BALTIMORE — It was the ninth inning of a recent game and the Tampa Bay Rays led by three runs, and Kevin Kiermaier headed to right field as a defensive replacement.
Waiting for him was bullpen catcher Scott Cursi, who played catch with Kiermaier so Kiermaier could get his powerful right arm loose. Also waiting was a growing legion of fans sprinkled through the right-field stands — female fans, camera and iPhones at the ready.
They called his name, trying to get the rookie to turn their way so they could grab a new picture to tweet or post on their Facebook page.
Kiermaier, of course, turned and smiled, then gave a thumbs up before taking his position.
“It’s crazy,” Kiermaier said of his popularity at Tropicana Field.
The team store received a shipment of Kiermaier T-shirts for the final three games of the recent homestand, and more are on the way.
“This is the first time for me having something of my own in the team store,” he said. “It’s crazy, man. It really is.”
His popularity aside, Kiermaier has become one of the more productive Rays since his call-up on May 28 to replace outfielder Brandon Guyer, who suffered a fracture in his left thumb.
Kiermaier is batting .306 in his past 19 starts and ranks among the AL rookie leaders in extra-base hits (15), on-base percentage (.354) and slugging percentage (.567).
And there is his defense, which seems to produce a do-you-believe-that moment on a nightly basis.
His running, leaping, diving catch to rob St. Louis’ Peter Bourjos with the bases loaded June 11 helped the Rays to a 6-3 victory. While not as spectacular as that play, Kiermaier scattered the Rays relievers when he nearly slid into the bullpen bench to catch a foul ball against Houston.
“We weren’t going to move because we didn’t think he was going to get there,” reliever Cesar Ramos said. “Next thing you know, he’s sliding and we’re like, ‘Oh no,’ and we all ran. Now we have to be ready. Everything is in play with him.”
Kiermaier’s playing time comes at the expense of Wil Myers, last year’s AL rookie of the year who is out until some time after the All-Star break with a right wrist fracture.
When asked recently if Kiermaier will remain with the club for the rest of the season, manager Joe Maddon said, “You mean the rookie of the year?”
That is a stretch, considering this year’s candidates, but there is no denying Kiermaier is making the same impact on the Rays as Myers did when he joined the team in June of last season. Not bad for a kid who never considering playing pro baseball as a freshman at Parkland College in Champaign, Ill.
“Zero percent,” Kiermaier said.
But one winter day before Kiermaier’s sophomore season, Rays scout Tom Couston was on hand to watch Parkland’s batting practice inside the school’s gym. Couston, who also signed Rays pitcher Jeremy Hellickson and, years earlier, Jim Thome when he was a scout with Cleveland, liked what he saw from Kiermaier.
“He said I had a good look,” Kiermaier said. “I said maybe this could be a reality for me.”
In addition to his defense, Kiermaier showed the Rays scouts he could hit. That spring, he batted .426 with 17 home runs.
Drafted in the 31st round that June, Kiermaier set off on a five-year journey to the major leagues.
“I thought I’d get drafted higher, but I was the 941st pick of the 2010 draft. I’ll never forget that. That motivated me,” Kiermaier said. “It sounds cliché, but it’s all what you make of your opportunity. I did the best I could. Now I’m in the big leagues and this is another opportunity. It’s all about taking advantage of them.
“When I signed, and I saw guys in the minors who were a lot better than me, I questioned myself a lot. ‘Can I really do this?’ But my mental focus got better year after year, and now I’m holding my own up here.”