Sunday Morning Comic Relief

So getting Brian Dozier into the All-Star game became a bit of a thing .. just in case you missed it. There were some EXTREMELY creative outreaches on social media – especially the last day on Twitter. This was my favorite:

 

If you really want some more laughter in your day, check out the #VoteDozier hashtag on twitter – you’ll giggle for hours.

Zack Larson: A Puzzle Piece for the Kernels – and More

In each of the past several seasons, the Cedar Rapids Kernels have held an “Autism Awareness Night” at the Veterans Memorial Stadium, with the Kernels wearing special jerseys that are auctioned off to benefit The East Central Iowa Autism Society.

The Society’s web site reports that the rate of autism is currently 1 in 88. However, as the site goes on to point out, “To most Americans, 1 in 88 is a number. To the families of a child with autism, our 1 in 88 has a face and a name.”

For one Kernels player, that face is his younger brother’s and that name is Max.

Cedar Rapids outfielder Zack Larson doesn’t need to wear a special jersey to remain aware of autism. In the unlikely event that Larson would require such a reminder, he needs only to look at his own right arm and the tattoo there consisting of the puzzle piece logo, widely used to promote autism awareness, along with his brother’s name.

Zack Larson  carries brother Max's name with him via the tattoo on his arm. (Photo: SD Buhr)

Zack Larson carries brother Max’s name with him via the tattoo on his arm. (Photo: SD Buhr)

Larson’s a native of the Bradenton, Florida, area, but moved to Virginia with his family when he was just five years old.

“I lived there for four years,” Larson recalled, “then, my little brother was born in Virginia and was diagnosed with autism. So we moved back down to Florida where we found a school for him to go to. That’s where we’ve been since.”

Max and the rest of Larson’s family follow Zack and the Kernels as closely as possible from Florida.

“They bought that (MiLB.tv) package so they watch the games on TV that are there to watch and they listen to every game with Morgan (Kernels radio broadcaster Morgan Hawk). My mom came (to Cedar Rapids) in May, so it was good to see her.”

If, as you’d expect, Max looks up to his big brother the ballplayer, it’s equally apparent that Zack admires Max, as well.

Lack Larson grew a mustache in high school and his brother Max got one, too. (Photo: courtesy Zack Larson)

Zack Larson grew a mustache in high school and his brother Max got one, too. (Photo: courtesy Zack Larson)

“He has pretty severe autism,” Larson explained. “He doesn’t talk very well but he knows words. He’s really brilliant on the computer. He knows how to work every electronic thing you can think of. My dad won’t know how to turn on something and Max will go in there and turn it on right away. My dad’s like, ‘what the heck?’ He’s a genius when it comes to electronics and computers and stuff.

“Not many people totally understand what it’s all about. It was eye-opening for me when I first started to understand what my brother was diagnosed with. I was still young. It made me a better person, it made my family better people and it’s a blessing to have my brother.”

Larson was signed out of high school in 2012 after being drafted by the Twins in the 20th round. Like virtually all high school players that are drafted, he had to choose between starting his professional career immediately or going to college first and trying to improve his future draft status. It really wasn’t a difficult decision for Larson, however.

“I signed with a junior college, but ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a professional baseball player and the Twins gave me the opportunity,” Larson recalled. “I didn’t want to pass on it. I could have gone to college and got hurt and could have never gotten another chance to play professional baseball.”

Larson said he did discuss options with his family, but, in the end, “it was always my childhood dream to play pro ball, so I did it.”

Had Larson gone to a four year college instead, he’d have been a draftable junior in this year’s draft. That’s not something he gives any thought to, however.

“I don’t play any ‘what if’ games. I just did what I wanted to do.  I just followed my dream and I haven’t looked back since.”

Is he happy with how that dream has turned out, so far?

“Yeah, absolutely. It’s awesome.”

Zack Larson

Zack Larson

Larson played 41 games with the Kernels a year ago, but missed much of the season with a hamstring injury.

The result of missing so much time with an injury was being assigned, again, to Cedar Rapids this spring as he works to resume his rise up the Twins’ organizational ladder.

“My goal was just to have good quality at-bats, not to give any at-bats away,” Larson said, of his plans for 2015. “Just get on base however I can. I never really set any number goals or any of that. I wanted to get to the playoffs the first half and we did.”

Larson got off to a slow start in April, hitting just .211 for the month, but he and Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins have been working together and that work is starting to show results.

“I’m working with Tommy just on staying through the ball, working down to the ball instead of lifting the ball,” Larson explained. “I’ve been getting under it and lifting it. I’ve just been working with Tommy every day in the cage and starting to improve.”

Larson has been particularly effective at driving in runs for the Kernels, hitting .347 with runners in scoring position and leading his team with 39 Runs Batted In headed in to the July 4 weekend.

Watkins said he likes what he’s seeing from his pupil.

“He’s got a pretty good swing,” Watkins observed. “We’re just working with him on using the whole field, trying to drive some balls to the gap. Right now, just trying to get him to stay on top of the ball and use the middle to the opposite way. To pull the ball, let that happen on its own.

