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

In each of the past several seasons, the Cedar Rapids Kernels have held an “Autism Awareness Night” at the Veterans Memorial Stadium, with the Kernels wearing special jerseys that are auctioned off to benefit The East Central Iowa Autism Society. The Society’s web site reports that the rate of autism is currently 1 in 88. However, as the site goes on to point out, “To most Americans, 1 in 88 is a number. To the families of a child with autism, our 1 in 88 has a face and a name.” For one Kernels player, that face is his younger brother’s and that name is Max. Cedar Rapids outfielder Zack Larson doesn’t need to wear a special jersey to remain aware of autism. In the unlikely event that Larson would require such a reminder, he needs only to look at his own right arm and the tattoo there consisting of the puzzle piece logo, widely used to promote autism awareness, along with his brother’s name.

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

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

Larson’s a native of the Bradenton, Florida, area, but moved to Virginia with his family when he was just five years old. “I lived there for four years,” Larson recalled in a recent interview,” “then, my little brother was born in Virginia and was diagnosed with autism. So we moved back down to Florida where we found a school for him to go to. That’s where we’ve been since.” Max and the rest of Larson’s family follow Zack and the Kernels as closely as possible from Florida. “They bought that (MiLB.tv) package so they watch the games on TV that are there to watch and they listen to every game with Morgan (Kernels radio broadcaster Morgan Hawk). My mom came (to Cedar Rapids) in May, so it was good to see her.” If, as you’d expect, Max looks up to his big brother the ballplayer, it’s equally apparent that Zack admires Max, as well.

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

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

“He has pretty severe autism,” Larson explained. “He doesn’t talk very well but he knows words. He’s really brilliant on the computer. He knows how to work every electronic thing you can think of. My dad won’t know how to turn on something and Max will go in there and turn it on right away. My dad’s like, ‘what the heck?’ He’s a genius when it comes to electronics and computers and stuff. “Not many people totally understand what it’s all about. It was eye-opening for me when I first started to understand what my brother was diagnosed with. I was still young. It made me a better person, it made my family better people and it’s a blessing to have my brother.” Larson was signed out of high school in 2012 after being drafted by the Twins in the 20th round. Like virtually all high school players that are drafted, he had to choose between starting his professional career immediately or going to college first and trying to improve his future draft status. It really wasn’t a difficult decision for Larson, however. “I signed with a junior college, but ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a professional baseball player and the Twins gave me the opportunity,” Larson recalled. “I didn’t want to pass on it. I could have gone to college and got hurt and could have never gotten another chance to play professional baseball.” Larson said he did discuss options with his family, but, in the end, “it was always my childhood dream to play pro ball, so I did it.” Had Larson gone to a four year college instead, he’d have been a draftable junior in this year’s draft. That’s not something he gives any thought to, however. “I don’t play any ‘what if’ games. I just did what I wanted to do.  I just followed my dream and I haven’t looked back since.” Is he happy with how that dream has turned out, so far? “Yeah, absolutely. It’s awesome.”

Zack Larson

Zack Larson

Larson played 41 games with the Kernels a year ago, but missed much of the season with a hamstring injury. The result of missing so much time with an injury was being assigned, again, to Cedar Rapids this spring as he works to resume his rise up the Twins’ organizational ladder. “My goal was just to have good quality at-bats, not to give any at-bats away,” Larson said, of his plans for 2015. “Just get on base however I can. I never really set any number goals or any of that. I wanted to get to the playoffs the first half and we did.” Larson got off to a slow start in April, hitting just .211 for the month, but he and Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins have been working together and that work is starting to show results. “I’m working with Tommy just on staying through the ball, working down to the ball instead of lifting the ball,” Larson explained. “I’ve been getting under it and lifting it. I’ve just been working with Tommy every day in the cage and starting to improve.” Larson has been particularly effective at driving in runs for the Kernels, hitting .347 with runners in scoring position and leading his team with 39 Runs Batted In headed in to the July 4 weekend. Watkins said he likes what he’s seeing from his pupil. “He’s got a pretty good swing,” Watkins observed. “We’re just working with him on using the whole field, trying to drive some balls to the gap. Right now, just trying to get him to stay on top of the ball and use the middle to the opposite way. To pull the ball, let that happen on its own. “He’s a student of the game and he’s a guy that I look to lead our club, being here last year. He’s more of a quiet guy and he’ll lead more by example than anything, but I look for him to be a leader on this team. Great guy with runners in scoring position. He hunts out those RBIs and that’s a good thing.” Larson and his teammates put together a 41-29 record in the first half of their Midwest League season, good enough to lock up a playoff spot by finishing second in the Western Division, but they know they have more work to do. “We had a pretty good first half, but we think we can do better,” Larson said. “We had a meeting with Jake (manager Jake Mauer) and he said that if we had averaged four runs per game, we could have won 50 games in the first half. So, we were like, ‘what the heck, we can score four runs.’ “We don’t want to take the second half lightly, we want to show the teams that we’re playing some ball and we’re ready for the playoffs, that we can push it all the way into the playoffs and make a run.”

