teammates are of a similar ilk.
“This is what we work for all year, all offseason,” he said. “Everyone goes into spring training with aspirations to win a World Series. And, you know, five, six, months later, we’re right here, we’re in the driver’s seat to put ourselves in a playoff position and give ourselves a chance at that World Series. So everyone feels pretty good right now.”
The Jays are a near certainty to make the postseason, with their magic number set at one entering Thursday’s games. It’d be the first playoff experience for Manoah, who had yet to crack the Jays’ roster during their last postseason appearance in 2020.
“I just thank the Lord every day that he’s opening doors for me that I’m ready to walk through,” Manoah said. “I truly believe that he hasn’t given me a challenge that I’m not ready for, and I’m just thankful that all these opportunities are in front of me and I’m just able to kind of maximize them as much as I can.”
Due to COVID-19 disruptions to the minor league schedule, Manoah spent just nine games in the minor leagues with Toronto’s affiliates in Vancouver and Buffalo, getting the call two years after getting drafted. Making his debut in May 2021, Manoah made an immediate impact at the major league level, going 9-2 in his rookie season despite minimal minor league experience.
“I was just thankful enough that I was throwing the ball really well,” Manoah added. “And when I came up, I was able to fill one of those holes [in the rotation]. We spent a lot of work in the offseason… to be able to put ourselves in a good position, once baseball did come back to be ready, and to make sure that I didn’t miss a beat.”
Manoah said he’s a big fan of a pre-game meditation session to get ready for his starts but doesn’t rely on any specific pump-up music or playlists to get himself into the zone.
“I really don’t need any extra motivation. I love being out there. I play this game with a lot of love and a lot of passion. And I really want to win every game that I’m out there. That’s my job. And that’s what I want to do.”
While he’s been a dominant pitcher in the regular season, Manoah added that he’s ready for the “challenge” of postseason baseball: fewer days of rest, a smaller leash, high stakes, and yes, even possibly coming out of the bullpen.
“It’s not every day you get a shot at a World Series, I’m prepared for anything,” Manoah said. “Whatever the team needs from me, I’m willing to do it.”