“He’s a student of the game and he’s a guy that I look to lead our club, being here last year. He’s more of a quiet guy and he’ll lead more by example than anything, but I look for him to be a leader on this team. Great guy with runners in scoring position. He hunts out those RBIs and that’s a good thing.”

Larson and his teammates put together a 41-29 record in the first half of their Midwest League season, good enough to lock up a playoff spot by finishing second in the Western Division, but they know they have more work to do.

“We had a pretty good first half, but we think we can do better,” Larson said. “We had a meeting with Jake (manager Jake Mauer) and he said that if we had averaged four runs per game, we could have won 50 games in the first half. So, we were like, ‘what the heck, we can score four runs.’

“We don’t want to take the second half lightly, we want to show the teams that we’re playing some ball and we’re ready for the playoffs, that we can push it all the way into the playoffs and make a run.”

Randy LeBlanc: From Big Easy to Cedar Rapids

When you ask ballplayers about their outside interests, it’s not unusual for them to express an interest in hunting. In that regard, Kernels’ pitcher Randy LeBlanc fits in with the crowd.

It’s when you ask what he hunts that LeBlanc begins to vary from the norm.

He’ll tell you he spent most of his offseason fishing and duck hunting, with a little deer hunting thrown in. Although, “my dad does more deer hunting than I do,” he says.

After a pause though, he adds the kicker.

“I’ve been gator hunting a few times. A couple of years ago, my cousin got a tag and we got one that was ten feet.“

Randy LeBlanc during a clubhouse card game (Photoa: SD Buhr)

Randy LeBlanc during a clubhouse card game (Photoa: SD Buhr)

LeBlanc hails from Covington, Louisiana, though while his offseason activities might be right in line with his Cajun heritage, you’d barely know it to speak to him.

“I’ve had people tell me up here that I don’t have any kind of accent,” he said. “People down south tell me I have an accent. It’s different than an Alabama accent. I’m definitely Cajun. My dad grew up in Cajun-land.”

You can take the boy out of Cajun-land, but it’s not so easy, apparently, to take the Cajun-land out of the boy.

In all the years the Minnesota Twins have been conducting spring training in Florida, they’ve certainly dealt with a wide variety of minor disciplinary issues with their ballplayers. Boys will be boys, after all.

But this spring, LeBlanc and fellow Louisiana native (and former Kernels pitcher) Ryan Eades may have been among the first Twins farmhands to get talked to about messing with the local alligators.

“Me and Ryan got in some trouble messing with some of the ones in Florida during spring training,” LeBlanc admitted with a small smile. “We had a meeting about it.”

“Everybody’s so scared of them,” he added, in a way that made it sound like he couldn’t quite grasp why that would be the case.

You can hardly blame the Twins, though, for discouraging LeBlanc from “messing with” alligators.

Despite being relegated to the often anonymous role of middle relief pitcher, LeBlanc is opening eyes this summer with the Kernels. He took a string of 26 consecutive scoreless innings of relief work in to the tenth inning of Friday night’s game against the Quad Cities River Bandits, a team high for the season that he shared with one of the Kernels’ closers, Trevor Hildenberger.

That string might have extended to 27 games, but for a line drive in to the outfield that was a single misplayed in to a triple. The result was LeBlanc’s first loss of the season, as Cedar Rapids fell to Quad Cities 4-3 in ten innings.

As rare as the loss was for LeBlanc, almost as rare was the fact that LeBlanc worked just one inning in the game.

The 6’ 4” right hander has made 19 appearances this season for Cedar Rapids and all but two of them have involved more than one inning of mound work. His 42 and 1/3 innings leads all non-starters for the Kernels.

The Twins drafted LeBlanc out of Tulane University in New Orleans with their tenth round pick in the 2014 draft.

Those who follow the Twins minor league organization closely know that they’ve had a pattern of drafting hard throwing college relievers with the intention of trying to turn them in to starting pitchers.

The Twins have seemingly done just the opposite with LeBlanc, who was almost exclusively a starting pitcher during his college career at Tulane, but has been used only in relief roles since signing with the Twins.

“I made a couple of relief appearances (in college), but other than that, I started my entire life,” he said. “I’d never done any relief, not consistent relief. Last year (at rookie level Elizabethton) was definitely the first time I’ve done that. But I was fine doing it, comfortable doing it. Whatever the Twins feel is my best role is what I want to do.”

LeBlanc was drafted in the 16th round of the 2010 draft by the Florida Marlins after his senior year of high school, but chose to attend Tulane, rather than sign with the Marlins.

“They made me a pretty big offer. That was before the slotting stuff,” he recalled. “It was definitely a big decision to turn down the money and go to school, but I don’t regret that for the world. I enjoyed my four years of college. It was definitely a lot of fun. New Orleans is a great city. I love it.”

That’s easier for LeBlanc to say now than it might have been after his first season of college ball.

