MWL All-Star Game Photos

Since it was so late when I got home after last night’s Midwest League All-Star Game, I was too tired to get all of the photos included in my ASG post that I would have liked to. (Sure, the margarita or 5 that I had at the game MIGHT have had something to do with my drowsiness, but there’s no hard evidence of that, so I’m going with ‘I was just tired.’)

Anyway, I decided to post several more pictures from the ASG festivities over the past couple of days in Cedar Rapids.

Now, here’s the thing: I discovered, after taking the first couple of pictures with my camera Tuesday night, that my carmera’s battery was nearly kaput (that’s a technical photojournalist term, I think), so for many of the pictures I wanted, I had to use my phone’s camera.

Now, here’s the other thing: Because I used an app on my phone to provide yardage estimates when I was golfing earlier in the day, my phone’s battery was pretty much kaput, too. Fortunately, the Kernels have one of those charging stations where I was able to pump a little extra charge into the phone midway through the game (and where I had a nice chat with a Lumberkings fan who found himself in the same predicament.)

In the end, photos were taken and here are a few of them:

Upon arriving at the free Fanfest on Monday afternoon and pulling out my camera, I was almost immediately attacked by a cougar. He was either anxious to have his picture taken or very angry that I was taking it. I quickly snapped this shot and moved away before I could find out which was the case.
Upon arriving at the free Fanfest on Monday afternoon and pulling out my camera, I was almost immediately attacked by a cougar. He was either anxious to have his picture taken or very angry that I was taking it. I quickly snapped this shot and moved away before I could find out which was the case.
A young fan takes his cuts at one of the games during Fanfest
A young fan takes his cuts at one of the games during Fanfest
The thing about royalty is, they always seem to think they're above the rest of us somehow. The Clinton Lumber Kings mascot is, apparently, no exception.
The thing about royalty is, they always seem to think they’re above the rest of us somehow. The Clinton Lumber Kings mascot is, apparently, no exception.
More than half of the Midwest League's team mascots made the trip to Cedar Rapids. My daughter commented afterwards, "It was like Mr Shucks had a party and got to invite all his friends." I should probably add that my daughter is 26 years old. However, she is an elementary school teacher, which, I believe, adds to her appreciation for all things mascot-ish.
More than half of the Midwest League’s team mascots made the trip to Cedar Rapids. This gathering is just a few of those mascots on Monday. My daughter commented after the game Monday night, “It was like Mr Shucks had a party and got to invite all his friends.” I should probably add that my daughter is 26 years old. However, she is an elementary school teacher, which, I believe, adds to her appreciation for all things mascot-ish.
You think it's easy being a sports columnist? Just TRY to get a decent interview out of a mascot.
You think it’s easy being a sports columnist? Just TRY to get a decent interview out of a mascot like the Gazette’s Mike Hlas appears to be attempting to get from the Burlington Bees’ mascot on Monday.
Before Tuesday's game, Players were available for autographs on the concourse.
Before Tuesday’s game, Players were available for autographs on the concourse.
Kernels All-Stars Luis Arraez, LaMonte Wade and AJ Murray at the autograph table before the ASG on Tuesday
Kernels All-Stars Luis Arraez, LaMonte Wade and AJ Murray at the autograph table before the ASG on Tuesday
On Monday evening, the Kernels hosted players, team officials, various VIPs and guests of all of the above at a social event at Cedar Ridge Vineyard & Distillery. I got my first look at the ASG card set at displays there.
On Monday evening, the Kernels hosted players, team officials, various VIPs and guests of all of the above at a social event at Cedar Ridge Vineyard & Distillery. I got my first look at the ASG card set at displays there.
I'm not sure this chocolate fountain at the Monday social event was on the sanctioned diet list for players, but then I didn't witness a single player eating the chocolate. That's my story & I'm sticking with it.
I’m not sure this chocolate fountain at the Monday social event was on the sanctioned diet list for players, but then I didn’t witness a single player eating the chocolate. That’s my story & I’m sticking with it.
Kernels catcher AJ Murray got his cuts in during the HR Derby before the game on Tuesday. He didn't win, but we don't hold grudges for things like that in CR.
Kernels catcher AJ Murray got his cuts in during the HR Derby before the game on Tuesday. He didn’t win, but we don’t hold grudges for things like that in CR. BTW, that’s my view from my season ticket seats this year, from which I’m always willing to help the umpires out with fair/foul calls down the LF line.
Bowling Green's Brett Sullivan was the winner of the HR Derby
Bowling Green’s Brett Sullivan was the winner of the HR Derby
The starting lineups for the ASG.
The starting lineups for the ASG.
As the manager of the Western Division Champions from a year ago, Kernels manager Jake Mauer was at the helm for the Western Division All-Stars
