Sunday, February 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays' Kevin Kiermaier makes a name for himself

BALTIMORE — Kevin Kiermaier has already made a nickname for himself.

It's kind of a funny tale, a subject of mock controversy among his Rays minor-league teammates, as to whether someone actually suggested it, as Kiermaier innocently maintains, or if he just bestowed it upon himself, as his buddies playfully hint.

Anyway, here's his story of how he became known as The Outlaw:

"In 2010, my rookie year (in pro ball) I played rightfield and then in 2011 they moved me back to centerfield (at Class A Bowling Green) so I was really pumped. And I said I'm going to do whatever I can to stick in centerfield because that's where I want to play. So I really started making some nice diving catches and I had like 21 outfield assists that year. Someone came up to me and said, 'Hey man, you play the outfield like an … outlaw.' I said, 'Wow, that has a nice little ring to it.' So I was like, 'Hey, you can call me that if you want.' So from there, it kind of is self-proclaimed."

That Kiermaier can't recall who the person was, or when or where the conversation took place, only fuels the intrigue.

Infielder Cole Figueroa, who has taken the ribbing public on Twitter, says now, "I can't throw him under the bus again." Though with some prodding, he allows, "If Kevin" — air quotes — "made up" — end air quotes — "the nickname, it fits him perfectly, so I give him a break. If it was something kind of cheesy, I'd rip on him some more.

"But it's a great nickname, you've got to admit that."

Indeed. In a month of playing somewhat regularly since his latest call-up, Kiermaier has shown to be quite the thief with a series of dazzling, highlights-worthy, how'd-he-do-that plays to rob, steal and pilfer opponents of hits and runs.

And combining that elite-level defense with incessant hustle, aggressive baserunning and better-than-expected hitting, Kiermaier, 24, is starting to make a name for himself as well.

"He's done a lot of good work," manager Joe Maddon said.

Kiermaier has been compared to ex-Ray Sam Fuld for the energy he brings, and Maddon went further, suggesting former Angels All-Star Darin Erstad.

Kiermaier — a 31st-round draft pick who made an unexpected debut in last season's Game 163 — is honored and humbled by such attention, but nowhere near satisfied.

"It's cool to be compared to some of these guys, but at the same time I want to be known as the only Kevin Kiermaier in baseball because I play 100 percent every day and I promise you won't find someone who plays harder than me," he said.

"I kind of make my own legacy by letting people know who watch me for the first time that the kid is doing it the right way. So that's what I'm going to do. That's the only way I know how to play. Sometimes it might be a little reckless, I might take some risks other guys don't. But that's kind of how of I've been my whole life, and I feel like that's part of what got me here to the big leagues, and I'm here to stay."

Given the opportunity to play regularly with Wil Myers' injury, Kiermaier said he has a simple primary goal on and off the field: "My main thing this year is that I don't want to look like a rookie."

There are some things Kiermaier has already impressed Maddon with, starting with his max effort running the bases, the quality of his at-bats (especially for a guy whose rep was that he couldn't hit enough) and the overall tenacity with which he plays.

And there are some things Kiermaier has to improve on, such as better routes and decision-making in the outfield (and getting adjusted to the corners), becoming more comfortable bunting for hits (to take better advantage of his speed), and using the whole field with his left-handed swing.

Also, he's learning the procedures for leaving tickets for friends and the proper way to tip on the road and the protocol for team flights.

And there are still some things for his mates to tease him about, like the hip-hop song Bugatti he's been using for his walk-up music.

How does a country music fan from Fort Wayne, Ind., blare beats about waking up in a new multi-million dollar Bugatti sports car?

There's a funny end story to that, too. Kiermaier used to use a Luke Bryan country song, Muckalee Creek Water. But that was in 2012, the year he broke both hands playing for Class A Charlotte and he no longer wanted any part of it.

So when he started last season at Double-A Montgomery, he decided to pick something totally different to change his luck. And after having his best season, including promotions to Triple-A Durham and then the Rays on the season's final day, there was no way he was changing this year, and it's served him well again, as he is hitting .300 with a .920 on-base plus slugging percentage.

"It's been working, that's what I'll give him for that," Figueroa said. "If he keeps doing what he's doing right now, he's going to wake up in a new one."

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

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