‘The Outlaw’ Stealing Hearts of the fans

by Gary Shelton on August 30, 2015 · 1 comment

in general

Kiermaier hit the tie-breaking homer in the 6th as the Rays finally beat the Royals./ANDREW J. KRAMER

Kiermaier hit the tie-breaking homer in the 6th as the Rays finally beat the Royals./ANDREW J. KRAMER

Sunday, 6:22 p.m.

For Kevin Kiermaier, is it graduation day yet?

You know, the day a player goes from solid to star? The day he goes from the backup choir to lead singer? The day you notice other players looking to him to make a difference?

For Kiermaier, the centerfielder of the Rays, is it time to finally appreciate the breadth of the player he has become?

He can beat you in the field, climbing walls, chasing the ball

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down in the gaps. He can beat you on the base paths, with the stadium

Loney catches a foul ball for the second out of the 9th inning/ANDREW J. KRAMER

Loney catches a foul ball for the second out of the 9th inning/ANDREW J. KRAMER

lights flashing off of his cleats as he blurs around second base on his way to another triple. He can beat you with his arm, as he guns down another runner foolish enough to try him. And, yes, he can beat you with his bat.

True, it is the least staggering of his gifts, but more and more, Kiermaier is finding a way to contribute offensively, too. More and more, he has the looks of a player who will own center field for some time to come for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Consider the sixth inning of Sunday's game, when Kiermaier hit his second home run in two days to lead the Rays to a 3-2 victory, their only win over Kansas City this season. That gave Kiermaier 10 hits in his last six games, not bad for a player whose offense is supposed to be a step behind the rest of his game.

Consider that Kiermaier's 12 triples lead the major leagues this season.

Consider that his 13 assists from the outfield are tied for the lead.

Consider that he leads the major leagues with an “ultimate zone rating'' of 21.3.

Look, anyone can fall in love with a thumper, someone who hits the ball over the fence and jogs in a circle. But to appreciate a craftsman like Kiermaier is different. He isn't a slugger. He's a ballplayer in the finest sense of the word. And if your kid plays, you could do worse than point to him as an example.

Every day, Kiermaier becomes closer to not only being a player on the Rays, but one of the best players. He plays the entire game, the entire field.  He is the Rays' Swiss Army Knife. There is no place on the diamond where he cannot impact the game.

It's funny. Kiermaier refers to himself as the “Outlaw.'' Supposedly, the nickname came from a minor league scout who admired the way Kiermaier played the outfield. But does it matter, really? Who do you think came up the nickname “King of Pop'' for Michael Jackson? Or “Chairman of the Board'' for Frank Sinatra? Probably, it was Jackson and Sinatra themselves. They say Joe DiMaggio used to insist on being referred to as “the Greatest Ballplayer Alive.''

The point is, it doesn't matter where a nickname comes from.

Just so a guy lives up to it.

And so it it hardly a surprise that Kiermaier was the difference-maker when the Rays finally beat Kansas City. Oh, Brandon Guyer had hit an earlier homer, and Brad Boxberger had his 32nd save. There was help. But in the big moment, it was Kiermaier.

It's funny. America got a chuckle out of Kiermaier this week when he scaled the wall to try to take away a home run only to have it hit a catwalk and fall considerably short of him. But that's Kiermaier. That's the way he plays. What? Would you rather have him jog to the fence and look up?

Hey, Kiermaier is going to try, okay. Give him that much. It doesn't matter that he has a banged up thumb. It doesn't matter that he has cut down on his swing. With Kiermaier is on the field, nothing else matters. Fans love that about Kiermaier. They love the passion with which he attacks the game. He is one of them. Only better.

Who knows how much Kiermaier will hit over the years? Who knows if he will drive in enough runs on a team that hungers for it.

But the way he patrols center field will not slump, and the strength of his arm will not diminish. He'll keep climbing the walls, and he'll keep charging the gaps, and he'll treat every day as if it matters.

With Kiermaier, it always does.

Kiermaier dodges a tight pitch./ANDREW J. KRAMER

Kiermaier dodges a tight pitch./ANDREW J. KRAMER

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