BRADENTON — The Rays held a three-run lead and were three outs away from their biggest win of the season, the one that would push them into the second AL wild-card spot, when out from the visiting dugout popped Kevin Kiermaier.
Kiermaier had been summoned the day before from Triple-A Durham. At least that is what it said on the paperwork. The Bulls ended their season a few weeks before, so Kiermaier was actually summoned from his offseason.
With the rosters expanded, Kiermaier was added to the roster for the tiebreaker against the Texas Rangers to provide late-inning defense. He is considered the best defensive outfielder in the farm system, so why not?
Kiermaier taking over center field in the ninth inning was another example of the confidence the Rays have in their young players and the trust that runs from top to bottom through the organization.
Rays manager Joe Maddon saw Kiermaier briefly during spring training when the rookie came over from minor-league camp as another extra body for a handful of Grapefruit League games. The kid was best remembered for tripping over the first baseman on a ball he dumped into right field and still making it to second base for a double.
Yet, here was Maddon, willing to trust Kiermaier in center field for the most important half inning of the extended regular season. Why? Because word from the minor-league side was Kiermaier was the right guy.
“We’re at the point now where I never hesitate,” Maddon said. “If they tell you this guy can do it, I believe he can do it, so I don’t have to see it to believe it.”
It wasn’t like that when Maddon first joined the Rays. That was one aspect of the organization that Maddon thought needed fixing first.
It happened, fast, too.
Maddon trusted the final outs of the 2008 AL championship series against the Boston Red Sox to David Price, who began his big-league career a few weeks earlier. He trusted Game 1 of the 2011 AL division series against Texas to Matt Moore, who, like Price, had been a major-leaguer for less than a month.
Like Price and Moore, Kiermaier projected an air of confidence when he arrived in the clubhouse. That gave Maddon a sense that Kiermaier could handle the assignment.
“I was not nervous, because we were up by three runs, David Price was dealing. All the pressure was on them,” Kiermaier said.
Wouldn’t you know it? Not one ball was hit to Kiermaier. Same thing two nights later when he entered the AL wild-card game in the eighth inning against the Cleveland Indians.
“I felt like I belonged in the big leagues,” Kiermaier said. “I feel I can make an impact up there. Once we started popping champagne it felt so right.”
Besides, Kiermaier said, all he had to do was catch fly balls. He’s been doing that all his life. He works on it every day. He had his brother throw him ground balls at an indoor batting cage over the winter so he could work on coming in, fielding the ball and getting his feet set to make the throw.
Kiermaier said he was usually the smallest player on the team while growing up in Fort Wayne, Ind. Defense was his way to keep up.
“I was always the fastest, though. I always had a good arm,” he said. “I set the foundation of who I am now when I was younger. I knew I could make an impact defensively. Anything I do offensively is a bonus.”
He certainly made an impact with the Rays, however brief. With Desmond Jennings’ hamstring less than 100 percent at the end of last season, the Rays tabbed Kiermaier for his reliable defense.
He didn’t flinch.
He did earlier this season when asked to do his Jay-Z impersonation while filming a video for Rays Vision.
“I don’t mind doing it around my friends, but once the spotlight is on me I get a little nervous,” he said.
But reaching the big leagues and making his debut in the biggest moment of the season?
“Good to go,” Kiermaier said. “That’s what I’m comfortable doing. I’m not paid to do impressions.”