ST. PETERSBURG — It's not 2017 yet, but it kind of is around Tropicana Field, where the last-place Rays are trying to put in place the pieces they hope to use next season.
Witness Kevin Kiermaier batting second, a move made Tuesday and one that is expected to continue over the remaining 57 games of this lost campaign.
"We know if he's capable of handling this, our offense really gets a boost," manager Kevin Cash said before the Rays' 3-2 loss to the Royals in front of 12,625 at Tropicana Field.
Kiermaier was on base in each of his final four plate appearances. Included was a bunt single in the fifth inning that helped produce the only two runs the Rays would score.
"They just said they want me to create a spark at the top of the order, get me used to the two-hole and hit there next year," Kiermaier said. "I would think that's what it means."
Kiermaier created some sparks Tuesday. Problem was, the sparks didn't ignite anything outside of the fifth inning.
The Rays (42-63) left 11 runners on base and went 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position in losing their fifth straight game this season to the Royals (51-55) and 12th in their past 13 games to the defending World Series champs.
The Rays are 8-9 since the All-Star Break. They are batting .403 with runners in scoring position during the eight wins and .141 during the nine losses.
Cash juggled his lineup Tuesday. He dropped Brad Miller to cleanup and moved Kiermaier up to second.
As part of his new duties at the plate, the Rays want Kiermaier to become a more complete hitter, which means bunt more often.
He did that in the fifth inning after Logan Forsythe drew a leadoff walk.
Kiermaier squared around on the first pitch from Royals starter Yordano Ventura and watched it bounce past catcher Salvador Perez for a wild pitch that advanced Forsythe to second.
Kiermaier then dragged a bunt toward first and easily beat Ventura's throw. The ball got past first baseman Eric Hosmer, allowing Forsythe to score the tying run.
One out later, Kiermaier used his speed to move from first base to third on Miller's infield single to second base. From there, Kiermaier easily scored on Desmond Jennings' grounder to short.
"I'm glad they trust me in the two-spot," Kiermaier said. "Their message to me is they don't want me to put any extra pressure on myself, and I won't. I want to be up there. I want to hit behind Logan Forsythe and I want to hit in front of (Evan Longoria) and hopefully I can give you a little taste of what the lineup's going to be like next year, even though I'm not getting away from what we're doing this year. But this is going to help me get that mental mind-set of what they want me to do at the top of the order, and just get on base and try to create a spark and let the big guys drive me in."