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Blue Jays’ Alejandro Kirk out to prove his worth beyond the batter’s box – Sportsnet.ca

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Time to learn some things about Alejandro Kirk. Time to see if everyone’s favourite cannonball catcher can not only barrel pitches all over the yard, not only operate with an ultra-marathoner’s resting heart rate under the extreme pressure of MLB competition, not only win hearts and minds with each smooth, bad-bodied swing that incredibly, impossibly, crosses the plate on plane, with pure force and balance, making big-league pitching look astonishingly unchallenging to square up. Time to learn what kind of career he could have.

Because we know he can hit. At least we believe he can. How could you believe anything else? How could you not buy in? Yes, last season’s .983 OPS was produced from a microscopic 25 plate-appearance sample. Yes, those were his only 25 occasions standing in a batter’s box above high-A. Yes, he doesn’t even have a full minor-league season to his name, having topped out at 92 games and 372 plate appearances in 2019, when he hit .290/.403/.465 with 55 walks versus 39 strikeouts against A-ball pitching. Yes, his track record is minute.

But if you’ve watched him play, you know. That’s all there is to it. There’s something different about young Kirk — something unique and unexplainable. And if his play doesn’t arouse hope in your heart then maybe being a baseball fan just isn’t for you.

Thing is, there’s so much more to big-league catching — which is why Kirk’s 2021 season ought to be so enlightening. Having won a Toronto Blue Jays roster spot outright with an undeniable spring training, the 22-year-old will be asked to regularly handle pitchers at a higher level of competition than he ever has before. To guide arms through challenging circumstances, velocity fluctuations, command inconsistency, physical maladies, uncooperative umpiring — and get them out the other side so they can continue cashing big-league cheques. To game-plan, game-call and game-manage for a team with post-season designs. To communicate effectively with pitchers, coaches and umpires in his second language. To pitch frame, block balls, control baserunners, save runs. To prove that his dart player’s physique — listed at 5-8, 265 pounds — can withstand the rigours of 162.

“Kirky, in a short amount of time, has improved. The conversations that we have are solid. He asks good questions. He’s very composed and he’s very confident — which is great. And the language barrier has decreased,” Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker said prior to his team’s 3-1 victory over the New York Yankees on Sunday afternoon.

“It’s kind of a work in progress for Kirky. But his confidence is growing. And that helps a lot when you’re calling a major-league game. When you’re struggling mentally, not sure, there’s some uncertainty — that can lead to some issues back there.”

And to that end, Sunday provided Kirk with his first true test. A regular-season debut. A rubber match in the Bronx coming off a pair of games that felt more like late September contests than early April ones. A pitcher on the mound in 25-year-old right-hander TJ Zeuch who, like Kirk, won himself a roster spot with an impressive spring, but, like Kirk, carried plenty of question marks into the day.

Zeuch is a throwback in today’s high-spin, high-velocity, high-strikeout era, predominantly featuring a low-90s sinker meant to find bats rather than miss them and produce soft, groundball contact as a result. It’s a fine formula when you’re locating, but a dangerous one if you’re up in the zone — particularly at a homer-happy offensive environment like Yankee Stadium, and particularly against a super-charged lineup like New York’s. When you aren’t out-stuffing anyone, confidence, trust and conviction are everything. And like Walker said, that begins with the guy behind the plate calling your pitches.

“I think any time you come to the big leagues, pitchers have a tendency to shy away from the aggressiveness and try to miss bats. And I think with (Zeuch), with the action on the ball, it’s a matter of trusting it and trusting the sink,” Walker said. “It’s tough to pitch in Yankee Stadium, there’s no doubt. But the big leagues are the big leagues. And the sooner you can get over that hump, the better.”

It was Kirk’s job to guide that process and who could deny the results? Zeuch scattered three hits and a walk over four innings Sunday, dodging some solid contact, watching some plays get made behind him and coming away from his outing without a run crossing the plate.

Kirk kept Zeuch moving quickly and unpredictably, starting the game’s first two batters with sinkers, its third with a changeup, its fourth with a cutter, its fifth with a sinker, its sixth with a cutter and its seventh with a sinker.