Randy LeBlanc: From Big Easy to Cedar Rapids

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

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

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

After a pause though, he adds the kicker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Randy LeBlanc

Randy LeBlanc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– JC

Five Kernels at the MWL All-Star Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PeoriaDozerPark

 

Doe’s Doing It Well for the Kernels

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

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

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

Brett Doe and hitting coach Tommy Watkins

Brett Doe and hitting coach Tommy Watkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brett Doe

Brett Doe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Randy LeBlanc (15) and Brett Doe (23)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– JC

Kernels Youth Baseball Camp is a Hit

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

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

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

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

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

Blake Schmit and Randy LeBlanc teaching campers proper fielding position

Blake Schmit and Randy LeBlanc teaching campers proper fielding position

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

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

Zach Tillery with instructions for campers on proper grip and form

Zach Tillery with instructions for campers on proper grip and form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TJ White and Trevor Hildenberger working with a group of outfielders

TJ White and Trevor Hildenberger working with a group of outfielders

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

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

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

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

The Youth Camp has long been a popular program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kernels players signing autographs after the camp wrapped up

Kernels players signing autographs after the camp wrapped up

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

 

 

Kernels Passing Their Mid-terms

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

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

Kernels manager Jake Mauer

Kernels manager Jake Mauer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Gordon

Nick Gordon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Batts

Mat Batts

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

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

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

Trey Vavra

Trey Vavra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– JC

Michael Cederoth Embracing Change

A year ago, Cedar Rapids Kernels starting pitcher Michael Cederoth was neither a Minnesota Twins prospect, nor was he a starting pitcher. But times change.

Cederoth was wrapping up his college career at San Diego State in May of 2014, looking forward to entering the June amateur player draft and getting his professional career started. The 6’ 6” tall pitcher spent his junior season as the team’s closer and his 20 saves tied the Aztecs’ school record.

A year later, he’s a starting pitcher in the Kernels’ rotation with a 1-2 record, a 3,75 ERA and 24 strikeouts in the same number of innings pitched over five starts. On Saturday, he threw six innings, giving up just two runs, in the Kernels’ 5-2 win over Beloit in the first game of their doubleheader sweep over the Beloit Snappers.

Michael Cederoth

Michael Cederoth

Cederoth was the Twins’ 2014 third round draft pick last June and soon after found himself in the starting rotation for the Twins’ rookie-level team in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

At San Diego State, Cederoth pitched for the late Tony Gwynn, who lost his battle with cancer last year. His face lights up when asked about playing for the Hall of Famer.

“Wow. I mean, imagine playing for any HOF baseball player. It’s something that every kid wants to be when they grow up and to have that as a coach at the college level is a great opportunity. I was blessed with the fact that he gave me the opportunity to play underneath him and I’ll never forget all the memories I got with him and playing underneath him.”

What can a pitcher learn from a guy who made his fame and fortune swinging a bat, rather than throwing the ball? Plenty, according to Cederoth.

“We definitely picked his brain. You’ve got one of the best hitters in baseball ever to play the game. Of course you’re going to want to know what’s in the hitter’s mind, so it really helps having that as a pitcher. Because we know what we’re doing out there – we want to know what (hitters) are thinking and he’s the best guy to ask.”

Cederoth had a reputation with scouts as being a hard-thrower (occasionally hitting 100 mph on the radar gun) who could be a fast riser with the right organization. One national prospects writer even projected him to have the potential to reach the big leagues as a bullpen arm by the end of 2015.

Instead, Cederoth is spending 2015 in the class A Midwest League with the Kernels as the Twins attempt to make a starting pitcher out of him.

And that’s just fine with Cederoth.

“He wants to do it,” Kernels pitching coach Henry Bonilla said, of Cederoth. “He definitely wants to be a starter. I think he enjoys the nuances that go with it. He has to prepare every day for that one day that he gets his day (to pitch).”