Randy LeBlanc (15) in a pregame ritual game of flip with other Kernels pitchers (Photo: SD Buhr)

Randy LeBlanc (15) in a pregame ritual game of flip with other Kernels pitchers (Photo: SD Buhr)

“I had Tommy John (elbow ligament surgery) my freshman year of college. I actually tore it in my third start. I ended up having surgery a week later and was out the rest of the year.

“Came back the next year and struggled a little bit, just didn’t have quite the same stuff. I say I struggled, but it definitely could have been worse, don’t get me wrong.

“Did a little better my junior year, went undrafted after that year. Had a couple of phone calls with some offers, but went back to school. I had a really good red-shirt junior year and got drafted by the Twins.”

So, after four years in Big Easy, LeBlanc found himself in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in April.

New Orleans and Cedar Rapids – pretty much the same thing, right? No, not so much.

“When I flew up to Minneapolis to sign last year, that was the farthest I had ever been north in my life,” a smiling LeBlanc recalled.  “I would assume this (Cedar Rapids) is probably the second farthest.

“The games this year in Appleton, when it was snowing for two days, I’d never seen snow before. It was the first snow I’d ever seen. It’s been a trip. That was the coldest I’d ever pitched in, for sure. Man, it was cold. The wind was just howling the whole time. It was miserable.

“I do a lot of hunting and fishing in the offseason, so I’m used to being out in the cold, but not snow cold, not like that.”

The climate may not be familiar to LeBlanc, but if his performance this season is any indication, he’ll have no problem adjusting to pitching in Target Field someday.

LeBlanc has notched a 1.70 ERA in 42 and 1/3 innings over 19 appearances for the Kernels.

“I had a really good first month of April,” he recalled.”Then we started May and I kind of had a little rough stretch for about two weeks. Ever since then, I’ve had a little better command up and down in the zone and I think that’s the biggest thing.

“I’ve been throwing well. A couple times, I guess, during this little streak or whatever, I haven’t had my best stuff at all. Basically, I’ve just made pitches when I’ve had to, able to get out of jams, that’s the best way to describe it. I’m not out there just dominating everybody and striking everybody out. Just making pitches when I have to.”

LeBlanc is also quick to point out that he and his fellow Kernels pitchers have benefited this season from some pretty solid defensive efforts behind them.

“We’ve played a ton of defense. TJ (White) and Nick (Gordon) and the whole left side of the infield, that’s where the majority of my balls go, to that side. So they’ve done an incredible job and Pat (Kelly) has done a great job up the middle.

“We’ve had guys mixing all over the place at first base. Brett (Doe) has never played first base in his life and he finds himself over there and he’s doing a really good job. It definitely helps having good defense behind us.”

LeBlanc uses a three-pitch mix on the mound and, like a lot of young pitchers, he came in to the season with an agenda.

“Originally, coming up here, I was working on the breaking ball. It’s gotten much better. I’m throwing a slider, It’s kind of a slider or a slurve, I guess. I’ve gotten a lot of swings and misses with it.

“But, I mean, I’m a sinkerball guy. I throw sinkers down and in to most people. That’s probably my best pitch; that or my change up. My change up’s my out pitch. If I need a swing and a miss, I go to my change up. But most of my success is just getting ground balls.”

Randy LeBlanc

Randy LeBlanc

While LeBlanc isn’t unhappy with his middle relief role, he wouldn’t exactly be opposed to getting a shot at a rotation spot at some point, either.

His Kernels pitching coach, Henry Bonilla, is in LeBlanc’s corner on that issue, too.

“I’ve been pulling for it,” Bonilla said. “I’ve been putting that thought in their (the front office) heads that he can start, he wants to start.”

His success out of the pen may be working against the righty’s chances of changing roles, however. Sometimes you don’t mess with what’s going well.

“I just think he’s having so much success right now,” Bonilla added, “that you just kind of say, ‘just keep going.’”

LeBlanc says all the right things when he’s asked about his role now and in the future.

“I think that Henry has talked about it a little bit to some of the guys up above us making the decisions. But I’m not sure what they’re doing. I told them at the beginning of the year I’ll do whatever they want me to do that’s going to help me to move up. Whatever will get me to the big leagues, I want to do. Whatever, starting, closing, throwing relief, long relief, whatever it is. So whatever they feel comfortable with me doing, I’ll do.

“They might ask me to start here in three weeks, I have no idea. I’d be fine doing that, though, I’ve started my whole life.”

Many starting pitchers pick up a few miles per hour on their fastballs when they start working out of the bullpen, but LeBlanc said that’s not historically been the case with him.

“It’s actually the other way around,” he said. “I threw harder as a starter. I threw harder as the games went on in college.”

He has no explanation for why that might be the case.

“I have no idea. It was like that in high school and it was like that in college. I don’t know, that’s the weirdest thing.

“When I was getting drafted, (scouts) were like, ‘so if you threw in relief, you could throw a couple miles per hour harder,’ and I’m like, ‘yeah!’ I figured it would be around the same. Definitely not going to tell them, ‘no’.”

