ST. PETERSBURG — Kevin Kiermaier rode the bus from the airport to the team hotel near Amalie Arena with the rest of the Blue Jays on Sunday night, then it was time to let the nostalgia soak in.
When his wife, Marisa, pulled up to drive him to their South Tampa house where they live with their two sons in the offseason, he put the windows down. “I said, ‘Babe, let me take this car ride in, it feels so good to be home,’” Kiermaier said.
“Even though it’s only been a couple months, this is the longest I’ve ever been not here for some time. It’s such a familiar place. This is home for me. So it felt great. I was just trying to take it all in.”
This is, of course, a business trip for Kiermaier, as he returns to Tropicana Field as a visitor for the first time in a game that counts against the team he spent the last nine years playing for.
He made an appearance for a spring game in March, and played against the Rays in Toronto in April, but said this trip was the one he was looking forward to since signing a one-year, $9 million deal with the Jays after the Rays declined his $13 million option.
“It just feels amazing to be back here,” he said while sitting in the visitors’ dugout prior to the Rays’ 6-4 triumph Monday night. “I’ve got a lot of different emotions going on.
“But I’m just very excited to play here the next four days, seeing a lot of old faces, guys I’ve gone to battle with and went to the (2020) World Series with. I’ll always have love for each and every one over there. And I’ll never forget about how great my time was here.”
The Rays reciprocated, talking about how important he was to them and showing a video tribute during Monday’s game.
“He brought a lot of energy,’' Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Our fan base loved him. He’s an easy player, easy person to like. I’m sure the fans in Toronto feel the same way about him, and for all the applause that he gets, it’s very well deserved.”
Kiermaier came in playing well, hitting .317 (second-best on his team) with an .864 OPS (third-best) — numbers he has never previously had this late into a season — in addition to his usual stellar centerfield defense. He went 0-for-3 on Monday and was replaced by a pinch-hitter with two on and two out in the ninth inning, but did show off his arm, throwing out Wander Franco at the plate to end the fifth.
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Kierrmaier, 33, said there are a couple reasons for his offensive success.
Most obvious is the surgical repair to his left hip that slowed him repeatedly over recent seasons and ended 2022 for him in July.
“Trying to stay healthy the last couple years, I’ve never felt like I’ve put the product on the field that I was once used to,” he said.
“Now that I have a much better hip I feel...very close to full health for the first time in years. And that’s a beautiful thing. I try to display that to my teammates, coaches, fans every day like, I can be a pretty good player when I’m healthy and when I’m confident. And right now I’m playing with a lot of confidence.”
Cash said the Rays aren’t surprised.
“He’s a good player; we know that better than anybody,” Cash said. “I’m happy that he’s healthy. There’s no doubt the last couple seasons he was playing through some things that maybe the fans’ eyes couldn’t see. Maybe sometimes our eyes couldn’t see that it was lingering on. But he got healthy this offseason and he’s certainly contributing to a very good team.”
Also, that he finally started wearing contact lenses (and protective non-corrective glasses over them that at times he admits “look a little weird”), which notably improved his eyesight, after testing showed an astigmatism and a decrease from 20-15 to 20-20 vision.
“Seeing is half the battle,” Kiermaier said. “I feel I can see the seams on the ball again for the first time in a while, as bad as that sounds. But having the success I’ve had (with) my contacts, I regret not giving them more of a shot in years past (having tried them in spring 2020).”
Kiermaier is trying to make the most of the homecoming trip, driving to the Trop the same way he did hundreds of times before, and even had permission to park in the Rays players/staff lot.
“I’m very, very nostalgic right now,’' Kiermaier said. “I’m a very loyal person, very loyal to this organization over there. It’s really good to be back.’'
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