When you ask Cederoth, he makes it clear he’s dedicated to whatever role the Twins see as the best fit for him within the organization.

“Growing up, I’ve always been however I’m needed, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.

“If they want me to be a starter, then I’m going to do my best to be a starter. If tomorrow they tell me they want me to be relief, then I’m going to do my best to be a reliever,” he added. “They’re giving me this opportunity so I’m going to show them, ‘OK, If you want me to be a starter, I’m going to try my best to be the best starter I can be.’”

It’s not like the starting pitcher role is totally foreign to Cederoth, after all.

Cederoth was a successful starting pitcher his first two years at San Diego State and converted to the bullpen for his final year on the Aztecs’ staff.

The Twins have made a practice, in recent years, of drafting strong-armed college relievers and giving them experience in a starting rotation, at least at the lower minor league levels.

Bonilla admitted that helping a pitcher make that transition isn’t always easy.

“It’s a problem if the kid doesn’t want to do it,” he said. “It’s a little harder when you try to make a guy a starter and he wants to be a 1-2 innings blowout kind of guy.”

Bonilla also provided some insight in to the organization’s thinking when they consider whether to try to turn a successful college reliever in to a professional starter.

“A lot of times you’ll see a guy and you’ll go, ‘ok, at worst, he’s going to be a reliever. Let’s see what we’ve got.’”

Bonilla thinks Cederoth definitely has the potential to make it as a starter because he not only has the high-velocity fastball in his arsenal, but is developing other quality pitches, as well.

“He’s got a mix (of pitches) to him. He can spin the ball. He’s got both the curveball and slider and with that velo, can he maintain it?”

And if, later, it turns out Cederoth returns to the bullpen, the effort has not been in vain, according to the pitching coach.

Michael Cederoth

Michael Cederoth

“The good thing about it, as a reliever he’ll get 1-2 innings of experience at a time. Here he’s getting 6 innings, 7 innings, 100 pitches at a time. It gets him out of his element. A lot of these guys, they’re comfortable doing one thing. When they’re uncomfortable, you see their true colors. So you’ll see him starting something new and he really has to adjust, you can see his mental capacity and what he really is.

“He (Cederoth) is doing a really good job of transferring to the starting position. It’s hard.”

For his part, Cederoth isn’t interested in even discussing any potential Plan B the organization might have.

“I really didn’t think about that,” he said. “I can’t think about that. They didn’t tell me that. Honestly, they told me they want me to be a starter and I’m really trying to be the best starter I can be. I’ve been working a lot and trying to hone my mechanics and my delivery.”

Having served in both roles in college, Cederoth is more prepared to make the switch than other college relievers who have seldom started a game above the high school level. He comes in to the process already aware of adjustments he has needed to make.

“A lot of it is routine, that’s really the similarity,” he explained. “But the difference is, what are the routines? So that is really what I had to transition with. I knew how to do a routine, I knew how to get in to a routine, but now it’s the routine as a starter.

“As a reliever, every day could be your day. So every day is kind of the same thing. As a starter, you have a routine. Every day is different, but it’s the same thing every week. The game you’re starting you throw 6 innings. The next day, what’s that day? And then the following day after that?

“As a reliever, you might have to pitch that day so you do everything you can to get ready to pitch that day. Did you pitch that day? Well you have to do the same thing the next day. If you pitched that day, well, you might have to pitch the next day. So, it’s the same thing every day. That’s really the physical part.”

There are differences in the mental approach, as well, according to Cederoth.

“As a reliever, your job is to come in there and get three, six, maybe nine outs. At most nine outs, hopefully. Because you want to throw the next day,” he explained.

“As a starter, you want to flip the lineup at least twice. It’s really a chess game. You’ve really got to plan out how you’re going to pitch. What did you give the guy his first at bat? What did he show you when you threw this pitch? You’ve got to keep that in the back of your head.

“It’s not just a bulldog mentality of go after him bang – bang – bang. You have to plan out what kind of game you’re going to go in to and what kind of hitters they have, unless you’re just gifted with the fact that you can just do the same thing over and over again and get guys out. If you’re on your game, then great, then you can do that. When you’re not always on your ‘A’ game, you’ve got to deal with what the day gives you.”

Tall pitchers, like Cederoth, often are challenged to develop consistent, repeatable deliveries and that’s something he’s working on with Bonilla this season. He’s also working to improve his secondary pitches.