Whatever his role may be during the second half of the Kernels’ season, he’s been a major contributor to the Kernels’ success, so far, and his pitching coach recognizes that.

“He’s been doing everything we ask,” Bonilla said. “He’s been a big glue to the middle innings right now.”

– JC

Five Kernels at the MWL All-Star Game

The Midwest League’s Eastern Division All-Stars took two hours and forty-four minutes to top their Western Division counterparts 5-0 in Peoria Tuesday night, but any Cedar Rapids fans who made the trip hoping to watch the Kernels’ representatives had to be careful with the timing of any trips to the concession stand.

Pitchers Felix Jorge, Jared Wilson, Trevor Hildenberg and Cam Booser spent less than a combined 15 minutes on the mound while throwing a total of two and one-third innings for the West.

Jorge needed just ten pitches to retire all three hitters he faced in a perfect 3rd inning, striking out one.

Wilson started the 8th inning and was just as efficient, using just seven pitches to get through his assigned two outs, including a strikeout.

Kernels MWL All-Stars Jared Wilson, Cam Booser, Trevor Hildenberger, Trey Vavra and Felix Jorge (Photo: SD Buhr)

Kernels MWL All-Stars Jared Wilson, Cam Booser, Trevor Hildenberger, Trey Vavra and Felix Jorge (Photo: SD Buhr)

Hildenberger relieved Wilson and used just four pitches to finish the inning with a strikeout of his own.

Booser was assigned the first out of the 9th inning, entering with the West trailing 2-0. He walked one and gave up a pair of hits before getting an out on a bouncer back to him on the mound.

The four Kernels pitchers threw just 34 pitches between them, but All-Star games aren’t all about playing time.

Hildenberg and Jorge agreed afterward that the experience was well worth the trip.

“It was fun,” Hildenberger said, between bites of his postgame meal. “Getting to meet players you play against, talking to them about how their seasons are going. And to pitch in an All-Star game is an honor.”

Jorge, who’s role as a starting pitcher with the Kernels, calls for him to prepare to throw six or seven innings at a time, said he didn’t change his approach for the rare one-inning relief appearance.

“I was just trying to do the same,” he said.

West hitters managed just three hits off Eastern Division pitching on the night and perhaps could have used the bat of injured Kernels first baseman Trey Vavra, who made the trip to Peoria after being elected to start the game before going on the Kernels’ Disabled List with an ankle injury.

Kernels All-Stars work the pregame autograph ropeline at the 2015 MWL All-Star Game L-R: Jorge, Booser, Hildenberger, Wilson, Vavra. (Photo: SD Buhr)

Kernels All-Stars work the pregame autograph ropeline at the 2015 MWL All-Star Game L-R: Jorge, Booser, Hildenberger, Wilson, Vavra. (Photo: SD Buhr)

Vavra was happy to get the opportunity to participate in the All-Star festivities, but there was no chance he’d be able to play in the game.

“I’m glad that the Twins gave me the opportunity to come here and hang out with everybody,” Vavra said before the game. “It’s great that they allowed me to do that.

“My rehab’s come a long ways. I’m not going to be able to play in the game tonight. It’s unfortunate, but it’s kind of how it worked out.”

Despite the progress with his rehabilitation, Vavra isn’t sure yet when he’ll be back in the Kernels’ lineup. He’s also not certain whether he’ll complete his rehab in Cedar Rapids or whether he’ll make a trip to the Twins’ facility in Fort Myers.

“It’s kind of up to (the Twins) at this point. We’ve been doing some rehab for a long time. I’m progressing. I wouldn’t anticipate anything in the next week, but maybe the week after that.

“I might go down there (to Fort Myers). I’ve heard both. Going down there to get some extended batting practice, but I’ve also heard that I’m staying up here and doing all that stuff up here, so I’ll just keep my head down and keep working.”

With the All-Star break now in the rear-view mirror, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Twins didn’t make some roster adjustments and that could include promoting any of the four pitchers the Kernels sent to Peoria for the All-Star Game.

Vavra, as well, played well enough while he was healthy to warrant consideration for a promotion, but it’s likely the organization would want to see him get more time in with the Kernels when he’s ready to resume his season.

Hildenberger, however, indicated that they haven’t heard anything yet from the Twins about any possible promotions.

On Wednesday, the Twins and Kernels announced that pitcher Brandon Bixler has been activated from the Disabled List and lefty starting pitcher Luke Westphal has joined the Kernels’ active roster from Fort Myers. Bixler made 41 appearances for the Kernels in 2014, notching a 2.68 ERA out of the Cedar Rapids bullpen. Westphal has put up a 3.82 ERA in five starts and 11 relief appearances for the Miracle this season.

The Kernels will begin the second half of the season on Thursday night against Quad Cities. The River Bandits were the champions of the league’s Western Division in the first half of the season.

P.S. This is where you watch the game from when you’re late with your request for media credentials for the MWL All-Star Game. On the other hand, the weather was terrific and I would have missed this ballpark sunset if I’d been in the pressbox!