As the manager of the Western Division Champions from a year ago, Kernels manager Jake Mauer was at the helm for the Western Division All-Stars. Considering the MWL generally uses just 2 umpires for their games, seeing 6 of them out there just looked weird.
Kernels pitcher Sam Clay worked a perfect first inning for the West squad.
Kernels pitcher Sam Clay worked a perfect first inning for the West squad.
Kernels 2Bled off the bottom of the 1st inning for the West stars with this single down the left field line.
Kernels 2Bled off the bottom of the 1st inning for the West stars with this single down the left field line.
Luis Arraez had a pair of hits for the West squad. Here he's fist-bumped by Kernels coach Brian Dinkelman.
Luis Arraez had a pair of hits for the West squad. Here he’s fist-bumped by Kernels coach Brian Dinkelman.
LaMonte Wade had one hit in two at bats and was hit by a pitch. This single drove in a pair of runs for the West.
LaMonte Wade had one hit in two at bats and was hit by a pitch. This single drove in a pair of runs for the West.
AJ Murray might not have won the HR Derby, but he went deep when it mattered. Here he strokes a 2-run home run for the West stars in the 7th inning.
AJ Murray might not have won the HR Derby, but he went deep when it mattered. Here he strokes a 2-run home run for the West stars in the 7th inning.
It wasn't a sellout crowd, but the 4,500+ who showed up sure made it look close to being full and the weather was just about perfect.
It wasn’t a sellout crowd, but the 4,500+ who showed up sure made it look close to being full and the weather was just about perfect.
If you've been to the Kernels' ballpark in prior years, you may recall the "stars" on the concourse floor honoring many of the CR baseball club alumni from John McGraw to Mike Trout. The stars are no longer on the floor, but have now been placed along the fencing along the concourse, such as this star for Chili Davis, who was with the Cedar Rapids Giants during my first season of watching minor league ball in CR, 1978.
If you’ve been to the Kernels’ ballpark in prior years, you may recall the “stars” on the concourse floor honoring many of the CR baseball club alumni from John McGraw to Mike Trout. The stars are no longer on the floor, but have now been placed along the fencing along the concourse, such as this star for Chili Davis, who was with the Cedar Rapids Giants during my first season of watching minor league ball in CR, 1978.
I confess that I did not just remain in my seat throughout the game. In addition to an occasional trip to the concourse for a margarita refill, I also found the sweet corn stand. This stuff might be just about the best thing about summer in Iowa that's not related to baseball, so I couldn't pass up the chance to combine them at the same time.
I confess that I did not just remain in my seat throughout the game. In addition to an occasional trip to the concourse for a margarita refill, I also found the sweet corn stand. This stuff might be just about the best thing about summer in Iowa that’s not related to baseball, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to combine them at the same time.
Eloy JImenez, of the South Bend Cubs, was presented with the Top Star Award for the game. (Yes, I mistakenly identified him as Francisco Meija in a Tweet at the time. That's what happens when you have multiple players wearing the same jersey number. My bad.)
Eloy JImenez, of the South Bend Cubs, was presented with the Top Star Award for the game. (Yes, I mistakenly identified him as Francisco Meija in a Tweet at the time. That’s what happens when you have multiple players wearing the same jersey number. My bad.)
No, it's not the greatest picture in the world, but the postgame fireworks were outstanding. Here, AJ Murray and Sam Clay take them in along with Kernels staff members gathered in the home dugout.
No, it’s not the greatest picture in the world, but the postgame fireworks were outstanding. Here, AJ Murray and Sam Clay take them in along with Kernels staff members gathered in the home dugout.

(All photos: SD Buhr)

After the game, the players and their guests gathered at the Newbo City Market for a postgame party that was open to the public, as well (for a nominal charge, of course). I didn’t make that event (one party per week is pretty much my maximum these days), but I’m sure it was a great time.

Again, you just don’t appreciate, sometimes, how much work goes into putting on an event like this. I’ve had an opportunity this summer to get a small glimpse at all the preparations the Kernels staff have made, from the flowers/landscaping done outside the stadium to all of the meticulous field preparation, event planning and concession work, as well. I’m clearly biased, but I thought the staff put on a terrific event.

Now we move on to the second half of the MWL schedule, with all teams starting over with a 0-0 record and the Kernels needing to finish among the top two teams in the Western Division (among those who haven’t already qualified for the postseason) to reach the playoffs for their 4th consecutive season.

MWL All-Star Game Events

The Cedar Rapids Kernels and the city of Cedar Rapids hosted this year’s Midwest League All-Star Game festivities and all four Kernels players on the Western Division roster played big roles before the festivities concluded.

