Arizona Fall League Photos

I made it home from Arizona without a hitch, but since I had to get up by 4:00 am this morning, it already feels like I’ve put in a full day.

I uploaded over 400 pictures I took with my camera over the course of the three games I saw Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

I had more opportunities to get pictures of some guys than others. With the pitchers, I also shot video of some of their work (which you can find in the prior two posts from this week), which means fewer still shots of some of those guys. Also, since Taylor Rogers started a game the night before I arrived, I didn’t get any opportunity to get photos of Rogers.

Enjoy.

(all photos are by, and the property of, S D Buhr)

Nick Burdi
Nick Burdi
Nick Burdi
Nick Burdi
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Nick Burdi
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Nick Burdi
Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
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Mitch Garver
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Mitch Garver
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Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
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Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
Trevor Hildenberger
Trevor Hildenberger
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Trevor Hildenberger
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Trevor Hildenberger
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Trevor Hildenberger
Jake Reed
Jake Reed
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Jake Reed
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Jake Reed
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Jake Reed
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Jake Reed
Stuart Turner
Stuart Turner
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Stuart Turner
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Stuart Turner
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Stuart Turner
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Stuart Turner
Adam Brett Walker
Adam Brett Walker
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Adam Brett Walker
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Adam Brett Walker
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I tried to get a picture of the Hooters sign and Walker kept getting in my way!
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Adam Brett Walker
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Adam Brett Walker
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Adam Brett Walker
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Adam Brett Walker watches his solo home run disappear over several levels of fences.
Since Taylor Rogers didn't pitch while I was there, this is the best picture I have of him (at least it kind of looks like a blurry version of him).
Since Taylor Rogers didn’t pitch while I was there, this is the best picture I have of him (at least it kind of looks like a blurry version of him).

Again, you can find other pictures I took with my phone, as well as video clips of Garver, Hildenberger, Reed, Burdi and Turner in the prior two posts at Knuckleballs.

Now, I guess I have to go in to baseball hibernation until spring training.

-JC

Wednesday and Thursday in Scottsdale

A not-so-funny thing happened Tuesday night.
CrackedSurface Yeah. It’s bad enough that the screen to my Surface smashed when it fell off the worktable in my hotel room, but I haven’t been able to get the cursor to remain steady enough to do anything with it, either.

Now, this was a 3-year old Surfac, one of the original models, so it was due to be updated soon, but honestly, it did pretty much everything I needed this kind of device to do, so I wasn’t planning on spending the money on a replacement quite yet. Plans change, though, I guess. So, now I have a new Surface.

I’m writing this at a place called Duke’s Sports Bar and Grill in Scottsdale on Thursday night. My flight home leaves at 6:45 in the morning, so this may be quick.

As I posted Tuesday night, I don’t have a cable with me to upload pictures from my camera, so I’ll try to post a bunch of those pictures Friday after I get home.

Wednesday, I made about a 45 minute drive to the other side of Phoenix to the Peoria Sports Complex (spring training home to the Padres) to watch Scottsdale play there. Adam Brett Walker II was in left field for the Scorpions and Mitch Garver DH’d. Scottsdale jumped out early and never looked back, winning 8-2.

Garver had another nice day. He was 1 for 2, with an RBI double, and worked three walks. He now is sporting a .423 batting average and a 1.224 OPS in seven AFL games.

Adam Brett Walker II hit what I’m pretty sure was the longest home run I’ve seen this season. He launched a solo shot over the left field fence, over the bullpen behind the left field fence and over a couple more fences that were well beyond the bullpen. For good measure he added a triple to the opposite field later in the game. Walker is hitting .283 with a .998 OPS in 12 games.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t shooting video when Walker launched his blast. I’m pretty sure I got a picture of his HR swing with my camera, but you’ll have to wait for the next post to see that.

Adam Brett Walker II before Wednesday's game
Adam Brett Walker II before Wednesday’s game

On Thursday, the same two teams played again, this time at Scottsdale Stadium. The results were similar, with Scottsdale winning 5-2.

The only member of the Minnesota Twins contingent in the starting lineup was catcher Stuart Turner. He contributed an RBI single in two at-bats and added a pair of walks. He also scored a run. Turner is hitting .231 in six games for the Scorpions.

Here’s a video of his RBI single.

I also got a look at relief pitcher Nick Burdi, who pitched the 7th inning for Scottsdale. He needed only 12 pitches (9 of which were strikes) to strike out all three batters he faced.

I had Burdi with six fastballs among his pitches. According to the radar gun I was sitting behind, he notched one at 97 mph, four at 98 and one at 99 (the strikeout pitch to the second batter he faced).

Here’s some video I shot of Burdi’s inning (does not include every pitch, unfortunately).

I wasn’t expecting any of the rest of the Twins’ farmhands to appear, but Jake Reed came out of the bullpen to work the ninth inning (he had also thrown Tuesday, though he only threw six pitches that afternoon).

Like Burdi, Reed had a perfect 1-2-3 inning. It took him seven pitches to get his first out (a strikeout) Thursday, but only four more pitches to finish his work – a one-pitch line out to left field and three straight strikes to record his second K of the inning. The gun I saw had him with one 93 mph fastball, one at 94 and three at 95.

Again, you can see the results for yourself.

I didn’t take a lot of pictures with my phone, so most of the pictures will be in Friday’s post, but here’s a couple I snapped with the phone.

Peoria Sports Complex
Peoria Sports Complex
Mitch Garver doing the autograph thing before Thursday;s game.
Mitch Garver doing the autograph thing before Thursday;s game.
Jake Reed signing for fans before Thursday's game.
Jake Reed signing for fans before Thursday’s game.

That’s it for me from Arizona. I should be back in Cedar Rapids by noon. I’ll try to get the photos uploaded and posted sometime in the afternoon.

-JC

Tuesday Afternoon in Scottsdale

I never make a list of everything I want to pack when I travel. I should, but I don’t.