PeoriaDozerPark

 

Doe’s Doing It Well for the Kernels

Brett Doe didn’t make the trip north to Cedar Rapids out of spring training with his friends and teammates when they broke camp to start the 2015 season, a fact that was, “pretty disheartening,” Doe said in an interview over the past weekend.

“When I first heard it, it was pretty tough,” Doe admitted. “I played with most of these guys down in E’town and they’re definitely the guys that I wanted to spend the year playing with.”

Doe didn’t allow himself to dwell long on that disheartened feeling though.

Brett Doe and hitting coach Tommy Watkins

Brett Doe and hitting coach Tommy Watkins

“A few hours kind of down on myself a little bit, doubting myself,” he said. “But then I thought, ‘what good is being negative?’ Negativity only slows you down, holds you back.”

Doe said he also got a bit of tough love from his buddies back home.

“I talked to a lot of friends and they were saying, ‘hey, we don’t want to hear you complain, we’re going to our jobs right now and we’d give anything to be where you are right now.’ So kind of taking that attitude kind of helped me once I got here because it’s something I can’t take for granted.

“Being down there (in extended spring training) and knowing how anxious I was to get here and knowing that nothing is guaranteed. Even if I’m playing well and hitting well, it’s still a long season to go.”

Even going back in to spring training, Doe recognized that a guy selected as late as he was in the draft can’t afford to relax in the effort department.

“I was a 38th rounder during spring training. I would wake up and think, ‘I hope today is not the day they send me home. I don’t want to go back home.’ So I’d work hard every single day and, as cliché as that sounds, I’d work hard and have to go back and get in bed so tired after the day was over. Still, every day I’ve got to realize that nothing is guaranteed.”

Brett Doe

Brett Doe

A couple of weeks in to the season, Doe got the call to join the Kernels when Jorge Fernandez went on the Disabled List with a concussion.

Since then, Doe has hit .318 and has stepped in to make a critical contribution to the Kernels’ offense during their successful drive to clinch at least a second-place finish in the Midwest League’s Western Division first-half standings and the guaranteed postseason berth that comes with it.

“It’s been huge, to be honest with you,” Kernels manager Jake Mauer said of Doe’s contribution.

“He just hadn’t gotten much of an opportunity early,” Mauer added. “Now he’s getting a chance and with his swing, how short it is and compact, it works, there’s no doubt about it. It’s just a matter of him getting an opportunity, really. He’s making the most of it.”

He didn’t exactly hit the ground running upon arrival in Cedar Rapids, though.

“When I first got here, I started off a little slow. Not playing that much and when I got in, I got up there with the attitude that I’ve got to prove that I belong here. I think that if I’d have squared up some of those balls I swung at, they’d have gone about 500 feet,” Doe recalled, laughing.

Mauer and Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins had some conversations with Doe about that approach.

“That’s not the type of player I am,” he acknowledged. “It’s putting the ball in play, trying to find barrels and move guys and score guys. That’s the type of player I am and they helped remind me of that and that’s helped me out a lot.”

Doe was primarily an infielder during his junior college and college career, but the Twins are making a catcher out of him.

The reason for the position change to squatting behind the plate was simple, according to Doe. Pro scouts spelled things out clearly to him during the scouting process.

“I went to junior college and looked to get drafted out of there,” Doe explained. “I was just a shortstop, and I’d show up places and run my 60-yard dashes and scouts would kind of hold their breath and kind of, ‘ohhh, not what we want.’ That had held me back.”

According to Doe, the scouts told him, “The only chance you may have is if you catch because you don’t have to run.”

“That was kind of what held me back from playing infield,” Doe added. “Struggled swinging the bat a few years in college. ‘Can’t run well, streaky hitter, so we want you to catch a little bit.’”

Randy LeBlanc (15) and Brett Doe (23)

Randy LeBlanc (15) and Brett Doe (23) pose during a Sunday postgame autograph session

It took a bit of truth-stretching for Doe to get his first opportunity to get behind the plate during his junior year at Baylor, though.

“A couple of our catchers went down with injuries so I kind of mentioned it, ‘yeah I caught in junior college,’ which wasn’t entirely truthful,” Doe rather sheepishly admitted. “But I wanted to stay in the lineup. So I went back there and they said, ‘OK you’re catching this weekend.’

“That started it. That was my junior year. I caught about 15-20 games there. Then senior year, I went back to shortstop once our other catchers got healthy. I didn’t start doing it full time until last year at E’town.”

While his future in professional baseball is likely going to be determined by how well he wears the “tools of ignorance,” as we called catchers’ gear in my day, the Kernels currently have four catchers on their roster. That means that Doe’s defensive versatility allows his manager to keep his hot bat in the lineup and he’s been playing a lot of first base for the Kernels recently.

That’s fine with Doe, because it’s all about getting playing time. “Seeing my name in the lineup every day is really, really nice.