That carried Zeuch through two innings unscathed and into the third when he faced trouble for the first time, surrendering consecutive one-out singles. In that moment, Aaron Judge walking to the plate was the last sight anyone wanted to see. But Kirk and Zeuch followed a first-pitch sinker down and in with a well-located cutter up and away to get the imposing Yankees designated hitter to bounce into an inning-ending double play.

“We wanted to use the sinker on the extension side of the plate a lot because a lot of these guys like to hit the ball that’s coming down and in. But I think some of the bigger guys, you can get under their hands,” Zeuch said.

“And I think in that situation, two guys on, one out, big spot for a ground ball — that was the approach. Get in and then get away from him so he hits it off the end of his bat. And it worked out well for us and the defence did a great job turning the double play.”

Zeuch threw plenty of sinkers on the day, as he does, mixing in cutters and sliders to right-handed hitters, while deploying the odd changeup against lefties. His misses trended off the plate rather than over the heart of it, which is what you want. And considering the importance of working toward the bottom of the zone for a pitcher of his profile, Zeuch can come away from the afternoon satisfied with his pitch chart:

It’s always difficult to discern just how much credit a catcher is due for a fine pitching performance, but it’s safe to say Kirk is owed something here. Zeuch certainly wasn’t shaking Kirk off very often, and that he ran up seven swinging strikes on only 63 pitches speaks to a smart gameplan and keen in-game decision making from a young battery facing one of baseball’s most unforgiving lineups. Never mind the fact Kirk saved a run blocking a spiked Trent Thornton curveball with a runner on third in the fifth. Nor that he helped guide four Blue Jays relievers through 3.2 innings of scoreless relief behind Thornton

“Kirk’s great back there. Everything he put down, we were on the same page. If I did shake him off, he knew what I wanted to go to right away,” Zeuch said. “The way we talk to each other in dugout, the way we communicate — it’s great to just build confidence.”

Remember, that’s supposed to be the hard part for Kirk. That’s supposed to be where he’s behind. So, an 0-for-3 day with a walk while standing next to the plate is all well and good when considering the sound job Kirk did while crouched behind it.

As he stepped in for his first plate appearance in the top of the second, the Blue Jays had already taken Yankees starter Domingo German deep twice in the inning — first, a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. opposite-field solo shot; second, a two-run Randal Grichuk bomb wrapped around the left field foul pole. If he was eager to join the party, Kirk didn’t show it. He patiently worked a 3-1 count, took what should have been ball four for a called strike, and then took another pitch off the plate to claim his six-pitch walk.

His next time up, already facing a new pitcher in Yankees reliever Michael King, Kirk saw four more pitches and flew out to right. In his third trip, and his second look at King, he bounced out on the first pitch he saw. In his final plate appearance, facing King again in the ninth, Kirk got jammed and popped out on the infield.

Hey, not every day’s going to be a laser show. Those will come, you can bet. If you’ve watched him play, you know. What’s most important over the next six months is learning some new things about Kirk. About what he can do behind the plate, about how he can handle pitchers, about how far he’s come. About what kind of career he could have.

“Obviously, we know he can swing the bat, right? I mean, everybody’s seen that,” Walker said. “But I think defensively he’s improved on calling a game. He’s working well with our pitchers. All the things you need to see to add someone to the roster and to (have confidence in) giving you quality innings at the major-league level. It’s apparent with him. He’s checked the boxes up to this point.”

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Motor racing-Canadian Grand Prix cancelled for second year

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(Reuters) -The Canadian Grand Prix scheduled for June 13 at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal has been cancelled for the second year in a row, CBC Radio reported on Thursday although Formula One said discussions remained ongoing.

With the spread of new COVID-19 variants and Canada battling to contain a third wave of the virus, Montreal public health authorities concluded that even if run behind closed doors without spectators the risks were too high, reported the CBC.

F1 officials, according to the CBC, wanted to bypass the mandatory 14-day quarantine for the hundreds of staff, crew members and drivers and rely on private medical staff and have the entire operation run in a bubble.

The race is scheduled to follow on immediately from Azerbaijan, whose grand prix is scheduled for June 6 in Baku and is due to go ahead after also being cancelled last year.

“We are continuing our discussions with the promoter in Canada and have no further comment,” an F1 spokesperson told Reuters.

