CINCINNATI — Getting told he was being sent back down to Triple-A Durham after Saturday's game, albeit not surprising, had to be disappointing for Rays rookie outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, though he masked it well.
That's because everything else Kiermaier was hearing was so good — raves, high praise and cheers as he stood in the middle of clubhouse celebration after his throw to the plate was the key play in the Rays' 1-0 matinee win over the Reds.
"I told him we won that game (Saturday) because of what he did," manager Joe Maddon said. "That's the play of the game. That's the play of the season so far."
On a day when the Rays played dazzling defense all around the field, Alex Cobb was extremely sharp, James Loney homered and closer Grant Balfour delivered without (much) drama, the story was Kiermaier, the 23-year-old making his first big-league start after a Friday callup.
The Rays were ahead, thanks to Loney's second-inning homer, when Joey Votto, who doubled to open the fourth, raced around third as Brandon Phillips' single rolled into centerfield.
Kiermaier charged it aggressively and unleashed a throw to the plate so strong that, even a couple of feet to the first-base side, it still gave catcher Ryan Hanigan plenty of time to make the tag.
"I said if anything is hit to me, I'm going to throw him out. It's my favorite thing to do out there on defense," Kiermaier said. "Once it left my hand and I saw Ryan scoop it up and put the tag on him, I felt great. Little did I know it would be the pivotal play in the game. It felt phenomenal."
Saturday was the latest feel-good moment in Kiermaier's career. He was the player summoned unexpectedly from a prospects hitting camp in Port Charlotte in September to join the Rays in Texas for Game 163 and made his debut as a late-inning defensive replacement, then did so again in the American League wild-card game.
Then he got called up to Cincinnati, where his brother Dan just moved and only a three-hour drive from his hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind., so his parents and a dozen buddies could see him for the first time as a big-leaguer. And then he got to start. That he went 0-for-4, robbed by a diving Phillips at second on a smash to the right side, hardly mattered.
"It couldn't have worked out any better," he said.
Maddon couldn't say enough, claiming Kiermaier — in his brief stints — was already among the best outfielders in the majors. "He's an absolute weapon," Maddon said. "It's the perfect example of how you can win a baseball game without getting a hit."
Neither could Cobb, who said he had been hearing so much about Kiermaier and what a great arm he had. "All that's been going on is talk, talk, talk hyping this guy up," Cobb said. "And I saw it firsthand (Saturday), and it was unbelievable."
Kiermaier had been told to expect a short stay, so he knew when summoned to Maddon's office after the game what was coming as the Rays added reliever Erik Bedard to the roster. He insisted he wasn't bitter, that he had more to work on in the minors in hopes of coming back soon to stay.
But as he was about to start packing, someone pointed out that he had now played in three games for the Rays — Game 163, the AL wild card and Saturday — and they had won them all.
"I know," Kiermaier said. "That should be incentive for them to keep me up here."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]bay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.