“The background of being in the infield has helped me. I’m taking some ground balls at other positions in case some guys need breaks in the long season.

“I’m more comfortable doing that than catching most of the time. Catching is still new to me. Now I’ve just got to figure out when I can get my catching work in and still be fresh and ready for games.”

Mauer thinks that Doe is handling his defensive responsibilities well, regardless of the position.

“He’s done everything we’ve asked,” said the manager. “He’s doing fine at first, a position he hasn’t played a lot.

“He was an infielder who’s catching, so he’s probably a little bit more familiar with going back out in the infield. He’s done a nice job when he’s caught for us. It’s just another way to get him in the lineup. (Alex) Real has been swinging the bat real well, too, so we’re trying to get both of them in there.”

Asked about his goals for the year, Doe emphasized team goals.

Brett Doe and his parents show off his "Jurassic" jersey from a recent Kernels charity night

Brett Doe and his parents show off his “Jurassic” jersey from a recent Kernels charity night

“Of course, the big goal is to make the playoffs,” he said. “I don’t really have any specific individual goals besides showing up every day and knowing that I did my best that day and just trying to help my team win.”

Three days after speaking those words, Doe and the Kernels locked in their playoff spot by clinching at least second place in their division for the first half of the season, so he and his teammates can check that goal off the list.

– JC

Excited About the Twins & Maybe That’s OK

Going in to this weekend’s series against the Milwaukee Brewers, our Minnesota Twins are 11 games over .500, sitting atop the American League Central Division (barely) with a 32-21 record.

Naturally, after the four year run of futility Twins fans have endured coming in to the current season, the main topic of conversation in the Twins community revolves around, “is this for real or are they going to crash and burn?”

Trevor May (photo: SD Buhr)

Trevor May (photo: SD Buhr)

Being more than ten games over the break-even point a couple of months in to the season is rarified air for the Twins this decade. In fact, it’s relatively rare for any team to work their way more than ten games above .500 by June 4 in any recent year.

When you look at the results for other teams that have managed to win ten more games than they’ve lost as of this date, you can find some cause for optimism – but you can also find a cautionary tale or two, as well.

A year ago, four teams found themselves on June 4 with records showing at least ten more wins than losses. Those teams were the Giants, Athletics, Brewers and Blue Jays.

That’s not exactly encouraging news for Twins fans. Two of those teams, the Giants and A’s, hung on to claim wild card spots. The other two failed to make the postseason at all.

In 2013, seven teams streaked out to early success in the first two months of the season. Boston, Texas, Oakland, Atlanta, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh all sat at least ten games over the .500 mark as of June 4.

Four of those teams would ultimately claim Division championship banners, three scraped in to a wild card spot and one, the Rangers, failed to make the postseason (and even they did play a “game 163″). That’s obviously a more encouraging precedent for Twins fans to focus on than the 2014 season.

Only the Dodgers had at least ten more wins than losses on June 4, 2012, and they fell short of postseason qualification.

In 2011, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cleveland were ten games over .500 on June 4. The Phillies won their division, the Cards were a wild card team and the Tribe were left on the outside looking in at playoff time.

In 2010, the Rays, Yankees and Padres all were at least ten games above the .500 mark on this date. Tampa Bay won their division, the Evil Empire claimed the wild card and the Padres were left out. In fairness, however, if today’s two-wild card format had been in effect in 2010, San Diego would have qualified for the second National League wild card spot.

(The Twins, in their final “good” season before the sucking years, were nine games over .500 on June 4, 2010.)

Add all of that up and you get a pretty interesting – and even – mix of results for teams that were, on this date, in a situation similar to where the Twins find themselves today.

Six of 18 teams won their division. Six of 18 claimed wild card spots. Six of 18 were left out in the cold.

Of the six teams who failed to make the postseason after their early-season success, two of them did go on to win at least 90 games. The 2010 Padres won 90 and, as mentioned, would have claimed a second wild card spot had the format been the same as what’s in place today. The 2013 Rangers won 91 games and lost a “play-in” game to the Rays.

The other four non-qualifiers ended up with 86 (2012 Dodgers), 83 (2014 Blue Jays), 82 (2014 Brewers) and 80 (2011 Indians) games.

We all want to believe in the Twins success. We look at the potential to add a front line pitcher to the rotation in Ervin Santana and see possibilities of additional help from young players on the verge of making their big league debuts. We hope to see some guys improve to counter what’s likely to be some regression to the mean among other players.

But, after four years of frustration, it’s hard for some of us to allow ourselves to become wholly emotionally invested in the Twins again, despite the surprisingly hot start.

That said, coming in to the season most of us would have been more than pleased with an 81-81 Twins record at the end of 2015. Considering that only one of 18 teams in the past five years that accomplished what the Twins have accomplished so far failed to finish with at least 81 wins, it’s hard for me not to start getting pretty excited.

Maybe – just maybe – that’s okay.

– JC

 

Kernels Youth Baseball Camp is a Hit

One of the things the Minnesota Twins and Cedar Rapids Kernels organizations have in common is an emphasis on community service and that commonality was on display Saturday morning on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids.