I usually remember pretty much everything and I remembered pretty much everything I intended to take with me to Arizona for my little Arizona Fall League adventure this week. Pretty much.

What I did not remember was the cable to upload photos from my camera to my computer. If I had, you would all be enjoying some pictures of the Twins prospects that saw action in today’s Scottsdale Scorpions 4-0 loss. The best I can do is share a couple pictures I took with my phone and three short videos I shot with said phone.

Before I get to those, though, let me just say that I don’t care that the temperatures in Cedar Rapids this week are roughly the same as what I’m experiencing in Scottsdale. Really. I’m happy for my friends and family back home.

I’m getting to watch more baseball and I wouldn’t be able to do that in Cedar Rapids this week – and you’re not.

The only Twins prospect in the Scottsdale lineup today was catcher Mitch Garver. Fellow catcher Stuaart Turner and outfielder Adam Brett Walker had the day off and I missed starting pitcher Taylor Rogers’ start by one day. He threw four good innings on Monday, so I won’t get to see him while I’m here this week.

Garver caught all nine innings and had one hit (a double) in two official at-bats. He walked twice and struck out once. He’s hitting .417 for Scottsdale with three doubles and one home run among his 10 hits in 24 at-bats this fall.

Twins relief pitching prospects Trevor Hildenberger and Jake Reed both worked one inning on Tuesday afternoon. Hildenberger gave up one run on two hits in his inning, with the run coming on a solo home run off the bat of Royals prospect Bubba Starling. Reed worked a perfect 1-2-3 inning, striking out one.

Reed has yet to give up a run in the AFL this fall and has not given up a run in his 5.1 innings. He’s struck out 4 and walked 3 in his five appearances.

Arizona apparently agrees with Reed. He gave up just one run in 12.2 innings of relief work for Salt River during the 2014 Arizona Fall League and has been equally effective this fall.

Hildenberger carried a 3.68 ERA out of Tuesday’s game. He’s thrown 7.1 innings over five games, surrendering 10 hits and striking out five batters. He has not given up a walk this fall.season.

Hildenberger pitched for the Cedar Rapids Kernels this past summer, while Reed and Gaver were teammates in Cedar Rapids during the 2014 season.

After I get home on Friday, I’ll upload all the pictures I take with my camera this week and post a photo-heavy final article. For now, if you’ll pardon the questionable quality, here’s what I can give you from Arizona.

Here’s a picture of Scottsdale Stadium

Scottsdale Stadium

The backdrop behind the batters eye is not quite the same thing we see in Cedar Rapids.

Backdrop

I got to speak briefly with Garver while he was stretching prior to the game and took this after we caught up.

GarverStretchingHere’s Garver’s double to right-center.

And a few pitches from Hildenberger.

Finally, a look at a few of Reed’s tosses.

Halloween Frights and Flights

The New York Mets and Minnesota Gophers had frightening nights on Saturday. The only thing more frustrating than being a Mets or Gophers fan on Sunday morning would have to be if you have some sort of allegiance toward Duke University because what happened to the Blue Devils on Halloween is several levels of hell worse than “frightening.”

Sport-Jack-O-LanternsAfter scoring a touchdown to pull ahead of the Miami Hurricanes with just seconds left in the game, Duke kicked off and eight laterals later, Miami crossed the goal line to snatch the win from the Blue Devils. Sure, you could say one of the Miami players’ knee was on the ground when he contributed his lateral and, yes, there appeared to be at least one block in the back, but, hey, it’s Duke and we all hate Duke, so who cares? Right? (Not that many of us love Miami, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

(Late edit: The ACC announced Sunday morning that the entire officiating crew, including the replay official, that worked the Duke-Miami game has been suspended for two games.)

So let’s move on to Saturday Shenanigans that at least some of us care about.

The Mets stare into the abyss

Daniel Murphy’s life has been interesting the past two weeks, hasn’t it?

You remember Murphy. He’s the guy that set a new Major League record for consecutive playoff games with a home run, jacking dingers in six straight postseason games while almost single-handedly providing the necessary offensive punch to propel the New York Mets in to the World Series.

Murphy has not had a good Fall Classic, however. Not only has he thudded back to earth with his bat against Kansas City pitching, but on Saturday he chose the worst time possible to perform his Bill Buckner imitation and allow a slow ground ball to get beneath his glove. The Royals tied the game on Murphy’s error and went on to score two more runs in the same inning, ultimately beating the Mets 5-3 and taking a 3-1 lead in the Series.

Aside from Murphy’s “oops” and a few other defensive faux pas by his teammates, the most intriguing thing about Saturday’s game was New York manager Terry Collins’ bullpen management. (Or is that mismanagement?)

Collins inexplicably chose to use his closer, Jeurys Familia, in Friday night’s blowout win over the Royals in Game 3.

The few pitches he threw in the game Friday certainly weren’t enough to keep him from being effective 24 hours later and you can’t blame Familia for Murphy’s booted grounder. After all, the reliever got the ground ball you would have wanted him to get if you are a Mets fan.

But I had two thoughts about this situation that still make me wonder whether using Familia on Friday may end up costing the Mets the Series and perhaps may have cost them Game 4.

The first thought is relatively obvious. If Collins ends up needing Familia again on Sunday night, he’ll be making not his second, but his third straight appearance. Yes, his number of pitches on Friday were minimal, but you have to take into account the pitches thrown to warm up in addition to those that actually count.

If Familia is called on to close out Game 5 and blows another save, Collins is going to get a lot of heat for how he handled his top bullpen asset, and it will be warranted.

Even if you feel Familia was not too tired to pitch effectively Saturday after throwing on Friday or even that he actually threw perfectly fine (and those are both perfectly valid views, I believe), that’s not really the point.

You see, the Royals had a couple runners on base already when Familia entered the game in the eighth inning because Collins elected to have Tyler Clippard start that inning on the mound for the Mets.

