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Kiermaier healthy (and happy) heading into '18

Former Gold Glover looks to regain form after battling injuries past two seasons
Special to MLB.com

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Kevin Kiermaier's first swing this spring wasn't in the batter's box, it was sent to his critics.

"I want to remind people in the baseball world who the best defensive player on the planet is, and I say that confidently. I got a lot of reminding to do for a lot of people," Kiermaier said.

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Kevin Kiermaier's first swing this spring wasn't in the batter's box, it was sent to his critics.

"I want to remind people in the baseball world who the best defensive player on the planet is, and I say that confidently. I got a lot of reminding to do for a lot of people," Kiermaier said.

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The Rays' center fielder has always been a defensive stalwart, but injuries the past two seasons have taken him off the national radar. Two years ago, Kiermaier endured a fractured hand, and then last season he sustained a fractured hip -- injuries that have caused him to miss 111 games since the start of 2016.

Kiermaier doesn't buy into the notion that he's injury prone, and he's hesitant to change his trademark aggressive approach to the game -- an approach which pushed him from being a 31st-round pick to a two-time Gold Glove Award winner.

"Diving catches, all that, that's what got me to the big leagues. That's what got me to this point. I can't change that. I know I need to stay on the field, but at the same time if I were to play any less aggressive, I feel [like] that's how you get hurt."

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Ironically it wasn't an outfield injury which cost Kiermaier a year ago, it was a slide into first base with the Rays up by six runs. While he admits he regrets the move, the Rays outfielder never wants to take a play off, a balance he continually battles.

"I know that when I'm on the field, [I] give our team that greater of a chance of winning, and that's what I gotta focus on."

When healthy a year ago, Kiermaier was great down the stretch. After missing over two months, he returned on Aug. 18 and was red hot, hitting .306 with eight home runs, 19 RBIs and 26 runs.

"I want to display what I did when I came off the DL, I want to display that for a full year," Kiermaier said. "I've never been more comfortable with my setup as far as my stance, and my approach, and what I want to do up there at the plate. I've learned things about myself each and every year. I've matured as a hitter."

Without veterans Evan Longoria and Alex Cobb, he's poised to mature as a leader for this young Rays team.

"I was gonna take on a certain role this year no matter what, but now since Longo is gone I think there is gonna be more expected out of me on things that happen on or off the field, or in the clubhouse -- when do I need to say something to certain people about a certain situation," Kiermaier said. "It's definitely something I'll be more vocal [about] this year, and always leading by example. Behind closed doors, I think I'll say something when needed and I'm OK. I love having this role."

"KK has already been leading," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "He's already good at doing that, if he wants to involve himself a little bit more he's got carte blanche because we really trust how he goes about his business. For any young guy or any veteran guy, I mean, when you're around KK for a couple weeks, you realize he's about one thing and that's winning."

Winning on the field is the goal, but Kiermaier already won the offseason by adding a wedding ring and marrying his bride, Marisa, in November.

Video: Kiermaier talks about he and his brother's weddings

"It was the best day of our lives, it really was," he said.

The Rays' center fielder now is poised for happier days, and healthier ones too.

Mike Nabors is a contributor to MLB.com.

Tampa Bay Rays, Kevin Kiermaier