The Eastern Division stars notched a come-from-behind 11-10 victory in what could only be described as an entertaining ballgame.

Kernels pitcher Sam Clay got the start for the West stars and notched a 1-2-3 inning in the first inning, completing it with a strikeout.

Cedar Rapids’ second baseman Luis Arraez led off the bottom of the second with a single and team mate LaMonte Wade reached on a hit-by-pitch to start the home half of the first. Both players came around to score, giving the West the first two runs of the game.

Kernels catcher AJ Murray, who participated in the pregame Home Run Derby, entered the game about halfway through the contest and went to the opposite field for a two-run blast that put his team up 10-7 in the bottom of the seventh inning.

That’s probably all you need to know about the game itself, but I’ll add a number of pictures from the festivities on Monday and Tuesday.

A lot of work goes into putting on one of these events and big time kudos go out to the entire Kernels staff (augmented with staff from the Northwoods League’s Waterloo Bucks front office) for putting on a first class show.

More than half of the Midwest League's team mascots made the trip to Cedar Rapids. My daughter commented afterwards, "It was like Mr Shucks had a party and got to invite all his friends."
More than half of the Midwest League’s team mascots made the trip to Cedar Rapids. My daughter commented afterwards, “It was like Mr Shucks had a party and got to invite all his friends.”
Kernels All-Stars Luis Arraez, LaMonte Wade and AJ Murray at the autograph table before the ASG on Tuesday
Kernels All-Stars Luis Arraez, LaMonte Wade and AJ Murray at the autograph table before the ASG on Tuesday
As the manager of the Western Division Champions from a year ago, Kernels manager Jake Mauer was at the helm for the Western Division All-Stars
As the manager of the Western Division Champions from a year ago, Kernels manager Jake Mauer was at the helm for the Western Division All-Stars
Kernels pitcher Sam Clay worked a perfect first inning for the West squad.
Kernels pitcher Sam Clay worked a perfect first inning for the West squad.
Luis Arraez had a pair of hits for the West squad. Here he's fist-bumped by Kernels coach Brian Dinkelman.
Luis Arraez had a pair of hits for the West squad. Here he’s fist-bumped by Kernels coach Brian Dinkelman.
LaMonte Wade had one hit in two at bats and was hit by a pitch.
LaMonte Wade had one hit in two at bats and was hit by a pitch.
AJ Murray strokes a 2-run home run for the West stars in the 7th inning.
AJ Murray strokes a 2-run home run for the West stars in the 7th inning.

 

AJ Murray (left) and Sam Clay (11) take in the postgame fireworks with the rest of the crowd.
AJ Murray (left) and Sam Clay (11) take in the postgame fireworks with the rest of the crowd.

(all photos: SD Buhr)

Three Kernels Named All-Stars

The Midwest League All-Star Game is drawing near and this week three Cedar Rapids Kernels were named to the team, assuring that Kernels fans will have some familiar faces to cheer for when Cedar Rapids hosts the annual event on Tuesday, June 21.

Luis Arraez
Luis Arraez

Kernels starting pitcher Sam Clay, second baseman Luis Arraez and outfielder LaMonte May were all named as MWL All-Stars. Arraez and Wade were selected as starters for the West All-Stars by the league’s managers and Clay was named as a reserve.

Clay, a lefty starter from Buford, Georgia, by way of Georgia Tech, has put together a 4-2 record in the season’s first half to go with a 2.43 ERA over 10 starts.

19-year-old Arraez was signed by the Twins as an International Free Agent out of San Filipe, Venezuela. He has posted a .315 batting average, including 11 doubles, a triple and a pair of home runs. He’s also walked 17 times, fueling his .380 on-base percentage.

LaMonte Wade
LaMonte Wade

Wade is a former Maryland Terrapin from Baltimore who has consistently hit above .300 all year and currently sits at .318. He also has six doubles, three triples and four home runs, which have contributed to his .891 OPS. He has also put up a 38/22 walk/K ratio, assembling a .438 OBP.

You might have thought that, with the Kernels holding a thin lead atop the Western Division standings, more of their players would have earned All-Star roster spots, but the recent promotions of starting pitcher Randy LeBlanc and closer Nick Anderson likely reduced the number of players the local club put on the team.

(LeBlanc, by the way, was named by the league as its MWL Player of the Month for the month of May, during which the righthander notched a 0.24 ERA and a 4-0 record over five starts before being promoted to Ft. Myers.)

Sam Clay
Sam Clay

In addition, players named to the All-Star squad two weeks before the game is played often turn out to not be available to play, due to injury or promotion, by the time the game is played. It’s not uncommon for players from the host team to be named as replacements for such players, so the Kernels could still see additional local favorites named to the West squad.