The Autosport website quoted a spokesperson for the Canadian promoter as saying the radio report referred to “a document of recommendations from public health.

“We as an organisation have not had confirmation from our public health officials and won’t comment until we get an official confirmation.”

Canada, with some of the world’s toughest travel rules, obliges its citizens and residents arriving from abroad to self-isolate for 14 days.

International arrivals are required to quarantine for up to three days in a hotel.

One of Canada‘s biggest sporting events, it would mark the second consecutive year the grand prix has been removed from the F1 schedule due to the spread of COVID-19.

Media reports have suggested Turkey is on standby to be slotted in as Canada‘s replacement.

The Istanbul circuit is logistically convenient for freight coming from Baku and was brought in last year also at short notice to bolster a calendar ravaged by the pandemic.

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto/Alan Baldwin in London; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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Boston Bruins Add Offense With Solid Taylor Hall Trade – Boston Hockey Now

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The Boston Bruins clearly understood they had serious deficiencies on their NHL roster this season and credit them for going and doing something about it.

The B’s finished off their Sunday night fireworks ahead of the NHL trade deadline by sending a second round pick and Anders Bjork to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for top-6 winger Taylor Hall and bottom-6 forward Curtis Lazar. TSN’s Darren Dreger, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and ESPN’s John Buccigross were the first to report about the completed deal between the Bruins and Buffalo Sabres in the hours following the B’s getting stomped by the Washington Capitals, 8-1, at TD Garden.

The Buffalo Sabres retained half of the $8 million salary that Hall signed for prior to the start of the 2021 hockey season.

The 29-year-old Hall is having a terrible season in Buffalo with just two goals and 19 points in 37 games along with a minus-21 rating after he chose to sign a one-year deal with the Sabres during the offseason. But he brings legitimate offensive talent as a former No. 1 overall pick and Hart Trophy winner to a Boston Bruins team that’s ranked in the bottom third of the NHL offensively all season.

The Bruins were one of the suitors for Hall prior to him choosing the Sabres months ago, and now they get him for a deep discount while keeping their own first round picks after making their deadline deals.

Holding onto their own first round pick was a priority for Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney after spending first rounders at the deadline in two of the last three deadlines in trades for damaged goods Rick Nash and Ondrej Kase.

The 26-year-old Lazar has five goals and 11 points in 33 games as a bottom-6 forward for the Sabres this season and is signed for $800,000 for next season. It seemed clear that something was going on with the 24-year-old Anders Bjork over the last couple of weeks as he was a healthy scratch for five straight games, including Sunday night against Washington, and heads to Buffalo hoping to further develop a game built on speed and skill level that hasn’t translated into offense as of yet.

Hall should fit right into the top-6 with the Bruins as a skilled winger for playmaking center David Krejci, but it remains to be seen how he’s going to fit as another left winger on a team with Nick Ritchie and Jake DeBrusk.

Either Ritchie or DeBrusk is going to have to play the off wing with a Krejci/Hall combo, but that’s a problem that Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy will gladly figure out after being forced to piece together lineups all season due to injuries and offensive inconsistency. With the acquisition of Hall, Lazar and left-handed defenseman Mike Reilly on Sunday night, it would appear the Boston Bruins are largely done with deals ahead of Monday’s NHL trade deadline.

Interestingly enough, the Boston Bruins are set to play the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night at TD Garden.

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Drouin must return to mentality that’s led to success this season – Sportsnet.ca

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It was something Dominique Ducharme said after his Montreal Canadiens played an abysmal game against the Ottawa Senators last week, something that only truly resonated after they lost 3-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday — a game that emboldened the struggle Jonathan Drouin’s currently enduring.

“Ninety per cent of the mistakes we made were mental, and the rest of it was above our shoulders.” the coach said after the 6-3 loss to Ottawa last Saturday, somewhat channelling New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra with this bit of wit and wisdom.

It was hard not to think of those words watching Drouin play the way he did on Wednesday. For much of this season, the talented left winger has played a primary role in Montreal’s success. He’s led them with 19 assists, been tenacious on the forecheck, physically engaged all over the ice, cerebral as always in his execution and, as he’s said on several occasions, relatively unconcerned by whether or not his name has been featured on the scoresheet.

