The Hamilton Spectator
Kiermaier happy to be healthy after injury woes
A lot has changed since Kevin Kiermaier last played a baseball game.
On July 9 last year, Kiermaier was lifted for a pinch runner in the ninth inning of a 3-3 game in Cincinnati — a move that underlined just how much he had been struggling with a bad hip. He wouldn’t suit up again until Sunday afternoon at TD Ballpark, where he started in centre field and batted sixth against the New York Yankees.
In the interim, there was a stint on the 60-day injured list, August surgery to repair a torn labrum in that left hip, a goodbye video tribute at Tropicana Field — almost unheard of for a player still on the team — and a foray into free agency that resulted in a one-year, $9-million (U.S.) contract with the Blue Jays.
Sunday was the first time he had ever worn a uniform other than Tampa Bay’s in a big-league game, pre-season or otherwise.
“I knew, I knew all day,” said the 32-year-old Kiermaier. “Wow, this is my first game as a Blue Jay and I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled to be here. I’m thrilled to put this uniform on, have Toronto across my chest.
“Ever since someone (said) ‘Hey, you’re playing for a country,’ that’s stuck with me — 37 million, 40 million (people), whatever the number is, I’m honoured. It’s a great privilege to play for such a great organization, for a country. No other team in the big leagues can say that.”
The number, by the way, was 36,991,981 as of the last Canadian census, taken in 2021.
Kiermaier, one of the best defensive centre-fielders in the game — maybe ever — was brought in to help tighten up the Jays’ outfield defence and made an immediate impact just minutes in.
In the top of the first inning, with runners on second and third and one out, Yankees first baseman Andres Chaparro hit a line drive to shallow left-centre. Kiermaier raced in, took it on a hop and fired a strike to home plate in plenty of time for catcher Rob Brantly to tag the trailing runner.
“It’s weird,” Kiermaier said after coming out of the game, a 9-5 Jays loss, “you get to a new surrounding and the ball always finds you. For me, my first inning as a Blue Jay, ball’s hit to me and I was able to throw a guy out at home. I get back to the dugout and I said, ‘This is why you guys brought me here, right?’ ”
Right, said manager John Schneider.
“Finally, it wasn’t one of our guys that he threw out,” the skipper said with a smile. “When he came (into the dugout) I said, ‘That didn’t take long.’ He knows that’s a huge part of his game. He takes pride in it, he works at it. I’m glad to have him on our side.”
So is reliever Tim Mayza. The lefthander gave up the single to Chaparro, backed up home plate and got a great view of Kiermaier’s laser.
“He’s obviously an elite defender,” raved Mayza, “somebody who I’m very happy is on our side now. (I) can’t wait to see him work out there and make more plays like that. Hopefully, not as stressful as a guy running home, but definitely more plays like that.”
Kiermaier’s legs are even more a part of his game than his arm, and after being hobbled by the bad hip for a couple of years he finally feels like his old self again.
“I feel phenomenal,” said the three-time Gold Glover. “I feel like I have my quickness, my speed back. It doesn’t hurt to run anymore ... I have strength and stability in this hip again, and it’s going to pay huge dividends in all phases of my game.”
But the nine-year veteran, who has played more than 100 games only twice over the past five full (non-COVID) seasons, knows he has to do more than just say the right things.
“I can talk about (being healthy) all I want,” said Kiermaier, “but I want to go out there and prove that to everyone over the course of a full season, and I’m going to do everything in my power to achieve just that.”
He also wants to be more of a contributor at the plate, and that will require a change in philosophy.
The lefty swinger posted a 107 OPS-plus (meaning his on-baseplus-slugging percentage had been seven per cent better than the major-league average) over his first four seasons, but over the past five that number has gone down to 88 (12 per cent worse than average).
“Throughout my career, I feel like I’ve always tried to hit for a little bit more power because I know I have it,” said Kiermaier, “but I’m at my best when I’m trying to hit singles and line drives all over the field, and I’m trying to hone in on that.
“I want to get on base. I’ll take my singles gladly and hopefully score from first on many doubles from George (Springer), Bo (Bichette), Vlad (Guerrero Jr.), whoever. Whoever wants to do it, I’ll be ready to run.”
And for the first time in at least two years, the once and future speedster can run with two healthy legs.