Regardless of whether additional Kernels players are ultimately named to the team, there will be no shortage of Cedar Rapids uniforms on the field and in the home team dugout as manager Jake Mauer and coaches Brian Dinkelman & JP Martinez will be coaching the West squad.

There I Go, Turn the Page

Paul Molitor
Paul Molitor (Photo: SD Buhr)

Here I am
On the road again
There I am
Up on the stage
Here I go
Playin’ star(s) again
There I go
Turn the page

It has got to be lonely being Paul Molitor these days. About the only thing separating him from the tortured Bob Seger that penned “Turn the Page” back in 1972 is that he isn’t subjected to riding a bus somewhere east of Omaha with locals at truck stops making snide remarks about his long hair.

I’m not sure what he envisioned his life would be like as the manager of the Minnesota Twins when he signed on for the gig after Ron Gardenhire was let go following the 2014 season, but I’d bet every cent I have that he wasn’t expecting this. After all, his Twins are on pace to finish with one of the worst records in Major League Baseball history. Not Twins history, not franchise history, not American League history, but in all of MLB history.

This is taking place after a season, in 2015, that many people thought saw the Twins, under Molitor in his first season as a manager at any level, take a significant step forward in terms of competitiveness.

Sure, everyone knew there were candidates for regression on the club’s roster and nobody knew what to expect of their imported Korean designated hitter, but there were also players that we felt had reasonable chances to improve their performance levels over what we saw in 2015. Even the most pessimistic among us could not have reasonably expected this to happen.

But it has happened. The Twins are 15-37 as they return home to face the Tampa Bay Rays, themselves sitting at the bottom of the American League East standings at the moment.

There has been plenty written in the Twins community about what’s gone wrong and what should be done about it. Some of the suggestions have been reasonable, many have not.

You can’t trade players for whom there is no market and you can’t really flat out release most of them, either.

Most teams won’t fire their manager and/or their general manager during the first two months of the season, especially when that manager is only in his second season at the helm and the general manager has been around forever and is credited with rebuilding a farm system that is acknowledged to be among the best in the game.

Typically, you give the guys you left spring training with a couple of months to come around before you go about making significant changes. Your options are limited in April and May, anyway, because few teams are going to be interested in adding noteworthy pieces to their rosters that early, even if you are ready to turn the page sooner than that.

But we’re into June now and while most teams still won’t be prepared to make many deals at least until later in the month, it’s time to start initiating those discussions.

It is also time to start looking at what you want your roster to look like on Opening Day 2017. If there’s a silver lining to a miserable start like this, it’s that you don’t have to wait until spring training next March to start evaluating your options. You don’t even have to wait until the traditional “September call up” portion of the season. You’ve got a full four months to look at what you’ve got before you have to make decisions about which positions you will need to fill from outside your organization during the offseason.

The Twins are likely to lose over 100 games this season. It could be more. It could be a few less, but not a lot less.

It’s time to turn the page.

Listen, I like Trevor Plouffe. He has, in my view, turned himself into a more-than-adequate third baseman after nearly playing himself out of baseball at shortstop. He also hits enough that there’s nothing wrong with him being a regular in a Major League lineup.

I like Brian Dozier even more. He came to Cedar Rapids in January, 2013, with the first Twins Caravan after the Twins announced they would be affiliating with the local Kernels Class A team and did a great job on the dais. With the personality he showed that night, it came as no surprise to me that he eventually became a fan favorite in the Twin Cities. Like Plouffe, he turned out not to be the answer for the Twins at shortstop, but he transitioned to second base where he has done an excellent job.

When Joe Nathan departed, many of us were nervous about whether the Twins would find someone capable of holding down the closer role out of the bullpen. Enter Glen Perkins and the problem was solved.

Joe Mauer’s situation would command a full article itself, but his contract and no-trade rights make it a waste of time to even discuss his future with the team for the next couple of seasons.

These players, along with a few others perhaps, have had good rides as members of the Twins and they have earned every bit of fan loyalty they get. But the hard truth is that few, if any, of them are going to be part of the next run of winning seasons at Target Field.

Already this season, injuries have created opportunities to look at some young players. In most cases, those opportunities were wasted as players like Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler rode the pine during their time filling in for banged up regulars.

Byron Buxton (Photo: SD Buhr)
Byron Buxton (Photo: SD Buhr)

Maybe “playin’ stars again” was defensible early in the season when you were still trying to make something of your season, but no longer. It’s time to turn the page.

As Ted over at Off the Baggy pointed out this week, with Kepler being promoted again (this time to fill in for the injured Miguel Sano), it’s time to plug Kepler and the also-recently-recalled Byron Buxton into the lineup and let them run.