But it seemed clear, after watching Drouin dump a breakaway into Jack Campbell’s chest with one of 32 shots the Maple Leafs goaltender turned aside to set a franchise record with his 10th consecutive win, he had diverted from that. And that affected the way he played the rest of the game.

It was Drouin’s fifth in a row without a point, his 18th without a goal, and he’d have to be a robot not to be suffering the mental wear of not seeing the puck go in more than twice since the season started, the torment of seeing only three per cent of his shots hit the back of the net through 36 games after 10 per cent of them resulted in goals through the first 348 games of his career.

“It is weighing on me where, when I have a chance and miss the goal, I might be trying to score too much,” Drouin said. “It’s something I obviously think about — every player would — and I’ve just gotta put it past me and just keep shooting pucks.”

Ideally, the 26-year-old wouldn’t be thinking about any of this. These are thoughts that weigh a player down and right now the Canadiens are in tough without Brendan Gallagher for the rest of the season and Drouin needs to be light and free to help account for that loss. And in order for him to do that, he needs to focus on what he does best.

Because the reality is that even though Drouin can score more, scoring isn’t what he needs to do in order to be at his best and really help this team.

“When his feet are moving and he’s making plays, Drou’s a pass-first guy,” explained Jake Allen, who made 29 saves in Carey Price’s absence. “When his feet are moving, his head’s always in it. When his feet are moving, he’s controlling the play, controlling the puck. He’s a guy who really can control the play for a whole line. You want the puck on that guy’s stick and let the other guys do the dirty work and he’ll find them.”

But when Drouin’s feet aren’t moving, there just isn’t enough of that other stuff happening.

When Drouin’s feet weren’t moving, he lost a battle for the puck in the offensive zone and allowed the NHL’s leading goal scorer to start the rush that resulted in the winning play of Wednesday’s game.

Auston Matthews to Mitch Marner, back to Matthews, off Allen and slammed into Montreal’s net by Zach Hyman with 9:39 remaining in the third period, with Drouin watching from just inside his own blue line.

“You give a 3-on-2 to the Matthews line and it’s the kind of play they’re going to make you pay on,” said Ducharme.

Was Drouin still thinking about that shot he didn’t bury in the second period?

It’s understandable if he was, but those are the kind of thoughts he needs to shake right now.

“He wants to do well, and I’m sure it’s getting a little bit in his head,” said Ducharme. “I think the best remedy for him is to be scoring that goal or making that big play, and I think he’s going to be energized by that and less thinking, more acting.

“It is a fine line. Those kind of thoughts is not something that you want to happen. But when you receive that puck and you see the opening and stuff, (the slump) comes back to (your mind). That’s why the mental part of the game is something that’s very tricky. It’s not his will to be thinking that way. Every player who’s going through a time like that will have that thought and scoring that goal will take him to a different level. At those kind of times you need to make it even simpler and being even more inside going at the net and finding a garbage (goal) right there and you put it in and sometimes you go on a little run. It might be that kind of goal that he needs to get that monkey off his back.”

It’s the kind of goal Corey Perry scored twice to give the Canadiens a chance in this game.

But Drouin isn’t Perry, who rightly pointed out after the game he’s made a career of scoring goals that way. And even if Drouin can borrow from what Perry does next time he has a chance like the one Brett Kulak set him up with for that breakaway, there are other ways he can positively impact the game.

You can appreciate that Drouin said he’s putting pressure on himself to score more and help make up for the goals the team will be missing with Gallagher sidelined, but that might not get him to where he needs to be mentally to contribute as much as he already has this season.

What would, though, is a sharp turn towards the mentality he described just days ago. The one that’s enabled him to be a much more consistent player this season than he has in seasons past.

“When I was younger, I’d stay on one game or stay on one play for too long and wouldn’t be able to let it go for a bit or a couple of days,” Drouin said. “But I think for me now it’s can I look at myself in the mirror after a game and did I give my good effort? Was I a part of this game? Was I doing something right in a lot of areas?

“That’s what I do now. I think points are there, goals are there, assists are there, but it’s just about playing that real game and playing to help your team win.”

Drouin’s done a lot of that this season and has a chance to get right back to it when the Winnipeg Jets visit the Bell Centre Thursday.

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