During Fort Wayne native Kevin Kiermaier's first four seasons in the major leagues, the Tampa Bay Rays finished under .500 and never came closer than 13 games behind the division leaders.
Over the last four seasons, the Rays have been 18, 30, 20 and now 35 games over .500 heading into Monday night's game in Toronto. After reaching the World Series last year, the Rays have the American League's best record and continue to pull away in the AL East.
“I said last year I never had more fun in my life than playing baseball in the postseason, but what we've done in the regular season thus far this year, nothing else even comes close to it,” Kiermaier said. “Having the fans back and having one of the best records in baseball, it's unbelievable to be a part of. We are all having so much fun. It's an absolute joy showing up to the field every day.”
The Rays went into spring training with the goal of proving last year's success was not a fluke. Tampa Bay wants a chance to win the World Series this year, and since July 4 the Rays are 41-17.
“Last year was a huge confidence booster for our whole team,” the Bishop Luers graduate said. “To come back and have the success we've had this year has been great. We tried to set the precedent in spring training to not have that World Series hangover, even though we didn't win it. We didn't want to just be proud of what we did last year, we wanted to build off it and be better this year. We've been locked in from the start and it's been an absolute joy to be a part of.”
Kiermaier, 31, is hitting .246 this season, his best average since 2017, while maintaining his center field defense as he tries for his fourth Gold Glove. The unofficial team captain has the longest tenure on the team. Only the manager and the pitching coach have been part of the on-field roster as long as Kiermaier.
“It wasn't always like this, and I'm thankful that the players here now think this is just how it's supposed to be,” he said. “I hope it stays that way for years to come.”
The Rays have plenty of above-average players but lack superstars, and they always have the league's lowest payroll. But Tampa Bay has better all-around depth, and no player is slated to play near the full schedule, including Kiermaier, because there are six quality outfielders on the roster.
As Kiermaier said, the Rays are great at finding hidden gems, players who have been released somewhere else and who thrive with them. They win because they use everyone and everyone produces.
“A lot of guys have moments where they think they should be playing, rightfully so, but that's everyone in this clubhouse,” Kiermaier said. “That's a good thing to have the depth and talent of the roster we have. We all complement each other really well. As long as we're trying to win, we're not going to bat an eye. We just want to win as much as possible.
“We have something here you can't really describe, but players are happy to get here. When I first got called up, it was the complete opposite, but now you've got free agents who want to come here because they have heard things from our players and other people who have played here. It's incredible what we've built over here and we want to keep it going as long as possible.”