If Familia had not pitched on Friday, would Collins have called on his closer to begin the eighth inning, instead of Clippard? If so, would the Royals have had the same scoring opportunity?

We’ll never know, of course. But the question of whether Collins chose Clippard, rather than Familia, to begin the eighth is a perfectly fair question to pose.

If that was a factor, then the decision on Friday has quite possibly already cost the Mets one game. And if the fact that Familia would be working three consecutive nights affects how Collins uses his closer on Sunday, as well, that would just add to the magnitude of the blunder.

The Gophers’ brainfart

I didn’t see a lot of the Minnesota-Michigan football game Saturday night because I was primarily focused on the World Series game, but from the bits and pieces I saw, it looked to me like Minnesota outplayed the Wolverines most of the game and deserved a win.

And then the final 19 seconds of the game happened.

After replay determined that the pass originally ruled to be what would have been the winning touchdown for the Gophers had actually ended a half-yard short of the goal line, Minnesota had 19 seconds and one time-out to manage to get that final 18 inches of fake turf.

The clock started as soon as the ball was deemed by the officials to be ready for play.

After reading postgame quotes and seeing video of interim coach Claeys’ meeting with the media, it’s still unclear to me whether nobody on the field or on the sideline for Minnesota knew that clock was ticking or whether they knew and didn’t care. Regardless, at least half of their remaining time expired before the Gophers got off one snap.

As a result, Minnesota ran one play before facing the decision of whether to kick a game-tying field goal with just two seconds on the clock, to send the game in to overtime, or run one final play and go for the win.

Claeys elected the latter and, while I don’t personally fault that particular decision, I’m sure plenty of others do.

In any event, whether you believe the final 19 seconds reflected panic, miscommunication or simple ineptitude, the results didn’t do anything to help Claeys’ case for removing the “interim” label on his coaching position with the Gophers. There’s absolutely no reason Minnesota shouldn’t have had time to run at least three plays, and possibly four, in those final 19 seconds. That wouldn’t have made victory certain, but I think four plays would give you approximately twice as good a chance of scoring as two plays did.

The Perfect Iowa Hawkeyes

Perfect! As in, 8-0 record.

A lot has been made about Iowa’s “soft” schedule and I’m not going to argue that the Hawkeyes have been beating top-tier teams this season. There are reasons I did not renew my Iowa season tickets this year and one of those reasons was that I didn’t feel the home schedule was worth the time or money necessary to go to seven games at Kinnick Stadium.

The non-conference schedule that Iowa typically puts together leaves something to be desired, as a fan. They play Iowa State every year. They schedule one other major conference opponent. The other two non-conference games are almost always cupcakes. This year, that included Texas State and Illinois State, a couple of squads typical of teams the Hawkeyes usually bring in to take a beating for a payday.

If it turns out that Iowa runs the table, finds a way to upset the B1G’s East Division champion in the conference championship game, and still ends up on the outside of the NCAA playoff bracket, so be it. The football program can do nothing other than learn the same lesson their men’s hoops program learned a couple years ago: schedule stronger opponents or expect to be left out of the dance.

That said…

The first College Football Playoff rankings are due to be released this Tuesday and if what we’re told is true – that these weekly rankings are based on what teams have accomplished against the strength of the schedule they’ve played to this point, not the strength of the teams that remain on their schedule – then Iowa should be ranked ahead of defending national champion Ohio State.

This season, Iowa defeated Pitt at home and both Wisconsin and Northwestern on the road, en route to their 8-0 record.

Here are the teams that Ohio State has vanquished so far:

@ Virginia Tech (4-5, 6th of 7 teams in ACC, Coastal Division)

Hawaii (2-7, 6th of 6 teams in Mountain West, West Division)

Northern Illinois (5-3, 4th of 6 teams in MAC, West Division)

Western Michigan (5-3, 2nd of 6 teams in MAC, West Division)

@ Indiana (4-4, 0-4 in B1G games)

Maryland (2-6, 0-4 in B1G games)

Penn State (7-2, 4-1 in B1G games)

@ Rutgers (3-5, 1-4 in B1G games)

Both Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1) and Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) are arguably as strong as Penn State, the one respectable conference win so far for the Buckeyes and Pitt has proven stronger than any non-conference foe on Ohio State’s schedule.

Indeed, all of that is about to change. OSU should have no problem with Minnesota and Illinois the next two weeks, but finishes up with Michigan State and Michigan. But at the time the College Football Playoff committee announces their first rankings this Tuesday, Iowa will have the better resume of the two.

In fact, if you look at Michigan State’s schedule, you’ll find a similar story. Their big win, so far, was over an Oregon team that is no longer ranked among the top 25 teams in college football.

The story could be very different by December, but it will be interesting to see what the playoff committee’s view will be on Tuesday. Nobody in the Big Ten should be in the top 4 teams of the country at this point.

-JC

Canadian (will be) Mist

You may or may not have noticed this, but Minnesota Twins fans tend to complain a bit.

We complain about home grown players who have MVP and batting titles to their credit.

We complain about managers and coaches who don’t guide the team the way we think they should.

We complain about General Managers because we don’t like the deals they make and, even more, don’t like that they don’t make the deals we think they should.

And we complain about owners. We complained about Calvin Griffith and Carl Pohlad. We still complain about Jim Pohlad.

But if the information being reported out of Toronto is accurate, it’s quite possible we should embrace Mr. Pohlad and thank the baseball gods that our Twins are not in the hands of Rogers Communication, owners of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Blue JaysOn Thursday, Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos was announced that his fellow baseball executives had voted him the winner of Sporting News’ Baseball Executive of the Year Award for the work he did before and during the season to assemble the best team Toronto has seen in over 20 years. It was well-deserved.

The timing of the announcement was more than a little ironic, however, given that it came shortly after Anthopoulos announced he would not be continuing to serve as the Toronto GM.

Anthopoulos has not been perfect. He’s made good deals and bad deals, just like every Major League GM. But he’s certainly been on a roll over the past year.

