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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 topkin@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

. FAST facts

Historical context

OF Kevin Kiermaier last season became the first player in major-league history to make his debut in a single-game tiebreaker, per the Elias Sports Bureau, and the second to do so in his team's 163rd or later game of a season. In 1964, Elvio Jimenez debuted with the Yankees in their 164th and final game.

One pitch led Rays' Kiermaier to majors 02/22/14 [Last modified: Saturday, February 22, 2014 9:32pm]
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