Sano’s hamstring will eventually heal and he’ll return. I find myself agreeing with Howard Sinker of the Star-Tribune who tweeted earlier this week, “Friends, I was less skeptical on it than most of you, but it’s time for the Sano-in-right field thing to end. Make something work, #MNTwins.”

I really had no issue with putting Sano in the outfield. He’s athletic enough that he should be able to play a passable right field and he has improved out there. But I’ve pulled a hamstring before and I know that, once you do that, it’s pretty easy to do it again. I don’t think putting him back out there when he comes back makes a lot of sense when it’s pretty obvious that it is not going to be his position long-term (and by long-term, we are probably now including 2017).

The Twins need to decide where they envision Sano fitting in. Wherever that is, whether it’s third base, first base or simply as their full-time designated hitter, I would just plug him in there when he gets back and move on to the next decision.

Bouncing Buxton, Kepler and Polanco up and down between Minneapolis and Rochester should end. Buxton is your center fielder, Kepler is in a corner and Polanco is in the middle of your infield somewhere.

I’ve seen others opine that Byung Ho Park should be sent down to Rochester, perhaps to make room for Sano when he comes back. I disagree, unless the Twins are prematurely giving up on him. He will hit AAA pitching, just as he hit Korean pro ball pitching. He needs to learn to hit MLB pitching and if the Twins plan on keeping him, he should stay in the Twins’ lineup until he proves that he can (or can’t).

I don’t know if Oswaldo Arcia will be in the Twins outfield for the next few years, but I know Danny Santana and Eduardo Nunez won’t, so Arcia should get more time out there with Buxton and Kepler (unless the Twins decide someone like Adam Bret Walker should get a long look).

The same situation exists behind the plate. Kurt Suzuki’s time with the Twins is nearing an end. I don’t know who will take over, but now is the time for the Twins to get extended looks at their internal candidates.

You could make similar cases for an overhaul of the pitching staff, but I’d be more patient with promoting the young pitchers, unless you get good offers for some of your existing staff members. I just see less urgency there.

Finally, there’s the Molitor question and that is tethered to the Terry Ryan question. Will either, or both, be back in 2017 and beyond?

Molitor will be entering the final year of his existing contract in 2017. Typically, no manager likes being a “lame duck” manager. He wants an extension in place before the start of the final year of his deal or he risks losing his clubhouse as players begin to tune his message out as they assume he won’t be around long.

Say what you will about the infamous Jim Pohlad patience with his front office, but I think Ryan would have a tough time convincing even Pohlad that Molitor should be rewarded for his work in 2016 with an extension.

Of course, that assumes that Ryan will even be around to make that pitch to Pohlad.

It’s almost impossible for me to envision Pohlad announcing publicly that he has dismissed Terry Ryan. It is not difficult at all, however, for me to envision an announcement that Terry Ryan has decided that, as the person responsible for assembling the roster, he is ultimately responsible for the results and that he is holding himself accountable and stepping down as GM of the Twins.

That public announcement would be identical, by the way, regardless of whether the decision truly is Ryan’s or whether Pohlad makes the decision that it’s time for a change. If you’re looking for public executions, you’re going to be disappointed.

If Ryan is contemplating that this may be his last season in the GM chair, he’s not likely to make a managerial change during the season. If he’s planning on being around a while longer, then yes, he could (and should) be considering whether there’s someone besides Molitor in the organization that he  now believes would be a better fit to manage the new group of young players coming up.

If indeed Ryan is replaced as the General Manager, it would be much more likely that Molitor also would be replaced following the end of this season. The new GM would want, and should get, his own man to run the team he assembles.

Whether these changes in management are made or not should depend solely on whether ownership envisions the current leadership being the right people to guide the team through the next era of competitiveness.

Regardless, it is time to begin turning the page. Some of the changes can wait as things play out over the rest of this season and the subsequent offseason, but seeing names like Buxton, Kepler and Polanco consistently in the Twins’ lineup should start now.

Sunday Morning – Memorial Day

If you saw the rather dramatic ending to the Twins game last night – let’s just call that miraculous – you are taking full advantage of the holiday weekend and pulling some late nights. But I’m going to take advantage of the blog soap box, however short, and reminder what this holiday is about – those we have lost in defense of this country’s pursuits of freedom.

memorial-day-vs-veterans-day

I hope you have the chance to acknowledge that while spending time with your families and a little baseball…

Yellow Jacket Battery Boosts Kernels

Most of the work that Sam Clay and AJ Murray did together during their shared time at Georgia Tech was confined to the bullpen, but this season the pair of former Yellow Jackets have played critical roles together for the Midwest League Western Division-leading Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Clay, a lefty who was the Minnesota Twins’ fourth round draft pick in 2014, carries a 3-1 record and a 1.10 ERA into his Wednesday night start at Burlington. He has averaged more than a strikeout per inning in his seven starts.