He added Marco Estrada, Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson last offseason. He traded for Troy Tulowitzki, Ben Revere and David Price before the trade deadline this season.

Did he pay too much, in money, years and/or talent, for some of those guys? It’s certainly possible that, over time, we will concluded that he did. We just don’t know, yet.

What we do know is that the Toronto Blue Jays roster he put together was 40-18 after the calendar tuned to August and came within a whisker of being the American League representative in the World Series.

The owners hired Mark Shapiro to be their new team president and, it appears, Shapiro isn’t a fan of some of the deals that the GM he inherited made and envisions his role as more than just running the business side of the team the way he had been doing with Cleveland since their ownership bounced him upstairs and took away most, if not all, of his authority to make player personnel decisions for the Indians.

Now, say what you will about Anthropolous’ wins and losses at the bargaining table, but I’m pretty sure any objective observer would tell you his record stacks up pretty favorably against his new boss’ record.

So the Jays made Anthopoulos an insulting low-ball extension offer they knew he wouldn’t accept. Then, after they torched the relationship and he told them to take a hike, they came back with a five-year offer – again knowing very well there was no way Anthropoulos would forgive and forget and accept that offer.

To top it all off, when everyone in the game is trashing them publicly (everyone EXCEPT Anthropoulos, who has remained above that kind of behavior), the Jays go to the media to make sure everyone knows their GM turned down a five year extension (without mentioning any of the other pertinent details, of course).

I don’t agree with everything the Twins ownership and front office does but, yeah, right now I certainly would not trade my team’s group with those still in Toronto.

-JC

 

Rebooting

Welcome back, Knuckleballs readers. Long time-no see.

My contributions here have been sparse, at best, lately. I’m hoping that’s about to change.

I took a little time off, for a couple of reasons. I think they were good reasons, but then I’m biased, obviously.

After completing my third season of covering the Cedar Rapids Kernels for MetroSportsReport.com and contributing articles to TwinsDaily.com, I simply needed time away from writing on a regular basis.

Oh, I also lost my “day job,” so that’s taken a bit of getting used to, too.

RebootI got a decent “separation pay” deal from my employer and by officially “retiring,” I’m also able to keep most of the most important benefits (health insurance, etc.), so there are certainly worse ways to lose your job.

I’m not looking for sympathy here. I was ready to move on and, as it turns out, my employer was ready enough to have me move on that they’re willing to pay me for quite some time NOT to work for them. Not a bad situation, at all.

Still, it leaves me in a position to essentially reboot my life, or at least significant aspects of my future. I make a lot of “old man” jokes at my own expense, but I’m really not all that old. I haven’t reached the big six-oh yet, though I’m certainly closing in on it. The point is, I feel like it’s far too early for me to simply do nothing with my day.

The nice thing is that my financial situation allows me to take some time to examine my options and find something that I feel I’ll really enjoy doing with my time going forward. That will be a nice change.

In the meantime, I think I’m ready to get back at the keyboard on a more regular basis. For now, that means, hopefully, posting more frequently here. I realize that, when you take the kind of hiatus I’ve taken, it will be difficult (and, possibly, impossible) to get readership levels back to what they used to be.

That’s OK (for now, anyway).

I couldn’t decide on one topic to write about today, so I’m going to just touch on a number of issues.

World Series Game 1

Wow. How are they going to top that?

Game 1 had all the usual stuff (good pitching, good defense, good hitting) and then some:

  • Human interest (Volquez pitching after his father passed away earlier in the day)
  • Network difficulties (What the hell, FOX?)
  • A totally unexpected defensive lapse that threatened to cost the Royals the game.
  • A deep home run in the 9th inning off a shut-down closer to tie the game.
  • Five extra innings, before the guy who made the aforementioned error drove in the walk-off run with a sacrifice fly.

On Twitter, I went on record as picking the Royals to win the Series in seven games.

That’s probably less of a prediction than it is a hope. I’m an American League guy so, as long as it’s not the Yankees in the Series, I’m almost always going to be pulling for the AL representative. Mostly, though, I just want to see a great Series and that would include a deciding seventh game.

Torii Hunter’s Retirement

Hunter made the right call. There’s no way to look at his work on the field this season and objectively say that it looks like he still has enough in the tank to be a regular contributor on a team that expects to be a contender and, let’s face it, Torii Hunter is not cut out to play a reserve role. It’s not in his personality.

I give credit where I believe it’s due, however. His presence on the team was a net-positive for the Twins and, without him, I do not believe they have as much success in 2015 as they did.

It sounds like he’ll get an opportunity to join the Twins’ front office in some capacity. I have mixed feelings about that and I suppose where I come down on the subject will depend on what role he’s given.

On the one hand, clearly Major League Baseball needs more African-Americans in front office positions and Torii Hunter has the background and personality that one would think might make him successful in some kind of front office role.

On the other hand, given some of Hunter’s stated views on certain social issues, I would have a difficult time trusting him to make any sort of personnel decisions that call for inclusion of staff from diverse backgrounds and beliefs.

In the end, nobody really should care all that much what a professional baseball player believes, with regard to racial, religious or any other social issue. I know I don’t. But if/when that player is being considered for a position in a professional business organization (which is what the front office is), now we can and should care about those views because they can impact who that team hires and how employees are treated in the workplace.

It will be interesting to see how this turns out. In the meantime, I would congratulate Hunter on a terrific Major League career and thank him for what he contributed to my enjoyment of Minnesota Twins baseball during his years in a Twins uniform.

Big Ten Football

Yeah, I know this has been primarily a baseball blog since we opened the doors here going on six years ago. It will probably stay that way, for the most part, but I do have interests outside of baseball, so sometimes I’m going to write about those things. This is one of those times.

I gave up my Iowa Hawkeyes football season tickets this season for a number of reasons. I’m not sorry I did so. Surprisingly, even though I now have a lot more free time on my hands, it would have been very difficult for me to make it to many games at Kinnick Stadium this year and the home schedule, frankly, was not something to get too excited about.

