Monday, December 11, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

One pitch led Rays' Kiermaier to majors

PORT CHARLOTTE — The story of how Kevin Kiermaier made his big-league debut last fall is dizzying enough: summoned weeks after his minor-league season was over to join the Rays in Texas and ending up in centerfield for the final out of the Game 163 playoff, then again in the AL wild-card game in Cleveland.

"Such a crazy experience," Kiermaier said. "I don't know if it has sunk in yet."

But the story of how he got the chance to be there might be even more improbable.

Especially the way Kiermaier tells it: that every single thing that has happened in his career literally came down to one pitch in an Indiana high school game six years ago.

"It's really kind of scary to think about," he said.

In short, Kiermaier got the chance to get drafted only because he got to play in junior college only because his high school team advanced in the state tournament only because of that one pitch in a playoff game he threw.

"That's pretty accurate," Gary Rogers, coach of the Fort Wayne Bishop Luers High School team, said. "How lucky, huh?"

In specific, it's an even better tale.

Kiermaier's team was facing Decatur's Adams Central in an Indiana 2008 state sectional playoff game, tied at 5 in extra innings. Kiermaier, the Knights' ace, was on the mound and in a mess, loading the bases with a full count on the batter.

Kiermaier still remembers that next pitch vividly: a fastball up and away, definitely ball four, forcing in what would have been a staggering go-ahead run. But the hitter — a kid named Austin Gross who had no idea until a reporter called this week that he would become a footnote to history — swung and missed, keeping the score tied and Kiermaier's baseball career alive.

A rally, a rain delay until the next morning, a baserunning mistake by Kiermaier and a walkoff homer by best buddy Tyler Watts and the Knights advanced. They rolled from there, through regions, state semifinal, then to the Class 2A state championship, picking up an important fan along the way: Parkland College coach Matt Kennedy.

Having just gotten his first head coaching job at the community college in Champaign, Ill., Kennedy was desperately seeking players. He may have heard Kiermaier's name but had no sense of his athleticism and talent until seeing him in the state semifinals, offering him a chance to extend a career that otherwise would have been over, or all but.

All because Gross — "Go figure," he said. "That's pretty funny" — swung at that one bad pitch.

"If it would have been a ball, I don't know what would have happened," Kiermaier said. "If I would have walked the guy and we would have been down by one, all the pressure would have been on us going into the bottom of that eighth inning.

"And if we didn't win that game, then the season would have been done and my high school career would have been over and I wouldn't have had my junior college coach come see me."

Kennedy tells the story the same way, saying "that's the only way it would have happened." Though he makes it sound as if he was the lucky one: "The first time I saw him swing I was sold. … I kind of had to talk him into it."

Kiermaier didn't have the grades for many options and was leaning toward staying close to home. He could have gone to one of the nearby NAIA schools, Huntington or Indiana Tech, knowing he would get little if any exposure baseball-wise but figuring he would get started on a planned career in police work.

But Kennedy convinced him and his buddy Watts to come to Parkland, and it couldn't have worked out better over two tremendous seasons. "The best thing that ever could have happened to me," Kiermaier said. "I don't think I'd be here if I went to a different college."

In leading the Cobras to one national title and a fifth-place finish, Kiermaier posted big numbers (.427 with 30 homers, 121 RBIs and 175 runs in 110 games), picking up third-team All-America honors and enough attention from Rays scout Tom Couston to end up a 31st-round pick in the 2010 draft — 941st overall, not that Kiermaier was counting — and get a $75,000 contract.

Kiermaier, 23, took it from there, earning a reputation as a tireless worker and an elite-level defensive outfielder while climbing the Rays system, rewarded with what forever will be a remarkable debut.

"It's a good story," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

"A real good story," Watts said. "Kevin being Kevin."

Kiermaier — who nearly gave up baseball as a high school sophomore — is confident there is more to come, hopeful that even though he likely will start this season at Triple-A Durham, he'll eventually get back to the majors and stick around.

And he'll always remember the one pitch that made it all possible.

"I like to think everything happens for a reason," Kiermaier said. "Thankfully it happened the way it did, because it pretty much set up the future for my whole life."

Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

Comments
Live from Disney: Winter meetings update, day 1

Live from Disney: Winter meetings update, day 1

UPDATE, 10:30: In addition to the Cardinals, the Rockies and Mets are considered hot in pursuit of Rays closer Alex Colome. …. Keep hearing the Angels as a potential landing spot for 3B Evan Longoria if the Rays deal him. … Rays manager K...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Rays manager Kevin Cash on trade speculation, bullpen staffing, Yankees addition of Giancarlo Stanton

Rays manager Kevin Cash on trade speculation, bullpen staffing, Yankees addition of Giancarlo Stanton

Rays manager Kevin Cash was first up in the media room at the winter meetings today and here are a few up the more interesting things he said:* On trade speculation regarding their veterans such as Chris Archer and Evan Longoria: "I know there is a l...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Tampa Bay Rays cornerstone Evan Longoria “somewhere in limbo” due to trade speculation

Tampa Bay Rays cornerstone Evan Longoria “somewhere in limbo” due to trade speculation

Franchise cornerstone 3B Evan Longoria considers his future with the Rays "somewhere in limbo" based on speculation he could be traded as part of a cost-cutting and rebuilding movement."I don't know what to think, really,'' Longoria told the Tampa Ba...
Published: 12/11/17
Veteran 3B Evan Longoria as uncertain as anyone about Rays’ plans

Veteran 3B Evan Longoria as uncertain as anyone about Rays’ plans

LAKE BUENA VISTA — Uncertain with all the talk about potentially rebuilding if the Rays would go as far as trading franchise cornerstone 3B Evan Longoria?So is he."I don’t know what to think, really,’’ Longoria said via text message Sunday night as t...
Updated: 10 hours ago
AL East life gets even tougher for Rays with Yankees acquiring slugger Giancarlo Stanton from Marlins

AL East life gets even tougher for Rays with Yankees acquiring slugger Giancarlo Stanton from Marlins

The Marlins apparently found a trade to Giancarlo Stanton's liking, reportedly striking a deal early Saturday to send the slugging outfielder to the Yankees.That's bad news for the Rays and the other AL East teams, who will now have to face Stanton &...
Published: 12/09/17
Rays radio broadcaster Andy Freed takes part in event supporting fight against ALS

Rays radio broadcaster Andy Freed takes part in event supporting fight against ALS

Tampa Bay Rays radio broadcaster Andy Freed was up early Saturday to meet up with the Bladerunners team in Clearwater at the ALS Association Florida Chapter's annual Ride, Run, Roll to Defeat ALS, supporting Mike Leist, a former history teacher at St...
Published: 12/09/17
Winter Meetings Preview: Ranking the Rays most likely to be dealt

Winter Meetings Preview: Ranking the Rays most likely to be dealt

Rays officials head to Disney for this week’s winter meetings admitting they don’t know what they’re doing. Wait — that’s not exactly right. It’s more that they don’t know what they’re going to do.Having spent months collecting info and discussing op...
Published: 12/08/17
Updated: 12/09/17
Dwight Gooden dons Santa suit, but scene is hardly festive

Dwight Gooden dons Santa suit, but scene is hardly festive

NEW YORK — In one sense, there was nothing unusual about what Dwight Gooden was doing Tuesday night. In the spirit of the holiday season, he had been summoned to dress like Santa Claus and, as a result, was decked out in a red suit and hat, a curly w...
Published: 12/08/17

Rays sue outgoing concessionaire over "sad history" of failures

The Tampa Bay Rays sued outgoing concessionaire Centerplate in U.S. District Court on Friday, alleging the company harmed the team’s reputation, damaged its facilities and did not pay a fair share of revenue as part of a "sad history of failing to fu...
Published: 12/08/17
Ohtani makes surprising decision in picking Angels; will face Rays in July at the Trop

Ohtani makes surprising decision in picking Angels; will face Rays in July at the Trop

Japanese two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani decided on his team Friday, and it was something of a surprise as he opted to sign with the Angels.The Mariners and Padres had emerged as the favorites from the seven teams that were chosen, from the full fiel...
Published: 12/08/17