Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Fennelly: Rays' Kiermaier catching on at the plate, too

ST. PETERSBURG — There are tricks to batting second. Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier learned that Wednesday. I'm sure he scribbled it down after.

Note to self: Do NOT conk leadoff man on helmet with bat.

Onward.

Is this man more than a pretty glove?

Kier­maier changes games in center. It's his kingdom. He climbs walls and chases down rallies. He saves runs. Kiermaier is wins above replacement before he ever steps to the plate.

"He's the best defensive player I've ever seen," Rays manager Cash said.

"I think I'm the best defensive player in the game," Kiermaier said. "And that's not me being cocky. I just don't feel like any other outfielder can control a game like I can from out there."

Well, it's a little cocky.

Love it.

The Rays just need more of that when Kiermaier picks up a bat.

Which brings us to the experiment.

Kiermaier is batting No. 2 in the order. Cash moved him up two weeks ago. Kiermaier is hitting. He's walking. He's bunting. He's stealing. He's using his speed. It's as if somebody got to him.

Somebody did.

The 2015 Platinum Glove Award winner doesn't have to be Tony Gwynn. But he has to make a bigger dent, more than a .220 average, his current number. Kiermaier, 26, is way too young to be permanently labeled all field, no hit. There's time to grow. But the Rays need to know.

"I'm happy about moving up there," Kiermaier said Monday after three hits, including a three-run homer, a walk and two stolen bases. "The message is that this is something they want next year, and they want me to get comfortable right now."

True, he's 0-for-8 since Monday, but Kiermaier has his marching orders, as well as his walking, bunting and running orders.

"We called him in, talked to him," Cash said. "We told him we had an opportunity here the rest of the season, because we think that to be the kind of offense we want, he has got to be the guy creating havoc before the big boys come up there."

Kiermaier is hitting .255 (14-for-55) since moving up in the order. He already has more walks (30) than he did last season, despite missing nearly two months this year with a broken hand.

On the Rays' last road trip, the new KK laid down three bunts for hits. Two of the bunts started out as sacrifices. Kiermaier's speed made them something more. He hadn't bunted for a single in more than a year.

"I know now that I don't have to lay down a perfect bunt," Kiermaier said.

It took this long to figure that out?

The education of Kevin Kiermaier continues. He's embracing the game the Rays want from him, the game the next step in his career demands.

Take what is given, use your gifts. A walk is as good as a hit. A hit and steal are as good as a hustle double. And anything is better than a weak pop fly.

"I want them to trust me that I can hit up there," Kiermaier said.

"I think he's learned a ton the last couple of weeks," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "He's putting the ball in play. He's moving the ball. He's trusting his ability, his legs, really."

"It's a situation where defenders now have to be aware of KK," hitting coach Derek Shelton said.

The broken hand didn't help Kiermaier's 2016. But he batted .263 in each of his first two seasons, seen as a bonus given his glove.

Only …

"I don't want to be just a defensive guy," Kiermaier said. "I want to be a guy who does damage at the plate and on the base paths."

Batter up.

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