I'll be there Nov 14 when Floyd comes home.
I’ll be there Nov 14 when Floyd comes home.

Fortunately, the Hawkeyes have rewarded my lack of financial support by going 7-0 so far this season and, thanks to a pretty weak B1G West, they have a reasonable shot at being undefeated in the regular season and heading to Indianapolis for the conference Championship Game.

I have probably jinxed the Hawkeyes, however. I bought Championship Game tickets on Stubhub last week.

I also have tickets for the November 14 game against Minnesota.

That should be an interesting day, for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s a night game at Kinnick and that’s always a good time. The Hawkeyes and Gophers usually battle one another pretty hard, so it shapes up as being perhaps one of the few really good games left on the home schedule.

Iowa will also finally join the “alternate uniform” trend that night with all-black uniforms on tap for the game with the Gophers.

As a warm-up for the game, Hawkeye wrestling has a meet with Oklahoma State scheduled for 11 am that Saturday – in Kinnick Stadium. Yes, an outdoor college wrestling meet in Iowa in November. What could possibly go wrong?

The plan is to break the college wrestling meet attendance record set at Penn State last season. Based on initial demand for tickets, the old record won’t just be broken, it will be obliterated.

So on the 14th, I’ll need to get to Kinnick for wrestling by 11, then tailgate a few hours before the Hawks and Gophers tee it up at 7 pm. It’s quite possible that I’m too old for that, but we’ll see how it goes.

On a much less pleasant note, I think everyone who’s a fan of college football was sad to see Minnesota coach Jerry Kill step down from his job with the Gophers for health reasons. It’s impossible to watch the video of his press conference and not feel heartbroken for the man, his family and, by extension, the U of M Community.

Despite seeming to take a bit of step backwards this season, Kill appeared to have the Gopher football program moving in a positive direction, but regardless of what you feel about the program, he has always come across to me as a genuinely good man with his heart in the right place.

I’m confident he will successfully transition in to other roles that he will find fulfilling, eventually. I wish him all the best.

That’s it for today.

I’ll do my best to be back with more regular postings and you can look forward to on-site reports (and photos) next week from the Arizona Fall League in Phoenix. I’m looking forward to spending a few days down there because there are several Twins prospects (most of them also former Kernels) playing and – well – it’s Arizona in November.

JC

What if…?

Here we are in the final week of the 2015 MLB season and the Twins are still in contention for a playoff spot. All things considered, that’s pretty incredible. Virtually none of us expected this when the season began.

what if questionHoped for it? Sure. We all hope for it. We’ve hoped for it for the past four years, too, but show me someone who went on record in April that the Twins would have a .500 record locked down and still be pushing for a wild card berth, then I’ll believe someone actually expected this to happen.

The Twins front office, their manager and coaching staff, and particularly the players, deserve a lot of credit for putting the team in this unlikely circumstance. Twins fans should all appreciate the hard work that has produced the most encouraging Twins season in at least five years.

And yet…

It’s really hard for me not to play a little “what if?” game. If the Twins are not able to overcome both the Astros and Angels to capture the coveted final American League wild card spot, they’ll almost certainly finish within a couple of games of doing so.

A couple of games.

That makes it pretty easy to go back and look for opportunities that were lost to turn enough losses into wins to put the Twins in the playoffs.

The easy part is looking at late game leads that were blown by a failed relief pitching, by a late error, by a baserunning mistake or by failing to capitalize on runners in scoring position. Those examples are easy to come by.

Then again, you can say that about literally every team that finishes just short of the postseason, every year.

Similarly, though to a lesser extent, fans of any team that falls just short can come up with strategic managing/coaching decisions that failed and, ultimately, led to enough losses to make a difference. Not every decision made by a team’s manager is going to work and when a decision ends up in a loss, second-guessing is easy and, with Paul Molitor in his first season as a manager at any level, there have been plenty of second-guess-worthy decisions to choose from if you want to find a couple of games that could have had better outcomes.

And then there’s the front office.

On August 3, I wrote about my disappointment with the lack of results from the Twins at the non-waiver trade deadline.

To demonstrate that none of us are above being second-guessed, I obviously undervalued the addition of Kevin Jepsen at that time. Despite being underwhelmed with the Jepsen trade, my biggest problem wasn’t the trade itself or the prospects that were given up for the reliever. My problem with it was that it was the only deal made.

It seemed to me that either General Manager Terry Ryan should have acquired more help for his manager to take in to the final two months of the season than just an additional bullpen arm or he shouldn’t have bothered going out to get even that much.

Clearly, Jepsen has been a life-saver in light of the free-fall we’ve seen from closer Glen Perkins. Without Jepsen, the Twins would have almost certainly been eliminated before now, so kudos to the front office for that deal. I was wrong about Jepsen.

Terry Ryan must feel it's lonely at the top at times (Photo: SD Buhr)
Terry Ryan must feel it’s lonely at the top at times (Photo: SD Buhr)

I’m still playing coulda-shoulda-woulda, however, on the question of whether there might not have been one or two other deals that “coulda-shoulda” been made in July that “woulda” made more than a couple games’ difference in the Twins fortunes this year.

It’s an impossible question to answer, of course. And, to be fair, you can’t just throw out a name and say, “if the Twins had gone out and gotten this guy, they’d be playoff bound by now.” There’s no way to know that.

The primary positions most people talked about upgrading were shortstop and catcher.

But would any of the shortstops available at the time done better at solidifying the position than Eduardo Escobar has? That’s a debate we could have, but it’s certainly not a given that any addition would have been a net-gain over Escobar for the Twins in the win column.

Kurt Suzuki has struggled to control opponents’ running games, but catching is about so much more than throw-out rates that I think it’s impossible to say whether a change at the starting catcher position would have had a positive effect on the team over the final two months. We simply don’t know what effects that would have had on the effectiveness of the pitching staff.