Jared Wilson and Michael Theofanopoulos working in the bullpen with young pitchers

Jared Wilson and Michael Theofanopoulos working in the bullpen with young pitchers

After playing a night game on Friday night, Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins and several Kernels players were back at the ballpark by 8:30 the next morning to conduct a Youth Baseball Camp for well over a hundred boys and girls.

There was a signup sheet in the Kernels’ clubhouse with nine lines on it for volunteers  to sign up to work the camp. Every line was filled and a couple additional players wrote their names in between the lines, giving Watkins a group of 11 ballplayers pitching in for the two-hour long camp, topped off with an autograph session.

Blake Schmit and Randy LeBlanc teaching campers proper fielding position

Blake Schmit and Randy LeBlanc teaching campers proper fielding position

Wandering around the field, it was really hard to tell who was having more fun, the kids or the players. Suffice to say there were a lot of smiles among the young players and the not-as-young.players.

With kids as young as five years old, there was a bit of a “herding kittens” aspect to some of the groups, but each of the six stations that the campers rotated between worked on specific aspects of the game of baseball.

Zach Tillery with instructions for campers on proper grip and form

Zach Tillery with instructions for campers on proper grip and form

In the indoor batting cage, pitcher Cameron Booser and first baseman/ outfielder Trey Vavra gave kids a chance to hit in the cage.

Out on the field, Catcher Brett Doe and pitcher John Curtiss worked with kids on coming off the mound to field bunts and throw toward first base.

Down in the Kernels’ bullpen, Michael Theofanopoulos and Jared Wilson were working with pitching fundamentals.

Cam Booser gets a "pinky promise" from a young camper

Cam Booser gets a “pinky promise” from a young camper

Out in right field, pitcher Zach Tillery was giving lessons on proper throwing technique.

In center field, infielder TJ White and pitcher Trevor Hildenberger were teaching kids how to go back on fly balls hit over their heads.

And over in left field, pitcher Randy LeBlanc and infielder Blake Schmit were teaching technique for fielding ground balls and making a throw.

While the kids were learning the game from Kernels players, some of the Kernels staff gave parents an opportunity to take a tour of the stadium, from the suite and pressbox level down through the clubhouse and batting cage level.

Many of those parents took the time afterward to thank Kernels staff and players for giving their kids this opportunity.

Kernels General Manager Scott Wilson was also appreciative of the time put in by Watkins and the players.

TJ White and Trevor Hildenberger working with a group of outfielders

TJ White and Trevor Hildenberger working with a group of outfielders

“You’ve got to think about, these guys played last night and get out of bed and be here by 8:30 to do this camp,” WIlson pointed out. “Then they’re probably going to go in the locker room, take a nap on the couch and then at 2:00 get back up and report for baseball and then do their jobs.”

The Kernels have a long tradition of community outreach and the camps are just one example. They also sponsor a summer reading program that involves Kernels players going out in to the elementary schools to read to kids and encourage them to read on their own over the summer.

Cam Booser and Trey Vavra talking baseball with campers in the indoor batting cage

Cam Booser and Trey Vavra talking baseball with campers in the indoor batting cage

The Youth Camp has long been a popular program

“I would say we’ve probably been doing this camp for about ten or twelve years,” Wilson said. “It’s gone through a lot of changes. We used to do a two-day camp that was four hours at a time – much more kind of intense. But with 137 participants that we had today, that’s hard to try to keep focus and attention spans.

Brett Doe and John Curtiss getting organized with some campers on the mound

Brett Doe and John Curtiss getting organized with some campers on the mound

“The way that Tommy runs it now, I love it, because everybody rotates to little different things.”

Nobody is going to become a big league ballplayer just by attending the Kernel’s two-hour camp, of course. But that’s not really the point.

The Kernels want to provide an enjoyable and affordable opportunity for some of the youngest fans in the local area to share a field with real professional ballplayers. Each camper also gets a Kernels cap and a voucher for a free ticket to a Kernels game, in addition to getting autographs from the players once the camp wraps up at the end of the morning.

Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins was directing things at the camp but pitched in with the workout stations, too

Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins was directing things at the camp but pitched in with the workout stations, too

“Although you might think that they’re not getting a lot of individual instruction, it’s an affordable $15 camp,” Wilson pointed out. “You’re getting a ball cap, you’re getting a ticket and they get to spend some time with some guys and see the drills that they do on a daily basis.

As Wilson went on to explain, it’s very possible that some of the young ballplayers have already had a chance to meet a few of these players.

Kernels players signing autographs after the camp wrapped up

Kernels players signing autographs after the camp wrapped up

“All of these (players) have been involved, too, in our schools program for us. These kids probably saw them at the reading program and now they get to shake their hand, get an autograph and play catch in their world with them, even if it’s just throwing the ball to them one time.”

 

 

Sunday Morning – Memorial Day Weekend

Something for you to think about as you enjoy the long weekend (or even if it’s a normal work weekend for you).

