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A case for Rays’ defense with Kevin Kiermaier, Willy Adames in lead roles

Centerfielder’s usual strong play and improved work by the young shortstop makes Rays one of AL’s tidiest clubs.
Though not with the degree of difficult of his Monday catch in San Diego, Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier leaps at the wall to snag a deep fly ball from Seattle Mariners' Mallex Smith in the third inning of a baseball game Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, in Seattle. [ELAINE THOMPSON | Associated Press]
Published Aug. 14

SAN DIEGO – Kevin Kiermaier was doing Kevin Kiermaier things again late Monday night.

Racing through the outfield, soaring high into the air and making a spectacular home-run robbing catch.

Also, crashing hard into the wall, banging his head enough to feel a bit loopy and knocking himself out of Tuesday’s lineup.

And, detailing not only how good the catch and how perfect his maneuvers were, was but reminding all where he ranks among the best major-league outfielders.

“I always say if you want this elite reputation you’ve got to make elite plays,'' Kiermaier said. "And I think that was an elite play.

“Still always trying to make a case that I just don’t think anyone else can do what I can do out there.’’

Kiermaier has been doing it pretty well this season, leading all AL outfielders with 15 defensive runs saved per fangraphs.com. And thus a big part of the reason, along with shortstop Willy Adames, the Rays are one of the tidiest teams in the league, ranking second overall with 56 runs saved, behind Houston’s 69.

“It really shows up in tight games,’’ manager Kevin Cash said Tuesday. “And we play a lot of tight games.’’

Their flashing of the leather is a key element in their bid for a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013, as they went into Tuesday’s late game against the Padres at 70-50 and with a two-game lead over Oakland for the second AL wild-card.

We’ve seen Adames going deep in the hole and making a jump throw to first for the Derek Jeter play he’s been longing his whole career to make. Guillermo Heredia crashing into the outfield wall to make a running catch. Avisail Garcia doing his best NFL linebacker impression running down balls in the outfield. And Mike Zunino making up for his lack of offense with sturdy work behind the plate.

But Kiermaier is definitely the featured attraction.

Monday’s catch ranked as one of the best in his ever-expanding portfolio of highlights, though he put it below his signature grab in Baltimore in 2015.

“That would be in my career top five,’’ Kiermaier said Tuesday. “The degree of difficulty, had to run a long way and then you have to jump running full speed. And that’s not easy to do.’’

Playing a bit shallow with Francisco Mejia batting in the eighth inning and his Rays leading 10-2, Kiermaier said at first he wasn’t sure if he would get there as he covered what Statcast estimated to be 112 feet as the ball flew to well to the rightfield side of center.

“Usually when I’m jumping up everything is really smooth and I know it’s going to go in the glove,’’ he said. “(Monday) night I had a little bit of hope, like “I hope it’s going to go in the glove.’ And it did.’’

That Kiermaier initially stayed down on the field for a few moments immediately raised some concerns, especially given his injury history and recent scare with a thumb sprain that turned out to only sideline him for 10 days. Cash said the combination of Kiermaier being sore and groggy from the collision and battling an ongoing cold made it a clear decision to keep him out of the lineup.

Also in question, the wisdom of trying such a potentially risky play with his playoff-contending team leading by eight runs in the eighth, though when Kiermaier errs it’s typically on the side of aggressiveness.

“I don’t care what the score of a game is,’’ he said. “When that ball goes in the air if I think I can get it I’m going to try catching in no matter what that takes coming from my end.’’

Even more so, he said, “I dream of having those opportunities and making them.’’

Kiermaier said the base for making such a play is first getting in position to make it, that “you have to get there, you have to get from Point A to Point B.’’ Next is timing the jump to get max height at the wall.

"I did everything the perfect way to make that play,'' he said. “It’s another notch in the belt.’’

While Kiermaier has been a defensive standout for years, Adames is emerging this season as one of the league’s best, leading AL shortstops with 10 defensive runs saved and earning some golden words from Cash, specifically “Gold Glove caliber.’’

“Willy’s turnaround or transformation has probably been one of the more impressive things to watch this season for our club,’’ Cash said. “He’s just really worked hard and he’s gotten to that point, that label, of the ‘two-out shortstop.’ With two outs you want the ball hit to him because it’s going to end the inning.’’

Adames, 24 next month, said the improvement has been a long time coming. And accelerated this year by the series of daily drills he does with new infield coach Rodney Linares, who worked with Astros star shortstop Carlos Correa as a Houston minor-league coach, and also taking live ground balls before almost every game.

“All the work that we’ve been putting in is paying off now,’’ Adames said. “It’s been rough my whole career and I think the work we have put in has been showing up. … That’s the most comfortable I’ve been playing defense.’’

The Rays’ play has provided a lot to be comfortable about.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.







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