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Rays journal: Kevin Kiermaier pleased with spring reset

The centerfielder hits the ball sharply the other way twice and makes a defensive play in Tuesday’s win over the Orioles.
Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier laughs during batting practice before Monday's game against the Marlins. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier laughs during batting practice before Monday's game against the Marlins. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published Feb. 26, 2019|Updated Feb. 26, 2019

SARASOTA — As much as Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier was pleased with emerging from his first Grapefruit League game in four days with his heel blister issue behind him, he was more satisfied that he hit the ball hard to the opposite field twice in his three plate appearances in Tuesday’s 11-5 win over the Orioles.

Kiermaier, whose battle through foot and thumb injuries last season was compounded by struggles at the plate when he was healthy, said he often tried to swing “out of his shoes” last season in an effort to make hard contact. He is going into this spring focusing on taking pitches to all fields.

In his first at bat on Tuesday, Kiermaier hit an opposite-field double down the left-field line off Orioles starter Mike Wright, then sharply grounded out to third in his second at bat. He reached on a fielding error by second baseball Jace Peterson before he was replaced by a pinch runner.

“I made a point this offseason, where I said, ‘I need to change some things,’” Kiermaier said. “(Last season) was a great learning lesson for me. I’m not changing mechanically a whole lot. It’s a less-is-more type of approach now. …

“It’s a point just to hit line drives and see the ball first and let your hands do the work from there. I’ve learned from my experiences so I think you’re going to see me using all fields more consistently, hopefully throughout the spring and the entire season, than I’ve ever made it a point my entire career. It’s all a mind-set first.”

Kiermaier also threw out his first baserunner of the season, nabbing Yusniel Diaz attempting to go to first to third on a two-out single by Rio Ruiz to shallow center. The play, in which Kiermaier threw on the run, prevented a run from scoring.

Rays manager Kevin Cash was pleased to see Kiermaier get back to his typically stellar defense after he fell pursuing the first ball hit to him in Friday’s spring opener. He missed the next three games with a heel blister prompted by breaking in a new pair of cleats.

"Nice to have him back," manager Kevin Cash said. "He looked good, looked good on defense. He was frustrated the first time he played, so it was nice to see a big play he made, but we see that a lot."

After Tuesday’s game, Kiermaier said the blister is a thing of the past. Despite sitting Monday, he tested the heel in pregame without discomfort, and will now play on consecutive days for the first time this spring on Wednesday against the Red Sox in Port Charlotte.

“It felt good,” Kiermaier said. “I don’t feel anything with the blister, so I feel like a whole new player, which is great. ... I don’t want that to ever (happen again). I might get some here and there, but I don’t ever want it to get that extreme. That was a rough one. But it feels good now and it feels good to be back out there. I feel really good at the plate, seeing the ball well, and that’s a good sign early on, because usually the game seems really fast this time of the year.”

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Pagan stretches out

The Rays made an 11th-hour adjustment to start right-hander Emilio Pagan instead of Ryan Merritt. Perhaps it was to take a look at the reliever in an opener setting, or to ensure he’d get extended work in despite a bleak weather forecast.

Pagan pitched better than his line indicated. He allowed two runs on four hits over two innings, but the first run came on a wild pitch that manager Kevin Cash said catcher Nick Ciuffo would usually get, then another followed on a sacrifice fly.

Pagan threw 30 pitches in his outing. He recorded two strikeouts, both called Strike 3s that came on curveballs and both coming against left-handed hitters.

“That was a good sign,” Pagan said of striking out Chris Davis and Chance Sisco. “Curveball was better today than it was the first outing, I was happy to see I got some bad takes on it.

“I felt good. I probably could have kept going if I had to. For this early to feel that good physically, I’m happy about it.”

Game recap

The Rays won their first Grapefruit League game in five tries after rallying for a 10-run eighth inning that saw Tampa Bay send 14 batters to the plate. The game was suspended before the bottom of the eighth inning could be completed, but the score stood. … Rightfielder Jesus Sanchez, ranked the Rays’ sixth-best prospect in the latest Baseball America rankings, fueled the big inning with a three-run homer off Orioles minor-leaguer Jay Flaa. … Christian Arroyo followed with his first spring homer to give the Rays back-to-back homers. … Right-hander Diego Castillo rebounded from a rocky spring debut with a perfect sixth inning on three weakly hit groundball outs. “A lot of soft contact,” Cash said. “The three balls put in play were not hit very hard. That’s a good sign.”

Spring things

Infielder Matt Duffy could play in his first Grapefruit League game as soon as Thursday after testing his hamstring recently by running the bases. Cash called Thursday a soft target date, and if Duffy isn’t ready, he’ll likely return Sunday. “If it’s Thursday or Sunday it doesn’t bother me,” Cash said. “He said, ‘Well I don’t want it to be Sunday.’ So he’s champing at the bit to play. So far everything’s been good.”

Right-hander Charlie Morton will make his first Grapefruit League start in Friday’s road game against the Orioles. There had been some discussion about whether to let Morton — and left-hander Blake Snell, who makes his first spring start Thursday against the Twins, for that matter — begin to build spring innings in a sim game instead of throwing him against a division opponent. "I think we’ll let them drive that a bit, let them kind of get a sense for them.,” Cash said. “(Morton) will pitch in games, there’s no doubt about that. If we can avoid him seeing the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Orioles, the Blue Jays, it’s probably not the worst thing in the world. But some guys don’t care.”

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Related: Kevin Kiermaier: ‘I’m still a really damn good player and I’m going to go prove that'

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.