I’ve seen many well-meaning individuals “thank a veteran” much to the great discomfort of said veteran who is thinking of someone else who didn’t come home.

I had one active duty serviceman tell me once that you can thank him on any other day of the year and he’ll buy YOU a cup of coffee.. but on this one day, don’t thank him for somehow being lucky enough to be the one who came home instead of someone else.

That has really stayed with me.

Memorial Day Meme

Kernels Passing Their Mid-terms

The Cedar Rapids Kernels passed the midpoint of the first half of their 2015 season over the past weekend, making it an appropriate time to get manager Jake Mauer’s assessment of how their season is progressing.

There’s not a lot for the manager to complain loudly about, with his team vying for the second best record in the entire Midwest League. Then again, his guys have consistently remained several games behind Western Division leading Quad Cities in the standings, so there’s certainly room for improvement, too.

Kernels manager Jake Mauer

Kernels manager Jake Mauer

If the Kernels can maintain distance between themselves and the other Western Division challengers behind them, they’ll lock in a postseason spot as the Division’s first half runner-up, even if they can’t overtake Quad Cities by mid June.

In a conversation last weekend, Mauer quickly identified the primary reason for the Kernels’ success so far.

“Starting pitching has been good, for the most part,” Mauer said. “The bullpen’s been really good, for the most part and the defense has been good.”

It’s not a coincidence that those two aspects have led to wins on the scoreboard.

“It goes hand in hand,” Mauer explained. “The pitchers throw strikes and the boys get a chance to catch it. If (pitchers) don’t throw strikes and we’re standing for a while, when they do hit it, sometimes we’re not ready for it. It’s not an excuse but that’s what happens.

“Defense has been good, for the most part. We’re making the plays that we should and I think that’s the reason we’re pitching so well.”

Kernels shortstop Nick Gordon, the Twins’ first round draft pick a year ago, seconded his manager’s opinion on the value of the team’s defense this season.

“Pitchers like to throw strikes when they know they’ve got good defense behind them,” Gordon said on Saturday.

Nick Gordon

Nick Gordon

There’s one aspect of the pitching game that has surprised Mauer and it’s a component that defense has nothing to do with. More than half of the pitchers who have toed the rubber for the Kernels have averaged at least a strikeout for every inning pitched, led by reliever Cam Booser’s 1.75 strikeouts per inning.

“We’ve struck out a lot more guys than anticipated, which is probably a little bit of a surprise,” Mauer admitted. “We thought we’d have a couple of guys that would be able to strike guys out. Booser, obviously, and (Zach) Tillery, some of the guys that have some pretty good stuff. But for the most part, the pitching’s been what’s kept us going.”

He wouldn’t be a manager of young players if he couldn’t find room for improvement, of course.

“Still way too many walks,” Mauer said, concerning a few members of his staff. “We’re not taking that step forward, which is a little disappointing.”

Coincidence or not, since Mauer said those words, the Twins have sent several new pitchers to join the Kernels.

At least one case, of course, had nothing to do with a pitcher walking too many batters. Opening Day starting pitcher Mat Batts was rewarded for his strong work this spring with a promotion this week to Class high-A Fort Myers.

Matt Batts

Mat Batts

Pitching alone doesn’t win games, however. You need to score some runs, too, and the Kernels have outscored all but three teams in the Midwest League this year.

“The middle of our lineup is really starting to produce, which is huge,” Mauer observed, in regards to his lineup. “We’re starting to see some of the offensive guys hopefully get their legs underneath them and start going. We need some more contributions, especially from the bottom half of the order. I’d like to get our top half going again, but the middle’s been pretty good as of late.”

The “middle of the lineup” that Mauer referred to includes first baseman/outfielder Trey Vavra, who leads the Kernels in all three of the “Triple Crown” offensive categories, batting average (.353), home runs (6) and Runs Batted In (25), as well as almost every other offensive category that involves the use of his bat.

Trey Vavra

Trey Vavra

The Kernels haven’t faced any of the league’s Eastern Division teams yet, while seemingly matching up with the last two teams in the Western Division standings, Beloit and Wisconsin, at least every other week. Both of those clubs have younger rosters than many of their MWL competitors, including the Kernels.

That may have something to do with their early success, the manager will admit, but he’s not stepping up to volunteer to give back any of the wins against those teams, either.

“We’ve feasted on some of the pitchers we’ve needed to feast on, there’s no doubt about it,” Mauer observed. “We’re supposed to do that.”

But the manager doesn’t feel his guys have been bad against the better pitching they’ve faced, either.

“What we’re looking for is just a little more consistent approach at the plate.”

Gordon summed up the approach that he and his teammates are taking as they enter the final weeks of the season’s first-half.

“Our goal is to win so we’re out to compete and give our best,” the shortstop offered. “As for me, it’s been a learning experience for me to come out here and play against great competition every single night. You’ve got to make adjustments, you’ve got to learn. I feel as a team, we’re doing a pretty good job of that.”

– JC