In 2013, Tampa Bay Rays outfield prospect Kevin Kiermaier came out of nowhere to play in both Game 163 and the Wild Card Game. It was an eventful year, and Rays fans have to wonder what Kiermaier has to think about it all. Here at Rays Colored Glasses, we had the opportunity to receive insight into just that. Here is Part 1 of our interview with Kevin Kiermaier talking about his career in the Rays system, his breakout 2013, and his memorable call-up to the major leagues.
Robbie Knopf: Let’s start with the beginning of your time with the Rays organization. You were coming off a good sophomore season at Parkland College and teams saw some potential in you, but you dropped in the draft because they were scared about your commitment to Purdue. Then the Rays selected you in the 31st round and you wound up signing pretty quickly. What made you decide to join the organization?
Kevin Kiermaier: I was ready to play. It was one of those things where through the draft process, I was going anywhere 8th to 15th round and you never want to sell yourself short, but we ended up agreeing on a financial situation. Like I said, the main thing for me was that I was just ready to play and wanted to see where my pro career would go. It was the best decision I ever made. I’m very happy with my choice, and it’s all about the opportunity once you sign. I established myself my first year and showed them what I can do. That was important to me to have a good first year, and I was fortunate to do that.
RK: Like you just mentioned, you had a good debut with Princeton before your second year with Bowling Green was a little bit of a step back, but the really crazy year was 2012. You missed quite a bit of time with injuries, but then you came back, played well at Charlotte, and actually held your own at the end of the year at Triple-A for a few games. Then you headed in the Arizona Fall League and played extremely well, hitting .348. What were you going through with those injuries and how did you get past it all to have such a good year?
KK: Man, it was tough because I had never missed significant time like that at all. You know, I had never broken a bone in either of my hands then I broke both of them in a pretty short period of time. I broke my left hand the second game of the season, and I went on to play 7 games after that, but then they shut me down for six weeks. I come back for 10 games and then break my hamate bone in my right hand and I’m like “you gotta be kidding me.” But you know, I learned a lot from that because I could have either had a bad attitude or handled business in the wrong way, but it helped me mentally saying “this is a little step back and that’s it.” I knew I was going to come back, and when I came back, I felt pretty good. It was weird because my hands felt a little brittle, but you know, once the season was over, I got a little rest then I went to Fall League and I felt 100%. I hit really well and I needed that because I wanted to let these guys know I could really play, especially after my 2011 season in the Midwest League. I struggled a lot there, and I didn’t have a real idea of what I wanted to do at the plate. But over the years, I’ve had a better approach, and I knew that in the Fall League, with all the top prospects in all of minor league prospects that go there, I had the chance to prove to everyone that I could play at the highest level in baseball. For me, to put up the numbers I did there and show a lot of people what I could do was really big for me, and that got me confident going into this year. I had another great year in 2013, so now I have my head held high going into 2014, and that’s all I can ask for.
RK: Let’s backtrack for a second and talk about your breakout 2013. You had a big year at Montgomery, kept in stride after getting to Durham, and then cracked the Rays’ roster at the end of the year. What clicked for you to lead to all of that success?
KK: It was crazy. They say that the biggest jump is High-A from High-A, and that really is a challenge to see what you’re really capable of. I took that full-on. The main thing for me was that my approach got a lot better. I felt a lot better at the plate and I was seeing pitches better pretty much the whole year and I avoided that big slump that every player has and I was consistent throughout the whole year. Then I moved up to Triple-A and I just told myself that “Hey, it’s the same game, just a little bit of a bigger stage, and it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.” I hit pretty well and then we made a little playoff run a won the International League title. It was a lot of fun, and then after the season, I obviously get called up to the big leagues to be just like a defensive specialist, pinch-runner late in the game type of thing. I was not expecting to bat at all. It was just a great way to cap off 2013 for me, probably the best year I’ve ever had in my whole life. Just a ton of fun. I can’t really thank the Tampa Bay staff enough, and bringing me up at such a critical time in the season shows how much faith they have in me. That gives me a lot of confidence to do what I can do on the field. Like I said, 2013 was great to me, and now I have a good idea for 2014 what to expect wherever I start off at, and I’m ready to start playing again.
RK: Let’s talk about that call-up. What was running through your head when the Rays told you that they were bringing you up?
KK: Oh man, a little bit of everything. I kept telling people that I get a call on a Sunday night and I was playing that next day in Texas. I got in that day, that game, and I didn’t want tp act like that rookie so who was just so thrilled to be there and very outspoken. My thing was that I wanted to act like I had been there before. I take a lot of pride in how I handled myself. I was thrilled to get there, but at the same time, I really didn’t show a whole lot of emotion, and look, these guys know–I wanted to feel like “hey, maybe he has been called up before.” I wanted to act like I’ve been there before because I truly feel like I belong playing in the big leagues. Being up there and getting in that game my first day of calling up, and them activating me on the roster for 163 was amazing. Just to get in that game was awesome, and it feels good to say that I made my MLB debut now, but it was something else. Like I said, it shows what type of confidence they have in me as far as my defensive ability goes. I knew my role up there, which was that late-game defensive replacement or baserunner, and I was totally fine with that. It was cool for me, and now what I have to look forward for this year is my first start, whenever that time comes. I had no idea that it was going to happen, but they gave me the call, and I was so thrilled to be there in the same clubhouse as all those guys.
RK: You mention that you didn’t show much emotion, but you’re making your major league debut in centerfield and it’s the Tiebreaker Game against the Texas Rangers. How nervous were you out there playing in the field knowing just how big the game was?
KK: You know, I can say this honestly. I lot of people don’t believe me–ever since I’ve been home, I’ve told my story about 300 times it feels like, but I was honestly not nervous at all when I was out there. We were up by three runs and David Price was dealing out there, so all the pressure was on the Rangers at that time. I feel so confident in all of my abilities in baseball, but defense is my bread and butter. I guess I kept telling myself “this is the same game, just a lot bigger stage than I am used to in the minors, nothing a whole lot different.” The ball is carrying a ton in Texas, and you have that in certain minor league parks, but you know, I was out there, I was cool, calm, and collected, and I was ready to make to a play. But it was a 1-2-3 inning, David Price shut them down. I was hoping that something would get hit at me, but at the same time, the way he threw the ball the whole game, it really doesn’t surprise me.
RK: You’re in Montgomery, the pitching was solid. You go up to Durham, your pitching staff is one of the best in minor league baseball. Then you make it to the major leagues and you get to see one a true major league ace, David Price, on the mound throwing one of the best games of his entire career. How cool was it getting to witness that?
KK: It was great. Being in the dugout, something for me was that I’ve never played in front of 40,000 people. That whole stadium was electric. They told me before the game “hey, if we go up in the 8th inning, you’re probably gonna to go in” so I’m like “let’s do it, I’m ready to make a play.” And that whole game, just beingso close to everything for my first time in an MLB game was amazing. Then to actualy be out there in centerfield behind David Price was something I’ll never forget. Hopefully this is just the start to my MLB career, so now I have to see where it goes from here on out. But it was such a blessing to be out there with all those great guys treating me well. I just can’t thank Tampa Bay enough for the opportunity because had you told me before the season that I would be playing in 163 and then the Wild Card Game, I would have you said “you’re nuts”. But it ended up happening, and the main thing is that I just feel like I belong up there and I know I have the ability to play. It was just a great start to my career and you know, we’ll see where it goes from here on out.
Thanks to Kevin Kiermaier for agreeing to talk with us and we hope you enjoyed Part 1. The interview continues tomorrow as Kevin Kiermaier discusses the adjustment that keyed his breakout. Here’s the link.