PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (AP) — Kevin Kiermaier says his body feels as good as ever and he’s determined to bounce back from a subpar season marked by injuries and inconsistency to help the Tampa Bay Rays contend for a playoff berth.
“I’m going to sound like a broken record all spring,” the defensive whiz said, adding he has a lot to prove to teammates and fans after struggling offensively last year, when he missed two months with a torn ligament in his right thumb and also hurt a foot in September.
“I love where I’m at right now,” Kiermaier added. “I couldn’t ask for anything else, and now it’s just my part to go execute and maybe win some hearts back from my performance last year.”
The Rays surprisingly won 90 games despite losing their centerfielder for 57 games from April 16 to June 18, then finishing the season with Kiermaier sidelined the final four games because of a hairline fracture in his right foot.
It was the third straight season the 28-year-old, who batted .217 in a career-low 88 games, missed significant time because of injuries.
Kiermaier reported to spring training last week, three days ahead of Monday’s first full-squad workout, eager to do his part to help the Rays build on last year’s success and contend for a postseason berth.
“I feel better than ever. I know every baseball player says that every year. But I say it with a straight face, and I know I’m not lying through my teeth,” Kiermaier said.
“I just want to help this team out,” he added. “Personally, I’m so happy for what we did as a team last year, but I will make much more of a contribution this year. I promise you that.”
A .254 career hitter over portions of five major league seasons, Kiermaier is best-known for his highlight-reel defensive exploits.
The two-time Gold Glove winner’s batting average was the lowest of his career last season and came on the heels of hitting a career-best .276 with 15 homers and and 39 RBIs two years ago.
“We are a different team when KK is on the field,” manager Kevin Cash said. “When he’s not, we miss him. Obviously, our defense is different. And with our offense, when he is going right, he has the ability to really ignite us.”
One of the club’s top priorities in spring training is to do whatever’s necessary to help Kiermaier remain healthy.
That may be the best way the Rays can help the centerfielder keep his pledge to rebound from a disappointing 2018.
“KK can say what he wants and motivate himself however he wants, and we’re going to support him. But the last thing I’m going to do is put pressure on KK,” Cash said.
“He’s a really good player and he’s been banged up with some unfortunate injuries,” the manager added. “Last year was about as fluke (of an injury) as they get. But I love the fact that he’s motivated, he’s very driven to be on the field and help us.”