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How ‘the KK play’ will go down in Tampa Spartans lore

Rays Tales | An idea that popped into Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier’s head one day pays off big locally in Division II ball.
A few words of wisdom, and how to execute a trick play, from Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier paid off nicely for the University of Tampa recently.
A few words of wisdom, and how to execute a trick play, from Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier paid off nicely for the University of Tampa recently. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published May 28|Updated May 29

ST. PETERSBURG — Kevin Kiermaier was 950 miles away and in the middle of the Rays game at the Orioles last Sunday when he saved the University of Tampa baseball team’s season.

Indirectly, anyway, thanks to what forever will be known in Spartans lore at “the KK play.”

Tampa was about to be eliminated in Division II region tournament play, a ninth-inning fly ball to deep left-centerfield seemingly certain to score the walkoff winning run for Nova Southeastern.

“You know the game’s over,” Tampa coach Joe Urso said Friday. “I kind of put my notes down, put my head down, told (associate head coach Sam Militello), ‘Man, that’s it.’ So I start walking down the dugout, and then I started hearing, ‘He left early, he left early.’ ”

The Nova runner tagging up at third did indeed leave early and was called out on appeal. Tampa eventually won the game in 12 innings.

All thanks to Spartans leftfielder Jordan Lala using a trick play Kiermaier taught the team during past pre-spring training workouts on how to deke a runner into breaking too soon for home in that situation.

“An amazing play that you may never see again,” Urso said.

The plan, Kiermaier explained, is to camp under the ball with glove held high so the runner thinks it will be a routine catch, then to pull the glove down and not make the actual catch until just before the ball hits the ground, creating enough of a slight delay for the runner to break early.

Lala sold it well, snapping his glove to make it look like a catch, and executed it perfectly, even dropping to his knees to make sure he held on to the ball. The Nova players, who had started celebrating, froze as third-base umpire Ryan McCreaney made the out call.

Coach Joe Urso's University of Tampa team can partially thank Kevin Kiermaier for extending the Spartans' postseason.
Coach Joe Urso's University of Tampa team can partially thank Kevin Kiermaier for extending the Spartans' postseason. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

“So much has to happen for this play to work,” Urso said. “No. 1, you have to have an athletic outfielder that can fake (catching) a ball high and catch it low because you lose sight of the ball.

“No. 2, you’ve got to have an overly aggressive baserunner. They had one of their fastest baserunners who could have really taken his time and just walked home, there would have been no throw home. But he did get overly aggressive.

“Then No. 3, you have to have an umpire that is on top of it and that wants to make that call in the bottom of the ninth instead of going home in the heat. I give him so much credit that he did the right thing.”

After the Spartans won in the 12th, Urso gathered Lala and fellow outfielders Jose Cadenas and E.J. Cumbo, and they called to leave Kiermaier a message.

“We’re all screaming,” Urso said. “Lala is like ‘It worked! It worked! The KK play worked!’ We were on cloud nine.”

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Kiermaier was down when he played the message, as the Rays had just blown a ninth-inning lead for the second time in three days, and were headed to a rain delay, extra innings and, eventually, another walkoff loss.

The news cheered him up, and he FaceTimed Urso the next day to share the joy.

“It was incredible,” Kiermaier said. “I couldn’t believe what I heard from him saying they used that play. It’s something we work on. They were kind of curious why I was doing it one day out there. And then we made a drill out of it.”

Kiermaier said the idea just “popped in” to his head years ago as he was thinking through unorthodox ways to get an edge in those situations, knowing how geared up baserunners get to break the moment the ball hits the glove.

He works on the move regularly when shagging balls during Rays batting practice, but, figuring the risk is so high it only makes sense in a bottom of the ninth (or later) situation, he has never had occasion to use it in a game.

For how, he’ll live vicariously through Lala.

“I just preach being unorthodox, just thinking about certain situations in your mind,” he said. “That’s a play that Lala thought of in that moment. And that’s why their season is continuing. I can take a little bit of credit, but for the player to execute in that moment when it matters most, he deserves all the credit. They do. Good for them. What a team.”

Tampa was eliminated in super regionals Saturday, dropping a second game against Rollins.

Rays rumblings

Harold Ramirez has had enough success since coming to the Rays from the Cubs in a spring trade that he said he’ll keep his hair dyed blue all season. If the Rays win the World Series? “For the rest of my life.” … A “Sports Illustrated” story on outfielder Brett Phillips called him “The Happiest Man in Baseball.” … Condolences to the family of Rick Nafe, the former Rays vice president and longtime Tampa Bay area sports facilities executive, who died Thursday at age 70. … Talk about a comeback story: Infielder Tyler Frank returned to action last week with Double-A Montgomery, his first official game since April 2019, having undergone multiple left shoulder surgeries — and as a result switching from a right- to left-handed hitter. … Entertaining new scoreboard game at the Trop, called “I Wander If,” with fans guessing if certain items, shows, characters and more are older or younger than the 21-year-old Wander Franco. … When Friday’s game was played in a brisk 2:23 and ending at 9:33, Yankees manager Aaron Boone quipped, “I could almost make it to Bern’s.” The quote made it to social media, and the famous Tampa steakhouse staff tweeted back, “We are open until 11.” … Outfielder Josh Lowe is doing okay at Triple-A since his May 2 demotion, but seems likely to remain there until the Rays are convinced he is ready to stay in the majors for good this time. … There was some thought to open the upper deck for the weekend series with the Yankees, but officials decided with only Saturday’s game sold out in advance it wasn’t the right move. … After being mistakenly called “Neil” — in reference to pre-/postgame radio host Neil Solondz — during a WDAE segment, Rays baseball operations president Erik Neander said, “I’m taking that as the greatest compliment you can give me. And I hope Neil’s listening.” … Ex-Ray Austin Meadows remains sidelined with Detroit due to what is being called vertigo, though Tigers manager A.J. Hinch told reporters last week, “We’re very concerned with what’s going on with Austin.” … Ji-Man Choi is expected to soon be part of the Bubble sports app subscription service that facilitates communication with fans. … The latest mlb.com mock draft has the Rays using the No. 28 pick on Hammond (S.C.) High third baseman Tucker Toman.

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