ST. PETERSBURG -- When Kevin Kiermaier is clicking both offensively and defensively, it’s tough to argue that he shouldn’t be mentioned among the best center fielders in the American League.
In the seventh inning of the Rays’ 6-2 win over the Athletics at Tropicana Field, Kiermaier showed off his Platinum Glove defense in the top half, and then followed it up by showing off his power at the plate in the bottom half.
Defensively, Kiermaier tracked down a Jurickson Profar liner that looked like it was ticketed for the left-center-field gap. Kiermaier got a good jump on the ball, hit top speed, and then made a leaping play as he got closer to the wall to end the inning. Offensively, Kiermaier connected on a 416-foot, two-run home run to straightaway center field off A’s reliever Yusmeiro Petit to give the Rays a 4-0 lead.
What felt better for Kiermaier? The catch or the home run?
“I think I will always make more catches than homers that I’ll hit, so I will say the homer,” Kiermaier laughed. “Felt good to barrel one up right there, so I’ll go with the homer.”
There’s no secret that the Rays are a better team when Kiermaier can pair some offensive production with his stellar defensive play. Over his last 14 games, Kiermaier has three homers and 10 RBIs. The Rays are 9-5 over that span and improved to 6-2 in games where Kiermaier has hit a home run.
Kiermaier’s two-run blast and Brandon Lowe’s team-leading 14th home run of the season were enough run support for Rays starter Charlie Morton, who improved to 8-0 this season and lowered his season ERA to 2.10 after another impressive start in his first season with Tampa Bay.
“He’s been huge,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash, when asked about Morton’s impact this season. “Especially with Tyler [Glasnow] going down. He can only pitch once every fifth day, but what he’s provided has been really, really impressive.”
Morton struggled with his command early on in the game, but was still able to get through seven scoreless innings and allowed just two base hits. The Rays right-hander ran into some trouble in the third inning, but was able to escape a bases-loaded jam by striking out Khris Davis on three consecutive curveballs and getting Stephen Piscotty to ground out to first base on a 95-mph fastball after mixing in a pair of curveballs.
“I don’t really feel a ton of pressure,” Morton said. “What I do feel pressure with is leaving a cookie over the plate and him driving in three or four runs right there. That’s a problem. Misses, I mean that stuff is going to happen, those innings are going to happen.
“I would rather get beat with my best stuff. A lot of people would tell you that. I feel good about what we did and how we mixed it in those situations.”
That’s the kind of poise that has been infectious throughout the Rays clubhouse this season. Kiermaier said that the team “couldn’t have had a better pickup” than the two-year, $30 million deal the club inked Morton to over the offseason.
With Morton winning his eighth consecutive decision as a member of the Rays, he tied Matt Moore’s franchise record in 2013 for the longest such streak in a season. His 14-start unbeaten streak passes James Shields in '07 for the longest to start a season in club history.
“Charlie Morton inspires me to make that catch,” Kiermaier said. “The way Charlie Morton has been going for us all year, the spark and the dominance he has brought to the table, I wanted to make that play for him right there.”
At 41-24, the Rays are now a season-high 17 games over .500. They are back atop the American League East, currently holding a half-game lead over the Yankees, who were rained out on Monday, in the division.
“I think everyone here knows that [the Yankees] got rained out,” Lowe said. “But we know that the Yankees are right there, the Red Sox are right there, so it’s not just ours. We’re still fighting to [stay in first place] and we know people are chomping at our tails to try and get in first place.”