Could the Twins have added a starting pitcher at the deadline? Sure. But you have to ask who would have been the likely odd man out of the rotation to make room for a newcomer. It doesn’t take much imagination to consider that it might have been rookie Tyler Duffey. The same Tyler Duffey who has been arguably the most consistent starter in the rotation over the final two months.

If the Twins end up falling short of the playoffs this week, it will be almost impossible for us not to ask, “what if?” I know I’ll do plenty of that.

Sure, we can pretty much all agree that this Twins roster doesn’t look like it’s built for a deep playoff run this season, anyway. With the young talent in the pipeline, maybe 2016 or 2017 will be more likely seasons for legitimate title contention.

But, as Twins fans have learned, you can’t for granted any opportunity you get to qualify for the postseason. You can’t assume other opportunities are just around the corner. Stuff happens and that stuff isn’t always good stuff.

So I’ll continue to ask, “what if?” I’ll continue to maintain that more help should have been brought on in July; that Molitor was not given the tools to make a legitimate playoff run this season.

I’ll also acknowledge, however, that it wouldn’t have been easy and that there’s no assurance that any such additional “help” would have necessarily improved the results. I’m smart enough to know that any additional “help” that would have been brought in might have actually ended up resulting in fewer wins, rather than more (see: Nationals, Washington).

In the end, I’m glad it was Terry Ryan making those decisions in July, rather than me. Ryan may not have done everything right and he’s certainly accustomed to second-guessing from people like me. It all goes with the GM job.

And we are still paying attention to the Twins during the final two series of the season. I’d almost forgotten how much fun that is.

Kernels’ Sean Miller is Moving Up Fast

If you go to the web site of the baseball program at the University of South Carolina-Aiken, you’ll find a link listing all of the Pacer ballplayers who are playing professional baseball.

Well, not quite all of them.

Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)

Cedar Rapids Kernels infielder Sean Miller spent three years in a Pacers uniform and he’s now played for two minor league teams, but South Carolina-Aiken’s webmaster hasn’t updated the list since last September and Miller just wrapped up his college career this past spring.

Miller, the first of the Minnesota Twins’ 2015 draft class to suit up for the Kernels this season (Chris Paul joined Cedar Rapids later), was a “young junior,” to use Kernels manager Jake Mauer’s words. He was just 20 years old throughout his junior year of college and won’t turn 21 until after the current season ends.

That may have been one factor that the Twins found attractive about Miller, whom they selected in the 10th round of the 2015 draft. The Twins sent the middle infielder to their Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton, Tennessee, just about a four hour drive north of his college campus in Aiken, immediately after signing him to a contract that included a reported $125,000 bonus.

It was a short stay for Miller in Tennessee. On July 11, he was promoted to the Kernels.

The quick promotion caught Miller a bit by surprise.

“Actually, it did. Kind of a lot,” Miller admitted. “Because I was only in Etown for two or three weeks, I guess. I played in 12 or 13 games (it was officially 11 games). So it was definitely surprising, but it was really exciting.

“I was playing good defense there and I was hitting okay. I was hitting balls hard but I didn’t have a great average or numbers, like that.”

Short as it was, Miller said he enjoyed getting his first taste of professional ball in Elizabethton.

“It was exactly what I was expecting. It was awesome to get a chance to play and be on your own and just get the whole experience of it.”

In truth, Miller was hitting just .209 in Elizabethton when he was promoted to Cedar Rapids. But his numbers since joining the Kernels have been much more encouraging. He’s not showing a lot of power, but he carried a .303 batting average with the Kernels through this past weekend.

“Sean’s put the ball in play and gives us a little bit of speed that, obviously with (Tanner) English gone, we’ve been lacking a little bit,” Mauer said of Miller.

Miller played high school ball in Maryland for his father, Steve Miller, who had his own five-year minor league career after being the 13th round pick of the San Francisco Giants in the 1983 June Amateur Draft.

Having a dad with that kind of background comes with both advantages and disadvantages.

“It’s always hard with him being your dad,” Miller conceded. “You don’t want to listen to him, but you have to because you know he’s been there. He’s been through the same stuff you’re going through.

“It’s definitely (a battle), always arguing about something, but you’ve just got to realize that he knows more than you do.”

Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)

The elder Miller has made two trips to see his son in his first minor league season, one to Tennessee and the other to Cedar Rapids.

The Kernels infielder said his dad’s advice has remained on the practical side from the beginning.

“He always kind of told me it’s not as glamorous as everyone makes it out to be. It’s more of a job than a game now. And it’s kind of how he described it. He was pretty right on it.”

Miller is finding that to be true as he nears the end of a year that began in the Peach Belt Conference and is concluding in the Class A Midwest League. He’s found there’s a pretty significant difference in the quality of the pitchers he’s now facing.

“It’s definitely a lot better, more consistent” Miller acknowledged.  “Night in, night out, you face guys that are definitely a lot better. Position players, too. A lot of the outfielders, if they get a chance, they’re going to run it down and catch it. They’re not going to allow a hit there. It takes some getting used to.”

As you’d expect, Miller is happy with the success he’s had thus far with the Kernels.

“Definitely,” he confirmed. “I’m just trying to come in every day and have fun and just play ball.”

So far, Miller has found the biggest challenge in pro ball to be just maintaining an even keel over the course of a long season.

Sean Miller
Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)

“I think getting too high, sometimes you have a good game and you’re kind of up here,” Miller said, lifting his hand toward the top of his head. “And you come up the next night and go 0 for 4 or something like that. I mean it sucks, but you’ve got to find a happy medium there and kind of stay consistent with your attitude. Can’t get too excited when you have a good game and can’t get too upset about a bad game.”

His manager concurs, but feels the Miller is off to a good start.

“He’s handled himself good,” Mauer added, of Miller. “He needs to learn what it takes to play every day and maintain his strength. It’s going to be a big offseason for him to get bigger and stronger and continue to improve his speed, but he’s been very good for us.

