Tanner Kiest a True Craftsman in Role as Saints Closer
American Association Daily provides insights and features on the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions going on with teams around the league. In today’s edition, Robert Pannier profiles St. Paul Saints closer Tanner Kiest.
Introducing Saints Closer Tanner Kiest
A Tanner – a craftsman who tans hides. That may not seem like some kind of prophetic naming for a baseball player but, if you met St. Paul Saints closer Tanner Kiest, it may be the most appropriate name of all.
When you think about it, a baseball is nothing more than rubber coated cork, layered with yarn and then covered with cowhide. Tanned cowhide. In that way, it seems wholly appropriate, but there is a lot more to the name that fits the man.
After all, after being acquired by the Saints last season, Tanner proved to be the final ingredient in a run that led the team to American Association championship, their first since 2004. He was the shutdown closer the team needed to leave hitters feeling like they had their hind ends tanned as he closed out 13 games for the team, including four in the playoffs. Now, he looks to lead this team to their second straight championship.
Built for Baseball
It doesn’t take much to realize that Tanner Kiest has the ideal makeup for a closer. At 6-3, 235, he is an imposing figure on the mound and his high-90s fastball is his weapon of choice, blowing American Association hitters away at a rate of 13.0 per nine innings.
Tanner’s success is not just a product of his physical abilities, however. The 25-year-old wants the ball and he wants it when the stakes are the highest. He wants the opportunity to come in and blast a 95+ mph fastball by his would-be adversary.
“I’m a closer I think it 100 percent fits my mentality. The adrenaline in that moment is something that I really love, and I think it is the perfect situation for me.”
Tanner wasn’t always a closer though. He was a starter in high school, but moved to the bullpen in college when his first collegiate baseball coach recommended that he come out of the bullpen. He began his college career at Riverside Community College. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013, but opted to attend college another year, going to Chaffey (CA) College. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies the next year and headed to the Phillies rookie league team.
The reliever struggled early on, making 21 total appearances in his first two seasons in the Gulf Coast League. He yielded 16 earned runs in 25.0 innings,and was released at the end of the 2015 season.
Unfazed, Tanner knew that he had what it took to make it in the sport he had loved for as long as he could remember. An undiagnosed arm problem had caused him to slip in the draft and hampered his success early on in his professional career.
In 2016, he pitched in three different independent leagues, including in the American Association for the Lincoln Saltdogs. He made a combined 13 appearances, yielding 11 earned runs in 17 innings. The next year, Tanner found himself in the United Shore League, where things began to click. He appeared in 10 games, but tossed 42 total innings, striking out an eye-popping 78 batters.
Tanner rededicated himself to the game prior to coming to Eastside Diamond Hoppers, and it showed. His nearly 18 strikeouts per nine innings was fueled by a 99 mile per hour fastball, the product of a changing approach to the game.
“I think a lot of it came down to my mental game and being able to block out distractions and just effectively play instead of letting all kinds of nonsense that didn’t matter in my head get in the way of me throwing the ball where I want to.”
With his arm finally at 100 percent, Tanner was able to work out harder, adding a lot of strength. This not only allowed him to throw hard, but to do so on a regular basis. “My velocity was there. I was able to start throwing my fastball consistently the whole season.”
The success did not go unnoticed as the Minnesota Twins signed the right-hander, sending him to Mid-A Cedar Rapids the following year. Despite the high velocity fastball, Tanner was given just seven appearances before being released.
A Really Fresh Start
Looking to keep himself moving forward, Tanner Kiest joined the American Association’s new franchise, the Milwaukee Milkmen in 2019. All he was looking for was one more chance to prove that he had what it took to be a key member of a team.
“I knew going into the season that I had a really good off-season I worked extremely hard. So, I had the confidence of that going in and then I guess you could just kind of say things started to click for me. My confidence was high, just because I knew that I had to have a good season to start making progress towards ultimately where I want to go.”
While happy at being given the opportunity, joining the Milkmen was not all rainbows and unicorns. The team spent the first month of their “home” schedule playing in Kokomo, Indiana as the finishing touches were being added to Milkmen Stadium. It made for a tough introduction to the American Association, but Tanner saw it as a blessing in disguise.
“It was a crazy time around there. It wasn’t easy because of the travel and you don’t really have a home park, but it helped me to be 100% in the moment. To learn to be able to shutout all the distractions and focus on my job.”
Focus is exactly what he did. Tanner quickly became the story to the 2019 American Association season, posting a miniscule 1.72 ERA in 31 appearances for Milwaukee. He struck out 41 in 31.1 innings, while allowing only 24 hits.
As the trade deadline approached, there was no doubt that the right-hander was going to be moving. Talk swirled around the league, and Tanner was fully aware his name was being bandied about. He was accepting of a trade but wanted to make sure he was given the opportunity to make the post-season. He couldn’t have been more thrilled when St. Paul became his destination.
“It’s always a good feeling to feel wanted. In Milwaukee, I knew the playoffs weren’t something that was going to be really an option. I definitely welcomed being traded and then when I was told that I was going to St. Paul, I could not have been happier with that destination.”
