In 2013, a tall (make that really tall) guy entered the visiting dugout of the Staten Island Yankees, cracking a few silly jokes that got everyone around him laughing. Later that day, he took the mound and showcased the other half. A power arm. A fiery energy. A steely determination. And a big dose of wildness he'd need to harness.
Chris Kirsch, in a nutshell, was a pitcher with all the makings of a fun baseball story, and one that could be a big success or a journey full of struggles.
So far, mostly the former is true.
Kirsch, a 14th round pick by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012, has advanced through the Rays system at a steady pace. At 23, he's never made any of the Rays prospect lists, but the bigger surprise is that he barely gets the attention he's earned. There's a tendency by prospect writers to focus on the higher draft picks. Projection is everything. But results don't talk as loud as they should in the prospect conversation. While the Rays have expressed a possibility that he could move to the bullpen in the future, he's making a case for a starting role as he continues to develop.
The lefty finished 2013 with the Hudson Valley Renegades (Class-A, Short Season) with a stronger second half than first. He showed improvement with each start, exhibiting the cool head that now comes easier to him.
"I think what's been the biggest key to my success has been the mental part of the game," he said this weekend. "I've been able to clear my head and not worry about other stuff. I used to have trouble with that, but now I'm able to focus from pitch to pitch and it's been huge for me."
He followed up that season with a strong Midwest League campaign. He pitched a career-high 133 innings, going 9-8 in 24 starts with a 2.83 ERA. He also finished with 82 strikeouts and 41 walks allowed. This year, he's been a huge part of the Charlotte Stone Crabs domination of the Florida State League. In 11 starts, he's got a 2.55/1.15 ERA/WHIP with 45 strikeouts.
"Our team chemistry couldn't be better. From the start of the season, we all knew we were the team to beat," he said. "We just had that kind of sense in the clubhouse. Everyone walks in there expecting to win every day. At the same time, we're a loose group of guys and enjoy doing what we do. I think that helps us. We don't feel pressure. We just go out there and play."
His first-half performance seemed to ensure a ticket to participate in the FSL All-Star Game. But when the final names were announced, he wasn't one of them. After Juniel Querecuto was scratched, lefty Kirsch was called on to replace him. He pitched an inning and was credited for the win.
"[It was] awesome! It was my first All-Star Game of my professional career and it was an honor to be selected to play. The festivities before the game, like the home run derby, were really fun to watch. It was so laid back and everyone was there just to enjoy themselves and have a good time. Nobody put any pressure on themselves performance-wise. It was a real laid back, joking atmosphere which was really cool," he said.
As for his personal performance, there's been one pitch that's been most effective and there was deliberate effort to make that happen.
"I think this year it's been my change-up. I went into this past off-season knowing I needed to come back to Spring Training with a change-up and a good one. So that's what I focused on the most and I think I was able to accomplish that this off-season. I'm able to throw it with confidence consistently."
That discipline comes from a place that he's never forgotten. On the field in college as part of the Lackawanna Falcons, Kirsch says he learned everything that makes him the player and person he's become from Lackawanna head coach Chris Pensak.
"Coach Pensak played a huge part in my development. He gave me the wind up that I still use today. He also instilled a work ethic in me that I didn't have in high school and that's something that I carry with me. He not only played a huge part in my development on the field, but off the field as well. I'm the person I am today because of that man. I was very lucky to have him as my coach, because of how much my life changed. When I got news of his dismissal, I was in shock," said Kirsch.
Kirsch's signature passion is ignited as he goes on to talk about Pensak's dismissal. It's something that his former player cannot imagine or understand.
"The program will never be the same there. He built a dynasty. The number of things he accomplished there, the list goes on and on. I could go on and on about how much of an importance he has been in my life and to every player that walks through those doors to play baseball there. But for his dismissal...they gave him no reason as to why they weren't renewing his contract and that's because they didn't have one. He did nothing but win at that school. And I'm sure there's plenty of other schools now begging him to be their coach."
As the second half begins, Kirsch is focused on a key area. Set them down early.
"Doc Watson and I have been working on putting hitters away with two strikes. Learning how to sequence hitters. It's a work in progress so far," he said. "I think I've made huge strides, but there's still a lot of work to be done."
You can follow Chris Kirsch on Twitter @ChrisKirsch9