Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays will have to adjust to loss of dynamic Kiermaier (w/video)

DETROIT — The gruesome sight of diving centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier's left hand bending to the point of breaking cast an immediate and understandable pall over the Rays dugout Saturday afternoon, even before official word came he had broken two bones, with the potential to be out at least two months.

For a team already missing 2015 MVP Logan Forsythe, and still waiting for All-Star closer Brad Boxberger to return from March surgery, it was a staggering and sobering moment in the midst of what ended up a 5-4 loss to the Tigers.

"Huge part of our team, huge part of the clubhouse morale and everything," veteran third baseman Evan Longoria said. "So, pretty big blow. Losing Logan was big. And now this."

Manager Kevin Cash tried to walk a fine line, acknowledging how much Kiermaier means to them — in the field, on the bases, at the plate and around the clubhouse — but trying to downplay the potential impact of his potentially extended absence.

"It's a big loss, but the guys in this clubhouse carry themselves really well," Cash said. "They'll kind of rally around each other and pick each other up. KK is a huge part of what we're doing, and when he gets back he'll be right back in there.

"But in the meantime, guys will adjust. We'll be fine. We'll be all right. The last thing you want to say is that it's a horrible loss and we're not going to be able to recover from that. We'll be fine."

To illustrate his point, Cash raved about how the Rays responded subsequently to the injury, which happened with them down 1-0 in fifth. First Longoria tied it with a homer, but the Tigers struck for four runs, with a two-run homer off Rays starter Drew Smyly, who pitched very well, and another off reliever Steve Geltz, who once again did not.

Then down 5-1, with five outs left in their miserable day, the Rays rallied. A walk, a single and a Brad Miller triple scored two, and a passed ball on strike three to Longoria got them to within 5-4.

"Proud of the way the guys came back — that was pretty awesome," Cash said. "It was deflating what took place with KK, then we go down 5-1, knowing we had the back end of their pen to deal with. Pretty impressive how they put together that inning to get us right back in the game."

That type of gritty resolve will be vital going forward for a group that had quietly been calling themselves "The Rats" based on how hard they play.

"It's kind of like our mantra," Steve Pearce had explained Friday. "Rats, baby. We get after it. We don't have the big-name guys, obviously except for Longoria. We grind. We get after it. We find a way to get it done. We find a way to win ballgames."

That approach is good. Cash's confidence is valid. There are other talented players who will get more chances.

But it's nowhere near the same as playing for weeks, if not months, without one of the most dynamic players in the game.

"He's our backbone," Smyly said. "He does a lot of good stuff for us."

Kiermaier won Gold and Platinum gloves last year for his defensive prowess, saving a whopping 42 runs by one metric, and making it plain for anyone to see with how he covered the gaps and allowed the Rays to position the rest of their defense accordingly. And he could similarly change games with his speed on the bases, turning singles into doubles, forcing fielders into mistakes.

"I think we all know the energy that he brings to our team on a daily basis," Cash said. "We'll kind of have to work together to get through that a little bit."

Desmond Jennings, who had played his way onto the bench and into at least speculation, if not actual discussion, about what would be a stunning demotion to Triple A, seems likely to get a chance at redemption and conceivably a return to centerfield. Mikie Mahtook is being recalled from Triple A and offers an interesting mix of athleticism, with speed and power that could play well.

But, still, it's not the same as Kiermaier, who was fighting back tears as he spoke of how it will pain him to be sidelined — "I just want to get better and get back on the field, that's the thing that bothers me the most" — with what technically are two broken metacarpals, with a re-evaluation slated for Monday.

"We'll have to kind of regroup (today) and find a way to overcome," Longoria said. "We've had some tough situations over the years. I feel like we have the guys in here to do it. We have the mind-set. We'll just need some different guys to step up and have to get some contributions from the top down. But it's a tough blow."

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

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