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For Blue Jays rookies, 2021 season was baptism by fire

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TORONTO — It may be hard to succinctly describe Alek Manoah, but "authentic" is undeniably a word that comes to mind.

The Toronto Blue Jays rookie starter was at the forefront of a group of several young guys who broke into the major leagues in a turbulent 2021, as Toronto moved through three different home cities and vied for a playoff spot until the very end. Manoah didn't have the luxury to get the call in a rebuild year, but that didn't stop him from showing his flashy personality while putting up good numbers.

Staying genuine through the intensity of the moment was a privilege — and one of the keys to his success.

"Just to be able to be myself on a daily basis and not be judged by anybody, or be told that I need to change, has kind of allowed me to be free and be myself in the clubhouse," Manoah said during the Blue Jays' last homestand of 2021. "And also be able to perform the way I like to perform — energetic and things like that — so, I’m just extremely grateful for the opportunity and the people that I’m surrounded by."

Alek Manoah was put to the test right away in his rookie season. Like many of his teammates, he rose to the challenge.  (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Alek Manoah was put to the test right away in his rookie season. Like many of his teammates, he rose to the challenge. (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

More than simply staying afloat, Manoah managed to carve out a place in the Blue Jays' rotation and help his team in what ended up being a heartbreaking playoff chase. The 23-year-old was called up in late May and turned heads in his debut at Yankee Stadium against a powerful New York lineup. Through the rest of the year, he proved his early success was no fluke. Manoah ended an impressive rookie season with a 3.22 ERA and 127 strikeouts over 111.2 innings pitched.

"You see top prospects come up and they all seem to have to transition and they transition in different ways and it takes some guys a little longer than others," said Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. "But (Manoah) has come up and he’s kind of forced himself right into that position. He’s taken the ball and run with it. He’s certainly not scared and I think he enjoys the limelight. He enjoys being out there and having fun and having fans. And he really enjoys winning, And the guys really enjoy playing behind him."

He's not alone in his success.

Manoah's contributions were matched on the other side of the ball by position players like Santiago Espinal and Alejandro Kirk, who saw themselves go from two-way, utility players to regular and reliable contributors on the biggest stages of their young careers.

"Being in this position is tremendous," said Espinal at the end of the Blue Jays' season. "For me, there are no words to describe how thankful I am. ... You can see how happy we are in the dugout and how happy we are when we play.

"The position we're in right now isn't easy, but nothing is impossible. In the meantime, we're playing ball and having fun against no matter what opponent."

Breyvic Valera, left, and Santiago Espinal of the Toronto Blue Jays warm up ahead of their MLB game against the New York Yankees at Rogers Centre on September 30, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)
Breyvic Valera, left, and Santiago Espinal of the Toronto Blue Jays warm up ahead of their MLB game against the New York Yankees at Rogers Centre on September 30, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)

Espinal and Kirk got their first call-ups in the shortened 2020 season, but it wasn't until this year that they solidified themselves as full-time major-leaguers.

"Certainly for most players in Major League Baseball, it’s easier to break in a rebuild year or a down year," said Walker. "You know, when you don’t have the expectations. But our expectation, we want to win here. We feel like we can win here."

Whatever their role, big or small, the new kids are happy to meet those demands.

The 26-year-old Espinal ended the year with a .311 average, 17 RBIs and six stolen bases over 92 games, often hitting at the bottom of the lineup and splitting his time at third with Breyvic Valera — another guy who found consistency in the second half after bouncing around different teams and levels since 2017.

Kirk, 22 at the end of the season, emerged as one of three catchers on Toronto's major-league roster. Though his defence still needs work, he had eight home runs and 24 RBIs with a .764 OPS.

"They're young, but they're really talented, and they're confident in their talents," said Blue Jays third-base coach Louis Rivera. "And that's so important, that they can trust their abilities, go out on the field and do what they know they're capable of doing."

The Blue Jays have put a lot of effort into ensuring their roster is a harmonious mix of young and veteran talent. Experienced players like Marcus Semien, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Corey Dickerson and George Springer embraced the roles of leaders and mentors for young position players, including rising superstars such as Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

On the pitching side, Manoah has found support from veterans like Hyun-Jin Ryu and Robbie Ray.

"The support staff has been amazing," Manoah said. "My teammates have welcomed me with open arms. Some of the other guys have taken me under their wing and made it kind of a little bit easier for me to be able to be myself and understand some parts of the game and some unwritten rules that have been passed on from generation to generation."

This dynamic was so woven into the team's fabric that it became very clear just how much fun everyone had in the dugout. Through adversity and hard-fought games, the Blue Jays transformed themselves into a powerful club with a light atmosphere, where guys were free to show their personalities and build confidence in their own way.

"I think part of that is really the veteran guys really accepting them and trusting them," said Walker. "And those guys coming in and being in a comfortable environment where they don’t feel that pressure, and that everyone’s in it together. I think the sooner you realize that as a player the more you’ll benefit from it. And I think those guys in particular, Kirk and Espinal and Valera, have all done a great job fitting in, knowing their roles, not trying to do too much, and not putting too much pressure on themselves, and that’s why they perform well."

It was exactly what Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins had in mind when he brought in players like Semien and Ray into the fold. Though Toronto is at the risk of losing both those guys to free agency, their impact will remain even after they're gone.

"I could not be more pleased with how well that group gelled," Atkins said on an end-of-season call with media. "And it's never perfect, and it takes time. But I think at the end of the year it was easy to see. And you didn't have to be in the clubhouse to see it, that there's a very good dynamic in our dugout and our clubhouse. The starting pitchers walking in together, the players celebrating one another. ... So much joy and passion.

"I think, in many ways, our young players made our veteran players better, too. I don't think it was just one direction."

But the early success and welcome environment are far from an excuse to slack off. Toronto's young players understand there's a lot more work to be done.

"I wouldn't say I'm established," said Kirk. "I come out here to play hard every day, and I'm living a dream. I have to keep working just as hard or harder so I can keep living this dream."

That's a sentiment shared throughout the whole group.

"We all kind of have the same goals and the same expectations for ourselves," said Manoah. "We also all want to learn. We all want to get better. We know that we’re really good, but we know we’re not there yet, we know we’re far from making it. So, continuing to get better each and every day and continuing to understand how good we are, but how much better we can be, and just working towards that every day."

Though stars like Bichette, Guerrero Jr. and even Jordan Romano seem to be ahead of schedule in their development, the 2021 season was the first 162-game campaign for many of the Blue Jays' youngsters.

Difficult and elongated schedules, fans back in the stands and several other factors beyond their control caused players to reassess key aspects of their training. 

"They've learned a lot," said Rivera. "How to rest, how to get themselves ready, when to work more and when to work less. It's a process that each player must learn individually."

Toronto's well-documented failure to reach the playoffs in 2021, ending the season one game out of a Wild Card spot in the American League, most certainly will bring valuable lessons of its own.

This fresh, talented core is ready for them.

"I see championships, I really do," said Walker when asked what he believes the future holds for the Blue Jays. "I see a lot of winning. I see guys that want a World Series. They're not here just to go through the motions. ... These guys are winners, they expect to win. And I think this organization is in for a fun ride."

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