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Unlikely duo injecting life into resurgent Rays

Emergence of Kiermaier, Guyer helping vault club back into playoff race

Unlikely duo injecting life into resurgent Rays play video for Unlikely duo injecting life into resurgent Rays

ST. PETERSBURG -- Scouting reports never lie. But sometimes they don't tell the whole truth. Particularly when heart and hustle enter the equation.

According to the scoop, Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Guyer were works in progress. But given the chance to display their abilities on the Major League stage, both have proven they were ready. Each has played a key role in the Rays getting back into the postseason picture.

Guyer, 28, came to the Rays in a trade with the Cubs prior to the 2011 season. During Guyer's first season with the organization in 2011, he made his Major League debut at Camden Yards and became the 108th player to homer in his first at-bat in the big leagues, and the first to achieve that feat at Camden Yards.

Guyer had three stints with Tampa Bay in 2011, finishing with a .195 batting average, two home runs and three RBIs in 15 games. Before this season, he had only played in three Major League games since then. Guyer missed the last four months of the 2012 campaign after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The native of West Chester, Pa., then spent all of 2013 at Triple-A Durham, where he hit .301 with seven home runs, 41 RBIs and 22 stolen bases in 98 games.

Meanwhile, Kiermaier, 24, seemingly appeared out of nowhere. The Rays selected the Fort Wayne, Ind., native out of Parkland College (Champaign, Ill.) in the 31st round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, and he opted to sign rather than take advantage of an opportunity to play at Purdue. Simply stated, Kiermaier wanted to become a professional baseball player and was ready to get started.

Michael Johns, Kiermaier's first manager at Rookie-level Princeton, realized right away that Kiermaier wasn't your run-of-the-mill 31st-round pick.

"Just right out of the gate, what stood out with him was how he played the game," Johns said. "He plays really, really hard. He never takes days off. He just likes playing.

"He's a very even-keeled kid, he never gets too up or down. That's a cliche, but it's hard to do -- even for a manager or a coach to do. But he has that knack for doing it. And he believes in himself."

Kiermaier teased Tampa Bay fans when he joined the team at the end of the 2013 season, and he actually earned a spot on the playoff roster for the American League Wild Card Game against the Indians due to his defense. The tease came in the fact that even though Kiermaier played, he did not get any chances, nor did he get to hit.

Guyer made the team out of Spring Training this year, primarily because he was out of options.

"I think the reason that they did protect him was that they knew that the talent was there," Evan Longoria said. "You don't want to give up on a guy like him when you know that he has the ability that he does."

Meanwhile, Kiermaier was returned to Durham, ostensibly to become a better hitter.

"I think we all really loved Kiermaier during Spring Training, but we understood that there really wasn't a roster spot for him," Longoria said. "He kind of was log-jammed -- even Guyer, with the outfield that we had, with the understanding that Ben Zobrist can play the outfield as well. So that kind of initially impeded his progress to the big leagues."

Since then, the script has taken some unexpected -- and refreshing -- turns.

Coming off the bench, Guyer had just 24 plate appearances in April, striking out in six of those while hitting just .136. The promise of what Guyer showed in the Minor Leagues had difficulty shining through in his limited big league role.

"I was just trying to do too much," Guyer said. "When I would get the starts early in the season, I would be like, 'I might not get another for a while,' so subconsciously I'm trying to do too much to show the coaches -- you know, 'I can do this, I can do that.' So it's just a matter of me going out there and playing the game. Letting it come to me and not trying to prove too much."

Opportunity finally found Guyer in May. Zobrist dislocated his left thumb, giving him more playing time. And Guyer took advantage of the opportunity, playing in 15 games in May and hitting .333 in 41 at-bats -- including a home run and five RBIs. By the time he went on the disabled list on May 26 with a left thumb fracture, Guyer had proven he had the stuff to be a Major Leaguer. And when he was reinstated on June 19, he continued to perform, adding an athletic component to the Rays' lineup.

Guyer is a solid 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, with good speed. Included in his bag of tricks is the ability to bunt for a base hit. But he has power as well, as evidenced by his June 27 game against the Orioles, when he went 3-for-3 with three doubles, giving him the 12th three-double game in Tampa Bay's franchise history.

"I think we knew that Guyer had the ability to play at the Major League level," Longoria said. "He's just been unfortunate in some of the injuries that he's had. I feel like that's really what prevented him in the past from being able to kind of showcase what he can do on a daily basis.

"So I think this year for him has been just really a good coming-out party for him, an extended amount of time where he got to get play and kind of get settled in a get comfortable and showcase his talent. So it's been refreshing to see him do what he's done and give us that much-needed boost."

Kiermaier, who stands 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, experienced his first stint with the Rays this season during a early season weekend series against the Reds in Cincinnati. His defense stole the show in a 1-0 win over the Reds on April 12.

Playing center field, Kiermaier charged a single to center in the bottom of the fourth. After scooping the ball cleanly, he threw a strike to catcher Ryan Hanigan, who was waiting with the tag for Joey Votto when he arrived at home.

Tampa Bay won the game 1-0, prompting manager Joe Maddon to gush: "That's the play of the game, that's the play of the season so far."

Kiermaier, who was optioned back to Durham after the game, returned to the team on May 17 when Desmond Jennings went on the bereavement list. Kiermaier was optioned back to Durham on May 22 before getting recalled for good on May 28.

And what a boost Kiermaier has been.

"He's been the biggest part of our team since," Longoria said.

Kiermaier has done it all. Offering daily highlights in the outfield, hitting with power -- he's hit eight home runs in 53 games after totaling just 15 in 410 Minor League games -- but mostly he's brought another gear to the party. If Kiermaier is on the field, he's always in motion. That hustle has been contagious.

"You don't see [Kiermaier's brand of hustle] too often," Longoria said. "That's been the most refreshing thing for us is when you have a team that was playing the way we were playing before he came up, things start to kind of drag along. And you get into a little bit of a rut. And you kind of begin to forget some of the important things, and hustling being one of them. And that's what he really brought initially, that element back that we were lacking."

While Guyer and Kiermaier weren't on the Rays' radar at the beginning of the year, that never discouraged the pair. Both continued to pursue their craft, waiting patiently for the opportunity to show what they could do, all the while continuing to believe in themselves.

"There are ups and downs in baseball, just like in life," Guyer said. "You just have to keep grinding through it. And you learn a lot about yourself, especially during the down times. And that's the time when you learn the most. I think it just builds your character. The things you have to do to overcome it. You just have to stay as positive as you can. And that's what I've done. I think the struggles I've had have made me the person and the player that I am."

Kiermaier allowed that he has questioned on many occasions whether he could really compete in professional baseball. But he has continued to mature mentally and physically, and he carries another essential ingredient that he shows every time he steps onto the field.

"I love the game, you have to love it," Kiermaier said. "We know what we sign up for. We make a lot of sacrifices throughout the season and put our bodies through a lot. But this is the best life I could ask for, and I just want to play this game as long as I can. Until they tear this jersey off me. I'm having the time of my life."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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