While working in a setup role in Milwaukee, Saints Manager George Tsamis turned the closing duties over to his new reliever. Tanner had saved just one game in his professional career, but quickly embraced his new role.
“I just wanted to do whatever would help my team win. They wanted me to close and I was like, ‘Just give me the ball.’ I knew I could do this, and I wanted to be the guy the team could count on to close out games.”
Saving the Best for It Matters Most
Tanner Kiest arrived in St. Paul on August 9 and became the final piece in the puzzle for the Saints. He appeared in 13 games for his new team, saving nine games while striking out an amazing 25 in 16 innings, an average of 14.1 per nine innings.
His arrival had the impact that the Saints Manager was hoping for. In the 24 games after the deal, St. Paul went 19-5, including posting a nine-game winning streak, seven of which were on the road. That helped vault the team to the top of the North Division standings but, more importantly, it was a run that had this team believing that they simply could not lose, no matter the obstacle.
“We never thought we would lose. especially with the team that we had. We knew that it was kind of like ‘when are we going to come back,’ but also just being so excited down to the bullpen that you want to get involved in the because you know we’re coming back. It’s like, you know the ball is going to get through, we’re going to get a couple of runs. That was the mentality down there. It was fun. Like, ‘how can I get in this game tonight?’”
The final month of the season proved to be just the tip of the iceberg for Tanner. He played a pivotal role in all but one of the team’s six playoff victories. However, it looked like he was not going to see any action at all. The Saints lost the first two games of their series with the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks and were being no-hit through the first six innings of Game 3. It looked like another disappointing playoff run in St. Paul, but not with this team. Not this year.
The Saints rallied for four runs in the seventh to tie the score, then added two in the eighth to take the lead. That brought a call from the bullpen, as Tanner came on to retire the side for his first post-season save. Game 4 was an incredible pitchers’ duel between Bret Helton and Ryan Zimmerman, as the contest was scoreless heading into the bottom of the ninth. In the top of the ninth, the right-hander came on and retired the side in order, setting up the dramatic ninth inning. With a runner at third and two outs, Blake Schmit beat out a grounder to third to give St. Paul a 1-0 win. Tanner earned the win.
The improbable run continued in Game 5 in a game that epitomized the final month of the season for the Saints. Fargo-Moorhead took a 5-0 lead in the third and held that through the fifth, but the Saints scored five in the bottom of the sixth to tie the score. The RedHawks retook the lead with two runs in the top of the eighth, only to see St. Paul score four more in the bottom of the inning. That brought a call for the closer in the top of the ninth, and he closed this game out in true Tanner Kiest form, striking out the side to send the Saints to the American Association Championship Series.
The Saints dominated Game 1, scoring 11 runs through the first six innings against the Sioux City Explorers, as they led 12-3 heading to the bottom of the ninth. No need for Tanner’s services on this night, so he earned a rare night off. In Game 2, St. Pau fell behind 2-0 before rallying to tie the score with two runs in the fifth, then took the lead with a run in the top of the ninth. It was Tanner time and, after walking the leadoff batter, he erased the runner with a double-play grounder, then struck out Jose Sermo swinging to preserve the 3-2 victory.
Sioux City looked like they would get back into this series when they took a three-run lead in the top of the first inning of Game 3, but St. Paul took the lead on a grand slam in the bottom of the sixth, and lead 6-4 heading into the top of the ninth. It was time for Tanner to appear in the biggest game of his life.
He walked the leadoff batter and, after striking out Justin Felix, walked Sebastian Zawada to put the tying runs on base. After falling behind Kyle Wren 2-0, it was time for that mental toughness that had quickly become his trademark. Tanner threw the perfect pitch, getting Wren to ground into a double-play to give the Saints their first championship since 2004.
It was a moment that proved not too big for the 6-3 right-hander and one he still relishes.
“That was awesome. You know when that when the inning started. You want to approach it like it’s any other time you are pitching but then you go out there and the feeling is not quite easy to say. You are definitely more hyped up, more intense and, when the final out is called, it is indescribable.”
Ready for Repeat?
While the American Association awaits getting underway, Tanner Kiest is preparing to assume the role he mastered last season, looking to help make the team repeat champions. Sadly, he was not picked up by an affiliate club in the off-season, but is highly motivated to prove that 32 Major League organizations made a mistake by overlooking him.
“I just want to pick up where I left off. I am going to come into games every time the ball is given to me and just go out and get hitters out. I can’t worry about the other stuff. It is about being 100 percent in the moment. I am going to focus on doing my job in St. Paul. We want another championship and that is where I am at. I just think I am only going to get better.”
That is a thought that has to have American Association hitters cringing. As if Tanner Kiest wasn’t tough enough to face already, he will enter this season more motivated than ever. That will likely mean he has the best season of his life in St. Paul, or it could mean that he becomes the missing piece for a AA or AAA team out there. After all, there are other leagues out there where hitters need a good tanning to their proverbial hides.
By Robert Pannier
Images Courtesy of Capture Twin Cities