“He’s been doing a pretty nice job in the middle of the infield, mostly just shortstop is all that he’s played. He’s learning how to play second and handled himself pretty good there.”

Off the field, you are likely to find Miller on a golf course.

“I like to play golf,” he said. “I haven’t really got a chance to play too much, lately, but hopefully I’ll get a chance in the offseason.”

Miller said he’ll make South Carolina his primary home once the season ends.

“I’ll be back and forth between Maryland and South Carolina, but I just kind of wanted to get started and be on my own a little bit.”

Doe and White: To the Miracle and Back Again

Every minor leaguer’s goal entering the season is to develop his game to the point where he earns a promotion to the next higher level in the system.

Sometimes, that call comes when a player has dominated play within their league. Other times, circumstances align to create an opportunity for players to move up the organizational ladder, at least temporarily.

Such circumstances allowed Cedar Rapids Kernels third baseman TJ White and catcher/first baseman Brett Doe to spend a few weeks each in the middle of this summer wearing the uniform of the Fort Myers Miracle, the Minnesota Twins’ Class high-A affiliate, one level above the Class A Kernels.

Brett Doe and JT White (Photo: SD Buhr)
Brett Doe and TJ White (Photo: SD Buhr)

White and Doe both got their promotion opportunities in part due to some misfortune of others, as the Miracle began to rack up injuries among their early-season regulars at the corner infield positions. Both players had been holding their own in the Midwest League when their calls came, but both were also aware that their stays in Fort Myers might be short-lived.

“Yeah, Jake pretty much let us know,” White recalled last week. “He said it could be four to five days, it could be two weeks or it could be the whole the season. So we were looking to just go play and have fun with it.”

For Doe, who wasn’t on the Kernels’ original roster out of spring training, it wasn’t the first time this season that he’s lived with uncertainty concerning how long he’d be on a roster.

“That’s kind of what I came up here (to Cedar Rapids) with, when (Jorge) Fernandez got hurt,” Doe recounted. “Once I got up here, it took me about a month and a half to unpack my bag, to actually unpack everything. So when I got there (to Fort Myers), I didn’t unpack.”

At least players in a situation like what Doe and White found themselves in don’t have to try to find a short-term place to live during their time with the Miracle. Fort Myers doesn’t have a host family program similar to what exists in Cedar Rapids, but they do have an on-site Players Academy with dormitory-like housing.

JT White (Photo: SD Buhr)
TJ White (Photo: SD Buhr)

“We both stayed at the Academy,” confirmed White. “They set it up pretty much that way. We could have found a place to live, but with our situation, the Academy was a lot easier for us.

“It’s nice. They’ve got the pool tables and ping-pong tables and everything. And they feed us, so it’s not bad.”

The food and lodging might be nice, but maybe the biggest benefit to having even a temporary promotion to the next higher level of minor league ball is the exposure the players got to the Class high-A game. Both Doe and White noticed significant differences in the quality of the game played in the Florida State League.

“For me, we see the same velocity and stuff like that up there, but guys have a plan to get you out and they can execute that plan a little bit better,” observed Doe. “They didn’t miss as many spots – not saying guys here miss spots, but you just didn’t get as many pitches to hit. When you’re up there, I felt like, you can’t miss that pitch. If you get a pitch to hit, you can’t miss it.”

“We kind of talked about it jokingly, because guys can locate their off-speed (pitches) so much more, which makes it so much more dangerous,” White agreed. “You might not see a fastball again after that first pitch, because they can control it so much better. Here, you’ll probably most likely get another fastball or two before the end of the at-bat.”

Doe, who is attempting to learn the catching trade this season, after primarily being an infielder at the college level, didn’t get much time behind the plate in Fort Myers. But he’s not complaining.

Brett Doe (Photo: SD Buhr)

“I was first base, every game,” he said. “I worked with the bullpen, to stay sharp for me, catching. But once the game rolled around, I was at first base pretty much every day, which was nice. I went from being a third string catcher here (in Cedar Rapids) at the beginning of the year to playing first base every day at high-A.”

The experience did cement one thing in to the minds of both players. They want to earn spots on the Fort Myers roster full time next season and getting some time there this year gives them some idea what they need to do to make that happen.

“For next year, yeah I think it did,” White confirmed. “Just showed us a little bit, gave us a little taste of it and hopefully, we’ll both be starting there next year. I think that’s our plan. But just seeing the pitchers and a little bigger ballpark, so we kind of know how to approach that, as well.”

“That and then just us playing, what is it today, 122 games?” added Doe. “We’ve learned a lot from that, too. We’ve learned a lot in our first full season – how to get through and be ready for next season.”

Enduring the number of games in a full minor league season is no small factor for a player’s development, as White pointed out.

“Last year, me and Brett both only played about 15 games, I think, all season. So this year we’re grinding through, but it’s gone well so far.

On the subject of “grinding through,” the Kernels clinched their playoff spot in June by finishing second in the MWL’s Western Division during the first half of the season. The two players talked some about whether that’s made it harder or easier to maintain focus, as a team, in the season’s final few weeks.

“I think as far as preparation, it can be tempting for us to sit back, as a team, and kind of be like, ‘we’re in the playoffs,’” conceded Doe. “But once the lights come on and the game starts, no one is thinking, ‘we’re in the playoffs so we don’t have to play hard.’”

Doe, White and their Kernels team mates are already getting the message from their manager, Jake Mauer, that now is not the time to ease up on the throttle.

“Jake kind of told us, ‘hey, we want to finish strong. All these games are going to be close.’ He said they’re going to be close ballgames and we want to be hot rolling into playoffs, not kind of stumbling in getting started.”

While both Doe and White would obviously prefer to have finished out their 2015 season in Fort Myers, returning to Cedar Rapids does bring with it one benefit. While the Kernels are preparing for postseason play, the Miracle are on the verge of elimination from playoff contention.

