KK's inside-the-park HR sets tone in Rays' win

May 25th, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG -- Leading off the bottom of the first inning Tuesday night, lashed a first-pitch fastball from Pablo López out to center field. Off the bat, he figured it was a lineout or a single. The Marlins’ Jesús Sánchez would either catch it or let it fall in front of him, leading Kiermaier to either a quick right turn back to the dugout or a brief, 90-foot jog to first base.

Or not.

About 15 seconds later, after a mad dash around the bases -- during which he said he had time to get tired twice -- Kiermaier was sliding home feet-first, standing up, raising both arms and wearily looking up at Tropicana Field’s domed roof. The veteran’s fourth career inside-the-park home run provided a jolt to Tampa Bay’s lineup and all the support starter needed in the Rays’ 4-0 win over the Marlins.

“Since we had the best pitcher in the league, that's all we needed all night -- one run,” Kiermaier said. “Shoutout to Shane McClanahan, best in the league. Dude is incredible.”

McClanahan dominated the Marlins with nine strikeouts over six scoreless innings. But he seemed more excited afterward for Kiermaier, raving about his leadership and the way he set the tone for Tuesday's bounce-back win after a frustrating series loss to the Orioles.

“KK set it off,” McClanahan said.

Indeed, it was just the third time since 1988 that there was a first-pitch inside-the-park homer, and the first since Denard Span, current Rays special assistant, hit one for the Giants on Aug. 19, 2017. But McClanahan could have been referring just as much to the energy Kiermaier immediately injected into their dugout -- including the typically intense, focused McClanahan.

“I went nuts,” McClanahan said. “Usually I'm a little more reserved -- obviously I cheer for my teammates and stuff like that -- but I found myself, like, jumping around.”

Kiermaier appreciated his teammates’ liveliness, because he was uncharacteristically winded by the time he completed the first leadoff inside-the-park homer in franchise history. (The 32-year-old center fielder chalked that up to Sunday’s long, grueling loss in Baltimore and a low-key off-day on Monday.) Sánchez made a diving attempt, extending himself a little too far past Kiermaier’s sinking liner, and the ball bounced by him.

By the time it rolled all the way to the center-field fence, Kiermaier was pushing himself to keep hustling around the bases.

“It ended up working out, and I was safe just in the nick of time. It's a fun way to start out the game,” Kiermaier said. “You never know what to expect on any day on a baseball field, and [the] first pitch of the game for us, an inside-the-parker, that was fun. The guys greeted me great in the dugout.”

It was the continuation of a torrid stretch for Kiermaier, who now leads the team with six home runs -- all of them coming in his 25 games since April 23. He’s gone 13-for 23 with multiple hits in five straight games, the longest streak of his career and the longest streak by a Rays player since Austin Meadows from May 26-30, 2019.

And it gave the Rays an early lead against López, who has been outstanding for Miami. He entered the night with a National League-best 1.57 ERA while allowing only two homers in 46 innings over his previous eight starts. He was effective for much of his seven-inning start against the Rays, too, striking out eight without a walk over seven efficient innings.

But the Rays made their hits count, pairing Kiermaier’s inside-the-park job with two more traditional blasts, a solo homer by (his first of the season) and a two-run knock from  (his first since April 13). Any one of those swings would have been enough to back McClanahan, whose evolution into one of the game’s best young starters continued in the Rays’ fourth shutout of the year.

McClanahan used his entire four-pitch arsenal and regained the Major League strikeout lead, with 74 K’s in 52 1/3 innings. The left-hander has allowed one run in 20 innings over his last three outings, dropping his ERA from 3.06 to 2.06, and he hasn’t allowed more than three runs in any of his nine starts this season.

“His season has been special to date, the way he's performed,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I think coming off of a series that we weren't thrilled about, [he was] probably the ideal guy to come in here and kind of set the tone.”

After giving up consecutive singles to begin his sixth and final inning, McClanahan told pitching coach Kyle Snyder during a mound visit he’d finish the frame if he got a double-play grounder from the next batter. Sure enough, one pitch later, Jorge Soler hit into a 5-4-3 double play.

McClanahan’s next pitch was a wild, 97.7 mph fastball that somehow ended up with Garrett Cooper being tagged out by catcher  and McClanahan having fallen down in front of the plate. Just how he drew it up.

“That was a tactical move on my part,” McClanahan said with a straight face. “It was smart. Get out of the way. Trust the guy behind you.”