Kevin Kiermaier reminds Rays what he can do in return to the Trop

ST. PETERSBURG — Kevin Kiermaier popped to his feet after making the sliding catch and smiled. He pointed his finger toward first base and wagged it. Manuel Margot looked out and laughed, then headed back to the dugout.

In his nine-plus seasons with the Rays, Kiermaier made a highlight reel of spectacular catches. His former teammates should have known better Thursday than to think they’d get away with a shallow fly ball into his territory.

In his first trip back to Tropicana Field since signing with the Blue Jays as a free agent in December, Kiermaier made that first-inning catch and singled off Kyle Crick as the Jays fell to the Rays 6-1 in an exhibition game. He showed up an hour before the rest of his teammates and spent most of that time on the field catching up with Rays manager Kevin Cash, Tampa Bay coaches and his former mates.

When third base coach Brady Williams told Kiermaier he was going to have baserunners push him, Kiermaier promised he’d throw them out. As he walked by on his way to a bullpen session, Shane McClanahan quipped, “You don’t even work here anymore.”

Kiermaier is no longer a Ray, but the organization clearly is still a big part of him.

“I was born in Indiana in 1990, but I feel like baseball player Kevin Kiermaier was born here in 2014,” Kiermaier said as he stood looking out at the centerfield he roamed for nearly a decade. “And I’m proud of that. This community, this team, means the world to me, and I’ll always have so much love for everything over here.”

It ended last season with Kiermaier being sidelined by a hip injury that required surgery. The Rays officially declined an option for this year on his contract, and he moved on.

The Blue Jays quickly signed Kiermaier to a one-year, $9 million deal to help them transition to a revamped outfield at Rogers Centre. They lowered the fence in center from 10 feet to 8 to reward fly-ball hitters, but it makes things more challenging for outfielders. Signing Kiermaier allows them to move George Springer to right.

Kiermaier’s a career .248 hitter with a .308 on-base and .407 slugging percentage. He has a career .715 OPS. His defense is what earned him his new contract. He’s won three Gold Gloves and one Platinum. In 2021, his last “healthy” season when he played 122 games, Kiermaier’s Outs Above Average was a plus-12, third-best among outfielders.

“It is good to see him ... just good for him,” Cash said. “I mean, he meant certainly a lot to this organization, and I really value our relationship. I think we kind of both started off here together, per se. He’s a special, special player as far as I’m concerned. I got to see the best defensive centerfielder in baseball for the last eight years.”

The Rays look to replace him with Jose Siri, who singled and stole two bases Thursday.

“He’s a great athlete. He can throw, he can run, he can do a lot of what I can do out there,” Kiermaier said. “He’s an electric type of player, and I feel like they got a good guy to take control of that defense out there. So, he’s got a full year ahead of him and see what he does. I wish the best for him and all these guys. I hope they can sustain health, and there should be some fun battles this year.

“I look forward to it.”

Kiermaier has looked forward to returning to Tropicana Field since he left.

He had expected to make his return in late May, but Mother Nature had other plans. Damage to their Port Charlotte complex from Hurricane Ian made it necessary for the Rays to hold exhibition games at the Trop.

After the familiar drive to the stadium, Kiermaier said he was surprised by his emotions walking into the visitors clubhouse for the first time.

“I didn’t really expect that,” he said. “I’m a very nostalgic person. I think about all the great memories that I’ve had here. I’m forever grateful for them.”

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