So, while those on the Miracle roster will likely be playing their final game of the season on September 6, Doe and White will be with the Kernels as they begin their quest for MWL championship rings on September 8.

Belated Farewell to an Old Friend – Jeff Schmahl

I rarely post anything here not related to the Twins, the Kernels, baseball or some form of sports-related topic. This, however, is one of those rare instances.

Growing up in Albert Lea, Minnesota, back in the early 1960s, one of my closest friends was Jeff Schmahl. We were the same age and lived about a block apart. My dad was a high school coach. His dad was the sports editor for the local newspaper. Our families became close friends.

Jeff SchmahlAnd we both loved pretty much any sport that involved throwing, hitting or kicking a ball of some type.

After second grade, Jeff’s family moved to Grand Island, Nebraska. Five years later, my family moved to Webster City, Iowa. But despite the distances involved, our families remained friends.

When we moved to Iowa and I had a little trouble adjusting to the new environment, I went to Grand Island to spend a week or so with Jeff and his family. It was then that it became clear to me that Jeff had a serious case of Cornhusker-itis. I wasn’t much into college sports at the time, but that didn’t stop Jeff from talking about the Nebraska Cornhuskers – a lot. We weren’t even in high school yet, but he made no secret of the fact that he was going to become a Cornhusker.

He made good on his goal of attending Nebraska and he played tennis for the Huskers. Eventually, he did broadcast work on Lincoln television involving Husker sports and later became a vital part of the Nebraska athletic department (introducing HuskerVision to Big Red football fans, for example) and, later yet, joined the Texas A&M athletic department.

I know all of this, not because he and I stayed in touch (we really didn’t), but because our mothers have managed to remain in close contact with one another throughout all of these decades. I would get regular updates on how Jeff was doing from my mother, who got her information from Jeff’s mom via their monthly phone calls.

Unfortunately, this is also the way I found out, about a year ago, that Jeff had been battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

It’s also the way I found out this week that Jeff lost that battle a month ago.

When my mom originally told me of Jeff’s diagnosis, she also mentioned that he had started a blog called, The Last TrainNaturally, my curiosity and my memories of our childhood friendship led me to check it out.

In the Introduction section, Jeff explained why he was starting the blog.

My hope is what I share will encourage you and give you some insight as to what it’s like to be on The Last Train.  Perhaps my words will also provide you courage when it’s time for you to board The Last Train, because it is one trip we are all guaranteed to take.

But more than that, I hope my words encourage you to make the most of the train ride you are on right now.  That’s really what is important to make the most of your life right now and to have a positive impact on the people in your life right now.

That’s really just part of the Introduction, so I certainly encourage you to read the entire thing. In fact, I encourage you to read all of his entries at some point. It’s powerful stuff.

In addition, as part of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on cancer, Nebraska Educational Television featured several local stories entitled “Living with Cancer in Nebraska.”  The Schmahls were one of the families that were featured. I’ve embedded it below. It’s only about seven minutes long and since you’ve read this far, you should definitely take the time to watch it

Jeff obviously touched a lot of peoples’ lives in his roughly-59 years on this earth. I’m told that more than a couple hundred of them gathered last Saturday in the Club section of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln to celebrate his life.

His was clearly a life well lived.

After hearing about Jeff’s condition, I made an effort to write to him – several times. I just couldn’t get the job done and now, naturally, I feel bad about that.

I returned to read his blog periodically, but honestly, doing so brought back so many reminders of having witnessed my father’s ultimately unsuccessful fight against cancer years earlier, that even trying to craft a letter to him became emotionally overwhelming for me.

Fortunately, it is clear that Jeff had no shortage of people in his life who had far more intestinal fortitude than I do in this area and they made sure he knew how important he had been to them.

I wanted Jeff to know I’ve never forgotten the days we spent playing Cadaco’s All-Star Baseball in his basement or the time we spent pretending we were big leaguers ourselves as we pitched to one another in our backyards. He had an odd affinity for then-Twins pitcher Lee Stange, for some reason I have never quite understood – but I can still hear him say that name with great enthusiasm in my mind today.

I would have liked him to know I still remember the two of us going up and down the street handing out free “tickets” for our neighbors to come watch the two of us go one-on-one in hoops in his driveway and setting up all manner of chairs for the inevitable crowd to sit in while we battled. I don’t recall much of anyone showing up, but I do remember he beat me. But then, that was hardly unusual.

Most of all, I would have wanted him to know that I will carry these memories, and more, until, inevitably, I board my own Last Train.

Even more, thanks to his gift in the form of his writing, I’ll have much more than boyhood memories to accompany me through to that final stop. I’ll have his faith, his humor, his courage and his wisdom to support me on that journey, as well.

But the most important take-away, for me, from his efforts over the past year is how important it is that we all focus on what’s really important in our lives right now, while we are still hopefully well short of the time we’ll need to board our own respective Last Trains.

In one of the last blog entries before his death, Jeff’s son, Zach, included a quote from minimalist author Colin Wright.

“You have exactly one life in which to do everything you’ll ever do. Act accordingly.”

I. for one, intend to try to do exactly that.

A couple of weeks ago, my employer for the past 38-ish years informed me that my position was being eliminated. It’s not the way one would typically choose to end one’s employment, but it’s not a terrible thing, either, to be honest. The separation package is sufficient enough that, if I choose to do so, I’ll be able to bridge my way to the point where I can begin tapping my retirement accounts..

I’m still sorting out in my mind exactly what form I want this next phase of my life to take, but at least I have some options and some time to avoid having to rush into anything.

I am clear about one thing, however. I’m going to remember that I only have one life in which to do everything I’ll ever do and I’m going to act accordingly.

Thank you, Jeff, for your friendship so many years ago and for sharing your gift of courage and wisdom with me and so many others during the journey on your Last Train.

Farewell and rest in peace, my old friend.

– Steve Buhr