Murray, selected by the Twins in the 14th round of last year’s draft, is carrying a .285/.394/.489 (.883 OPS) slash line as the Kernels’ primary catcher. He’s hit 11 doubles, one triple and five home runs while batting in the middle of the Cedar Rapids lineup and has thrown out 35% of runners attempting to steal a base.

AJ Murray
AJ Murray

That’s not bad for a guy who spent almost no time behind the plate during his college career, despite performing well enough in high school that Houston selected him late in the 2011 draft.

“I caught all through high school,” Murray explained. “Then when I got to college, they converted me to a first baseman because we had Zane Evans (who was ultimately drafted by the Royals in the 4th round of the 2013 draft), who was a lot better than I was at the time. So I learned first base, but I also got to play a little bit in the outfield. It kind of made me more versatile as a player in college.”

Murray certainly wasn’t disappointed when he was told the Twins had drafted him as a catcher, however. Quite the opposite.

“When they drafted me as a catcher, I was very happy because I thought that was my most comfortable position and I could be the biggest asset to the team,” he recalled. “I think it’s the best position on the field, besides pitching, because you’re in every pitch. You pretty much control the game as far as being a leader out there. I love catching every day and it’s definitely a learning process.”

AJ Murray
AJ Murray

After seeing limited time on the field behind the plate during his college career, Murray has certainly had a lot to learn about playing the position at the professional level.

“I think the biggest adjustment has been calling your own game. That’s kind of been a lost art in baseball,” he said. “I called my own game in high school, but when you get to college, a lot of the pitching coaches like to call the pitches. So that’s been the biggest adjustment.”

The biggest adjustment maybe, but not the only thing that differentiates catching in the pros from what he has done in the past.

“Learning to read hitters, learning to look at the stat sheet, look for tendencies, then fill in the game plans, which is fun actually,” he added. “JP (Martinez, the Kernels’ pitching coach) does a great job of giving us stats, getting the pitchers together, talking over game plans, hitters’ approaches and how we’re going to transfer that over to the game, so he’s the main driver in getting us ready.”

His work behind the plate hasn’t gone unnoticed by fellow Yellow Jacket Clay.

“As soon as he got to Elizabethton, he was far and away a much better catcher than he was at Georgia Tech,” Clay said of his battery mate. “He became unbelievable behind the plate and I love throwing to him.”

Murray and his fellow Kernels went through a stretch earlier in the season when they struggled offensively. Runs were rare and that put a lot of pressure on the pitching staff. They’ve pulled out of that rut over the past few weeks and Murray’s bat has been a big reason. He is hitting .333 in May and has a .986 OPS for the month.

“I’m definitely feeling more comfortable at the plate and focusing on having consistent at-bats,” Murray said, of his recent success at the plate. He’s quick to point out, however, that he’s not the only hitter in the lineup that’s making a difference.

“I think a lot of it has to do with others guys on the team hitting around me. You look at our stats the last couple of weeks, we’ve put up a lot of runs. Everyone’s been hitting well, so I think it’s contagious. When you’re getting on base, it puts pressure on the pitcher, and then hitting in the middle of the lineup, hitting behind LaMonte (Wade), (Luis) Arraez, guys like that getting on base a lot.”

Like Murray, Clay has also had to make some adjustments to the professional game.

In college, Clay worked out of the bullpen and, in fact, he began the 2015 season as a member of the Kernels’ relief corps. Things didn’t go terribly well for Clay, however, in his first tour with Cedar Rapids, and he was sent down to Elizabethton.

Sam Clay
Sam Clay

“Last year was a little bit of a struggle,” Clay recalled. “I started off up here in the bullpen and I had a lot of trouble finding the plate, so they kind of pigeon-holed me into throwing basically strictly fastballs and one off-speed (pitch), whichever was working for me that day, so hitters were looking for one of two pitches.

“Once I got sent down, I had one or two weeks in the bullpen and then they turned me into a starter when one of our guys went down. It gave me a chance to get up there and throw all of my pitches and really learn how to pitch instead of just going up there and throwing the ball.”

Clay has taken to the conversion to a starting pitcher very well. He and righthander Randy LeBlanc have combined to form a powerful left-right combination at the top of the Kernels’ rotation. Combined, the two have made 15 starts and evenly split just 10 combined earned runs surrendered. Neither pitcher has given up a home run this season.

