Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier returns, with energy to spare

Kevin Kiermaier brings out the lineup card last month, when he was still working back from a thumb injury. [JIM DAMASKE   |   Times]
Kevin Kiermaier brings out the lineup card last month, when he was still working back from a thumb injury. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published June 19 2018
Updated June 20 2018

HOUSTON — Energy.

That's what Kevin Kiermaier said he felt he'd provide most in rejoining the Rays Tuesday against the Astros after missing two-plus months recovering from thumb surgery.

"I like to think I bring energy on both sides of the ball, whether it's hitting a hustle double or making an above average play in the outfield,'' Kiermaier said. "I'm just always very lively. I'm always high energy in the dugout. I always try to play like that, too. No matter what the score is, I want to play the game the right way. I think your teammates see that, and you're just trying to create momentum any way you can for your team.''

And energy is also what manager Kevin Cash said he was most looking for Kiermaier to bring — in centerfield, at the top of the lineup and just overall.

"The defense is the easy answer, but probably just the presence alone, the energy he shows that can ignite a dugout, ignite an offense, ignite a team,'' Cash said. "Unfortunately we've missed that for too many days for three years. To get him back at a time when we're in a tough stretch (playing 16 straight against the contending Yankees, Astros and Nationals) we need something like that. And KK is the right person to provide it.''

The Rays — relatively speaking — did okay since Kiermaier tore the ligament in his right thumb sliding into second on April 15, posting a 30-27 record. That was better than their 29-32 mark last year when he missed two months with a hip fracture and their 14-34 showing in 2016 when he broke his left hand.

They should be a better team on the field with him back, though the supporting cast has changed a bit with the arrival of prospects Willy Adames and Jake Bauers and the departures of Brad Miller, Denard Span and, likely soon, Adeiny Hechavarria.

Kiermaier, no surprise, didn't hide his excitement at returning on "a great day," and several weeks ahead of schedule at that, and flying in his wife, Marisa, for the occasion. He told Cash he wanted to go back to the leadoff spot and is his usually confident self about how much he can help the team, planning to "put my talents back on display.''

If anything, the concern could be that Kiermaier is going to try too hard to do too much too soon. Consider he talked, and texted, his way back after playing only five rehab games. And, with the surgery in the spot where the bat rests in his right hand, he acknowledged that he is and will continue to be sore, with pain tolerance the key.

"It felt great to be back out there with the guys," Kiermaier said after goign 0-for-5 with one strikeout, and making six catches in center. "For the third consecutive year it's my second opening day of the season. Not how you draw it up, but I'm just happy to be back out there again. I faced some really good pitching. I felt good in the box up there, I didn't make  the hard contact I wanted to. I had those first-game jitters throughout the whole game pretty much. I was just to excited."

Kiermaier's return has an impact on several Rays and in many ways, including:

Mallex Smith. He did a solid job as the primary fill-in for Kiermaier, hitting .263 with 13 RBIs and 10 steals, making three errors and logging just one assist playing 52 games in center. Smith, a lefty hitter, will still "play a lot,'' Cash said, sliding primarily to leftfield, as he did Monday, but also getting some time in right. "He's done a good job and I think he's deserving to play,'' Cash said. "He's probably back in a spot where it benefits us most in left, or right when he goes over there at certain times.'' Smith also may benefit from not playing every day as he tends to look tired and worn down at times.

Johnny Field and Carlos Gomez. Only one is going to play against right-handed starters, and from what Cash said it won't always be the veteran Gomez, who has been struggling much of the season, over the unheralded rookie Field, who has impressed. "I don't think it's going to hurt Carlos Gomez to have an extra day here and there,'' Cash said. "Kind of like the infield thing, I'm going to have to do a good job at making sure everybody gets some consistency and also rest.''

Rob Refsndyer. He was the obvious odd man out, designated for assignment to clear space on the 25- and 40-man rosters, given his lack of production (.167 overall, 0-for-his-last-18) and role as the extra right-handed hitting outfielder.

Rays pitchers. Seeing Kiermaier covering gap to gap in center should increase their confidence in pitching to contact, knowing his run-prevention value, evidenced by his majors-most 85 defensive runs saved since 2015, and despite his missed time. "The things he can do in centerfield are unreal,'' starter Nathan Eovaldi said. "To have KK back in center is really going to help us out.''

Opposing pitchers. Having Kiermaier back changes the dynamic of attacking the Rays lineup. "He's a difficult at-bat,'' Houston's Lance McCullers Jr. said. "He's got some power and he's got a ton of speed. When you've got multiple guys in the lineup that get on base and turn a single into a double or turn a ball into the gap from (a man on) first to a scored run, you've got to be careful with those guys. He's definitely someone you have to pay attention to.''

Marisa Kiermaier.  Kevin admitted he was tough to live with when idled, especially when forced to watch from home when the Rays were on the road, so she is also glad he is back to work. "It's tough being on the couch,'' he said.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays