Rays notes: Kevin Kiermaier growing as power hitter

Tampa Bay Rays' Kevin Kiermaier, right, connects for a home run off Houston Astros relief pitcher Paul Clemens during the seventh inning Thursday.

Chris O'Meara/AP

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier won’t call himself a home-run hitter, but the power has become noticeable in his brief time with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Kiermaier cracked his fourth home run Thursday, a two-run shot to right field off Houston Astros right-hander Paul Clemens in the victory at Tropicana Field. Combined with the three homers that Kiermaier launched with Triple-A Durham before his most recent promotion May 28, the seven home runs this season mark a new career high for any professional season for him, breaking his record of six set in 2013.

"I think it’s just taking advantage of the pitches to hit and really putting good swings on balls and just getting that true backspin," Kiermaier said. "I have it in my strength to hit home runs. I just don’t really have the swing or the approach for home runs. It’s just one of those things where I’ve always been a gap-to-gap guy, and I try to be a line-drive hitter. I’ll run into home runs every now and then.

"I think the more you learn how to hit and the more your body matures, the power will eventually come for most guys. Everyone’s different. … It’s just one of those things where I’m trying to mature as a hitter and really stay steady in my approach."

Kiermaier understands he has room to grow, but his early results have impressed. Since his playing debut this season on April 12, he leads all rookies in the majors with 12 extra-base hits and a .641 slugging percentage. The four home runs through 26 career games tie for the most in Rays history, equaling Evan Longoria, Elijah Dukes and Bobby Smith.

Entering Friday, Kiermaier had hit .316 with four home runs and six RBI. He has targeted one area to improve: He said he wants to cut down on his frequency of strikeouts. After Thursday, he had struck out 19 times, including 14 in 61 June at-bats.

"I think a lot of his offense is still going to develop," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "A big part of it is just pitch selection in general, continuing to work at at-bats. He’s going to be a guy that, I think, who’s going to be able to accept his walks and still hit for power. He’s not going to be out of control with his swing. He knows how to bunt. He can bunt for a hit. He’s able to play a pretty complete game."

HELLICKSON TO MAKE REHAB START SUNDAY

Maddon confirmed that right-hander Jeremy Hellickson will make a fourth rehab start Sunday with Triple-A Durham against Syracuse. Hellickson, recovering from late January arthroscopic surgery on his throwing elbow, is 0-2 with a 7.88 ERA in two starts with Durham and one with High-A Charlotte.

The pitcher has targeted a pre-All-Star break return, but it appears uncertain what will happen after Sunday’s start. Maddon said options remain open.

Part of the reason: Hellickson struggled in his last appearance with Durham. He allowed seven runs (three earned) and 12 hits in 2 2/3 innings against Louisville on Tuesday.

"There is nothing beyond that right now," Maddon said of the Sunday appearance. "So there’s nothing. We’ll play that one out and see how it goes."

JOYCE REACTS TO BP VIDEO’S POPULARITY

Outfielder/designated hitter Matt Joyce said he received multiple texts and questions about his batting practice video from Thursday that went viral.

During the sequence, before the Rays’ victory over the Astros, Joyce popped a ball into the air that hit the top of the batting cage and landed in the pitching machine. The machine, still running, then shot the ball back at Joyce, who had just finished his backswing. Maddon and hitting coach Derek Shelton watched from behind the cage.

Joyce seemed somewhat baffled by the video’s popularity. It appeared on multiple national blogs and web sites Friday morning. He understood the sight was rare and something that compelled many to contact him.

"It’s something different," Joyce said.

WORTH NOTING

— Left-hander David Price earned his 1,000th career strikeout in the top of the second inning Friday against Houston. He struck out Chris Carter looking for his third strikeout of the night. The only previous Tampa Bay pitcher to reach the 1,000-strikeout mark was right-hander James Shields with 1,250.

— Maddon called Grant Balfour’s 13-pitch ninth inning Thursday the best he had seen from the reliever this season. Balfour struck out Jon Singleton (swinging), Matt Dominguez (swinging) and Jason Castro (looking) to end the ninth in Maddon’s continued attempt to heal Balfour’s confidence following a decision to use a by-committee approach to the closer role. After a five-run, four-hit collapse against the Seattle Mariners on June 8, Balfour had allowed just one run and three hits in his last four appearances entering Friday.

"Yesterday was the best he has thrown all year," Maddon said. "Period. Period. Stuff-wise, aggressiveness, usage, how he utilized his pitches. Best he has thrown all year."

— The spring-training-like drills should come to an end. The Rays participated in early work Tuesday, Thursday and Friday this week. But Maddon said Friday’s session will be the final one, though he said the fine-tuning of fundamentals will continue.

— The Rays announced the signing of left-hander Brock Burke on Friday, their third-round pick in the most recent MLB draft. The Evergreen (Colorado) High School product’s signing means they’ve signed all 11 picks from the first 10 rounds of the draft and 32 of the 41 players they drafted overall.

— Right-hander Taylor Guerrieri, one of the Rays’ top pitching prospects, tweeted Friday that he threw to hitters for the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery last July. Guerrieri was last seen with Class A Bowling Green earlier in 2013, when he made 14 starts with a 2.01 ERA.

— Saturday’s game between the Rays and Astros will be part of Turn Back the Clock Night at Tropicana Field. Both teams will wear retro uniforms in a nod to the 1970s.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.