Making the switch to starting pitcher did mean some adjustments for Clay in the offseason.

“They pretty much had me being a starter, so I knew that going into the offseason, what I needed to work on conditioning-wise and weight training wise,” he said. “So I really kind of got after it this offseason and just worked harder than I probably ever have.

“I lived with my parents in the offseason and I would probably lift weights four times a week. I didn’t really pick up a ball, because I threw a lot of innings last year compared to what I usually would as a reliever. So I didn’t really pick up a ball until probably January and January in Georgia is pretty cold.

“It probably got me ready for the first month here (in Iowa),” Clay added, with a smile.

Once he was ready to start throwing, however, Clay still had challenges to overcome – such as finding someone to throw with.

“Probably the first two or three weeks I was throwing I didn’t have anybody to throw with, so I was throwing long toss into a screen. Not very fun,” he remembered. “But I was lucky, I had one of my friends from high school, Jake Burnette, he’s playing for the Pirates organization (7th round pick in 2011), I got together with him and was able to throw with him for the rest of the offseason.”

As minor league seasons approach their midpoints toward mid-to-late June, it would be understandable for players performing as well as Murray and Clay to start peeking at the next rung on their organizational ladder and wondering what more they need to prove to earn a promotion.

Sam Clay
Sam Clay

Clay, however, says he knew coming into the season that he had work to do at this level and he’s not going to let his focus get drawn away from his business at hand.

“I knew that I was coming back here as soon as I got to spring training because I didn’t perform that well here when I was here. So I knew I had to come out and really show what I could do – show that I could be a starter, that I could throw against these hitters.

“All the Fort Myers starters are doing really well right now so it will be really tough for us to move up, but we can’t really think about them. We have to focus on ourselves.”

For now, Clay, Murray and their Cedar Rapids team mates are sitting atop the Midwest League’s Western Division standings and they have four more weeks of work to do in the season’s first half. The top two teams in each division during the first half qualify for the MWL playoffs in September and earning that berth early takes a lot of pressure off for the remainder of the season.

Not the only game in town…

So if you’re a MN baseball fan, this has been a tough spring already. So many people are already tuning out that it’s a crying shame.. BUT, if you really can’t handle it anymore but still need to get your baseball fix, you have OPTIONS!

saintslogoThe St. Paul Saints start their season tonight in beautiful CHS Field. The weather in MN is gorgeous and there is a full weekend of baseball and fun planned to open the season at home.

You can find all the Saints game info on their website: Saint Paul Saints Baseball

pork
photo courtesy of the StarTribute and more details linked in the image

As part of their commitment to a FUN baseball experience, the Saints announced the name in their annual mascot pig competition yesterday – most appropriately pegging an honor to The Artist Recently Departed: Prince.

Meet Little Red Porkette!

May all baseball fans rejoice that the sun has come out in Minnesota…

Eddie Rosario: Symptom or Solution?

The Minnesota Twins lost this afternoon.

Ordinarily, I’d say things have reached the point where another Twins loss falls into the “dog bites man” category. It’s not exactly news.

But this loss had a couple of things going for it that gave me cause to put pen to paper (figuratively, of course).

First of all, I actually watched the game on television. Between attending Kernels games and being blacked out by MLB’s “local market” television rights policy, I don’t see many Twins games these days. I did, however, grab lunch at my local hangout and watch them lose 6-3 to the Detroit Tigers.

Second, and more notably, was the day that Eddie Rosario had.

Eddie Rosario
Eddie Rosario (Photo: SD Buhr)

Rosario had a bad day. It started in the first inning when he threw to the wrong base and failed to keep a runner from advancing. He had his typical no-plate-discipline day with the bat, striking out twice, while looking bad. He failed to make a catch on a “tweener” that fell for a hit in shallow left field. And then came the top of the seventh inning.

Rosario grounded a single up the middle and, a couple of batters later, found himself at second base with two outs and the Twins trailing 5-1 with Joe Mauer at the plate. That’s when things got interesting.

The Tigers went into a modified shift, with their shortstop barely to the left of second base and their third baseman, Nick Castellanos, playing deep and at least 25 feet away from third base. As Justin Verlander went into his stretch, Rosario took a walking lead off second and then broke for third.

Verlander stepped back off the rubber and threw to third, but by the time Castellanos got to the bag and caught the throw, Rosario was there with relative ease.

The Tigers continued their shift against Mauer and, on the next pitch, Rosario took an extended lead down the third base line, prompting Verlander to step back again and, since there was literally no infielder remotely close to third base, all he could do was take a few running steps at Rosario to force him back to the bag.

Since Mauer ultimately struck out, it really didn’t matter where the Tigers placed their infielders, nor did it matter whether Rosario was on second or third base. And, I suppose, since the Twins only ultimately scored three runs in the game, while giving up six, I guess you could argue it wouldn’t have mattered if Rosario had managed to score.

But all of it did matter. Boy did it matter.

Because when the Twins took the field, Darin Mastroianni took Rosario’s spot in the outfield.

You see, whether you call it conventional wisdom or one of baseball’s unwritten rules, Rosario was not supposed to steal third base with his team down four runs in the seventh inning and the team’s best hitter at the plate. He would, the argument goes, have scored on a Mauer single just as easily from second base as he would from third and stealing third base in that situation represented a risk greater than the potential reward.

In his post-game comments to the media, manager Paul Molitor made it clear he wasn’t happy with Rosario.

According to a Tweet from Brian Murphy of the Pioneer-Press, Molitor remarked, “The risk 100 fold is greater than reward. Being safe doesn’t make it right. I wanted to get Eddie out of the game at that point.”

Now, let me just say that I’ve been slow to be overly critical of Paul Molitor. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to the man personally and came away knowing with 100% certainty that he has “100 fold” more knowledge of baseball than I do.

With that said, I believe he was wrong in this situation. I realize that in Molitor’s mind (and that of many, many baseball traditionalists), stealing third base in that situation was not something a runner should do.

And maybe it wasn’t. But, while I’m open to that possibility, I don’t think it was as cut-and-dried as others (including Molitor, obviously) do.

First, forget the four run deficit. If we know anything, it’s that every run matters. If you have a chance to improve your chances of scoring a run, you should do it. It’s not like the Tigers haven’t coughed up a four run lead lately. They couldn’t protect a lead of twice that many runs just two nights earlier.

The steal (and subsequent excessive lead off third base) might have aggravated Verlander. But, I hope we can all agree that, even if it did, that doesn’t make what Rosario did wrong, in the least. If anything, aggravating the pitcher in that situation is what a runner SHOULD try to do.

In fact, if I were to criticize Rosario for anything in this sequence, it might be for not continuing to take such a huge lead down the third base line that Verlander and the Tigers couldn’t possibly ignore him. Hell, let him try to steal home there if they insist on playing their nearest infielder 30 feet away from the bag. But, in all likelihood, his third base coach was reigning him in at that point.

If Rosario had been MORE aggressive, rather than being wrangled in, maybe the Tigers would have been forced to abandon (or at least significantly modify) their shift against Mauer, and thus shifting the odds more in favor of him coming through with a hit to drive Rosario in.

But Mauer struck out and Rosario was benched for his efforts.

Now, maybe Molitor’s patience with Rosario had simply run out. After all, his poor throw in the first inning, his flailing at pitches and his allowing a ball to drop in the outfield were each arguably, by themselves, grounds for being yanked by his manager.

Rosario has been bad most of the year and chances are he’d already be back in Rochester if Byron Buxton had played well enough to keep a big league roster spot. But Molitor and the Twins need a couple of outfielders on the roster than can cover some ground if they’re going to let Oswaldo Arcia and Miguel Sano spend a lot of time out there. So he’s still around (for now).

I’m undoubtedly more of an “old-school” baseball fan than most Twins fans are, especially those fans who are active on social media. And I’m not a big Rosario fan. I’d have probably shipped him out, via trade, demotion or release, before now, even though part of me would love to see what the Twins could do with a Rosario-Buxton-Kepler outfield at some point.

He frustrates me and I do believe his play is one major reason the Twins have underperformed (but just one of many reasons).

But I loved what he did on the bases in the seventh inning and I think, by yanking him, Molitor sent a dangerous precedent with this team.

The Twins have won just 10 games. They aren’t going to improve by just trying to play baseball in traditional methods better than they have been. They need to shake things up and start aggressively doing things in ways that their opponents aren’t expecting – and that’s what Rosario was doing.

If your opponents don’t like that you’re stealing third base when they shift, that’s a good reason TO do it. Take chances. Manufacture runs. Be frigging aggressive in everything you do.

That might make some people uncomfortable and one of those people very possibly is a baseball traditionalist like Molitor.

Say what you will about Rosario and we could say plenty. Say he swings at too many bad pitches. Say he tries to throw lead runners out when he should keep force plays in effect. Say he takes unwise chances on the basepaths.

But at least Rosario is trying to DO something different and when you’ve lost three quarters of your first 40-ish games of the season, maybe “different” is good.

If the Twins are going to begin the transition to a roster of new young players, and take some lumps in the process, how about they at least instill a culture of aggressiveness while doing it. It may not prevent the Twins from losing 90 games (or even 100 games) this season, but it would at least be more fun to watch, wouldn’t it?