Minnesota Twins super-prospect Byron Buxton led the Cedar Rapids Kernels through a pretty amazing first half of their Midwest League season. They led the league’s West Division almost from wire to wire.
But on Sunday, June 16, the Kernels gave up a late lead to the Peoria Chiefs and sealed their fate as the Division Runner-Up.
That was the last day that Buxton wore his Kernels home whites on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
After returning from the MWL All-Star Game, Buxton boarded the team bus for the trip to Wisconsin. There, the team swept a four-game series with the Timber Rattlers and did so under the watchful eye of Twins General Manager Terry Ryan.
On that same bus, during the trip home to Cedar Rapids, Kernels Manager Jake Mauer got a phone call from the Twins front office and then told Byron Buxton he was being promoted to the Fort Myers Miracle.
You could understand if the Kernels, without the statistical leader of their offense, had needed to take a step back and regroup. Nobody would have been surprised if they had lost a few games as they searched for a new leadoff hitter and a new center fielder. After all, you can’t just replace a guy who many consider perhaps the top minor league prospect in baseball.
What the Kernels have done instead, however, is continue winning.
Since Buxton’s promotion, the Kernels have swept a four-game series with the Burlington Bees and a three-game series over the Peoria Chiefs. Heading in to Tuesday night’s game at Beloit, the Kernels are 11-0 in the second half of their MWL season.
Yes, it has been an eventful couple of weeks since that gut-wrenching meltdown during the final series of the season’s first half.
It certainly didn’t hurt that the Kernels finally welcomed outfielder Max Kepler to the roster to start the second half of the season.
Kepler, another of the Twins’ top prospects, had been slated to open the season with the Kernels but an elbow strain in March kept him in Fort Myers for extended spring training.
Kepler has only four singles in his 44 at-bats since joining the team. Then again, he also has five doubles, a triple and three home runs. That’s good enough for a .659 slugging percentage over an admittedly limited sample size.
The German native has also helped fill Buxton’s shoes defensively. He’s not likely to make the jaw-dropping defensive plays that Buxton seemed to make almost every other game in the outfield, but Kepler has the speed to cover plenty of outfield grass.
Niko Goodrum and JD Williams have both spent time filling Buxton’s shoes at the top of the Kernels’ batting order. Goodrum’s sporting a second-half on-base percentage (OBP) of .362, which isn’t bad, but check out Williams’ second half slash line: .462 BA/ .517 OBP/ .731 SLG/ 1.248 OPS.
Goodrum’s primary middle infield partner, Jorge Polanco, has hit .375 and put up an OPS of .969 since the All-Star break.
Dalton Hicks hasn’t homered yet in the second half, but he’s hitting .306 with five doubles.
Travis Harrison has a pair of home runs and six doubles since his All-Star Game appearance. He’s hitting .371 and has a 1.214 OPS.
Adam Brett Walker has a pair of home runs, as well, to go with his .303 batting average.
The second half success hasn’t been limited to the hitters, either.
The next earned run that Tyler Jones or Steve Gruver give up will be the first an opponent has put up against the two bullpen arms. In fact, opponents have a grand total of one hit off the two pitchers, combined, since the All-Star break.
Jose Berrios has made just one start since the break, but he went seven innings in that start and struck out nine hitters without a single walk, while giving up just five hits.
Brett Lee has struck out 12 over the 13 innings that have comprised his two starts this half.
Christian Powell is sporting a 2-0 record and a 0.69 ERA over the 13 innings he’s thrown during his first two starts of the second half.
And just in case the Kernels players needed a reminder of what it is they’re putting in all this work for, they got a visit this week from Twins starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey, who drove down from the Twin Cities with his family to make a rehab start for the Kernels on Monday night.
The plan was for Pelfrey to work five innings or throw 75 pitches, whichever came first.
But after throwing just 54 pitches through five innings, Pelfrey went back to the mound for the sixth.
“We got there in the fourth and the fifth and they said, ‘hey you’re done.’ I said, ‘hey I want to go back out for one more.’ I was just starting to get the command of my fastball back, which is very important to have to succeed, obviously, at the Big League level.”
As Pelfrey freely admitted in an interview before the game, his season didn’t get off to the kind of start he and the Twins hoped it would. But, as Kernels pitching coach Gary Lucas said after the game, “It was fun to watch him. Man, what a pro. What a good pro he is,” said Lucas. “To see how he handled himself and how he interacted with the guys on the bench. Pretty cool.”
It was a pretty cool night for the Kernels organization and their fans, as well.
According to Kernels General Manager Doug Nelson, a typical Monday crowd at this point in the season is about 1,500 fans. The Kernels drew 2,246 to see Pelfrey pitch, with a sizable portion of that total coming from “walk up” ticket sales. That extra 746 fans may not seem like a lot to those accustomed to seeing Major League attendance totals, but that’s several thousand dollars of extra revenue that the Kernels wouldn’t have had if the Twins hadn’t sent Pelfrey to Cedar Rapids for his rehab start.
Nelson indicated before the game that the topic of rehabilitation assignments had come up last September when the Twins and Kernels were discussing a possible affiliation agreement. While the Twins made no specific promises, they did tell the Kernels that they were comfortable with the facility in Cedar Rapids from a player-safety standpoint and that rehab assignments here would be simply a matter of schedules and timing working out.
With Pelfrey’s appearance, the Twins have now equaled the total number of rehab assignments that the prior Kernels affiliate, the Angels, sent to Cedar Rapids during the entire 20-year relationship between that organization and the Kernels. Angels pitcher Ken Hill joined the Kernels for a rehab stint in 1998.
The Kernels ballboy and the home plate umpire might have had the toughest challenge getting through Pelfrey’s appearance.
Pelfrey brought a supply of Major League baseballs with him to use in Cedar Rapids, which meant every half inning, the ballboy and plate umpire had to completely switch out the umpire’s supply of baseballs to allow Pelfrey to use Major League balls and the Peoria pitchers to use the Midwest League versions they are familiar with.
By winning their tenth straight game this past Sunday, the Kernels earned a free dinner from the team’s Board of Directors. By tradition, the Board treats the team to dinner at the Ox Yoke in the Amana Colonies whenever they reel off 10 straight wins. No date has been set yet, but it’s something the Kernels players are looking forward to.
That’s especially true of Kepler, the German native. The restaurant specializes in traditional German food, something Kepler said he hasn’t had in awhile.
While the team will have to wait for an evening they can fit a trip to the Amana Colonies in to their busy schedule to collect on that meal, they tasted the benefits of Pelfrey’s appearance immediately after the game.
According to Nelson, Pelfrey treated his temporary Kernels teammates to prime rib for their postgame meal in the clubhouse.