“Curveball and change up right now. My curveball has come a long way,” Cederoth said, of the pitches he’s specifically working to integrate in to his game plans. “You’re facing guys twice. You go fastball – slider to one guy. Maybe the next time you face him, you throw a curveball at him. Completely change their whole game plan.”

Striking out batters has never been an issue for Cederoth and through five starts for the Kernels, he has averaged more than a strike out per inning. Ultimately, however, the ability to develop several effective pitches will likely determine whether Cederoth – or any starting pitcher – will have success in a big league rotation. He’s well aware of that.

Michael Cederoth

Michael Cederoth

“There’s some guys that can survive on just three pitches,” he said, adding, “I believe that I can get four good pitches. My change up is something that I’m really trying to get. If I can get that down, I can have more success getting early outs and dropping my pitch count. That’s been my problem, the pitch count. So getting that quick out, just getting a guy to roll over, is something I’m really trying to work on. Right now, it’s not totally ready, but it will be soon.”

Cederoth is also working on his mechanics with his pitching coach and he’s clearly pleased to be getting another opportunity to work with Bonilla, who had the same role for the Twins’ rookie level team at Elizabethton a year ago.

“Don’t get me wrong, I had amazing pitching coaches in college, but when I came to Elizabethton last year, I worked with Henry Bonilla. We had a great relationship in rookie ball.

“My problem has always been my balance in my drive leg. There’s so much going on in my wind up that it’s not always consistent. My body is leaning a different way every time instead of always going toward home. I’ve always had to try to adjust in mid pitch and that’s why I’ve been so inconsistent. So what we’ve focused on (is) the plant leg getting right and make sure everything is going towards home.

“So, yes, mechanically, I’m becoming a little more sound and I’m happy about it.”

– JC

Now Leading Off for the Kernels: Tanner English

You might not guess it just to look at him, as he patrols centerfield for the Cedar Rapids Kernels, but there’s a good chance that Tanner English is among the most athletic ballplayers on the roster.

Tanner English

Tanner English

Sure, he measures just 5’ 10” tall and is listed at just 160 pounds, but don’t let his size fool you. English has athletic skills.

For example, how many of his team mates do you think could do a standing back-flip in the middle of the field?

More to the point, how many do you think have actually DONE a standing back-flip in the middle of the field?

Now that he’s trying to earn a living playing ball, you might not see English repeating the feat, but, as this video proves, he has certainly demonstrated he’s capable of it.

Yes, you may have noticed that the back-flip wasn’t the only oddity in that video, from his time with the Harwich Mariners of the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2013. English also was the pitcher who recorded the final out of that game.

Neither pitching nor back-flips have been part of the 22-year-old’s repertoire since he signed with the Twins after being drafted in the 11th round last summer following a three year career at the University of South Carolina.

“No, the team we were playing that night in the Cape, that was their last game and we were going in to the playoffs,” English explained, while laughing. “Our bullpen was kind of spent and we had about a two-hour rain delay that night, so our coach was looking for people who could pitch. Me and another outfielder said, ‘hey, sign us up. We’ll do it.’ I just got up there for fun and threw some strikes.”

And the back-flip?

Again, the laugh, before the explanation from English.

“We were kind of messing around the whole game, playing rain-delay games and stuff. Then a whole bunch of the guys on the team bet me I wouldn’t do it (the back-flip). So I showed them that I would. I proved them wrong.”

English isn’t looking to make a name for himself as a pitcher – or a gymnast – at this point. Instead, he’s continuing to build his reputation on being a reliable center fielder who gets on base regularly and knows how to move along the basepaths once he does.

Tanner English (2) with a successful stolen base

Tanner English (2) with a successful stolen base

In fact, English is tied for the most stolen bases for the Kernels this season with seven swiped bases. He’s likely to pull in to the lead, too, since the player he’s tied with is Zach Granite, who was promoted to class high-A Fort Myers last week.

As for his skills in the field, English’s outfield defense has already landed him on ESPN’s “Top 10 Plays of the Day,” for the diving catch captured in this video:

“That was probably my number one goal, going to college,” he recalled. “’Man, I just want to get on ESPN’s Top 10 one time.’ I had a couple of opportunities to do that, so that was pretty cool.”

For some young players, playing in front of a few thousand people on a night that Cedar Rapids’ Veterans Memorial Stadium is packed is a new experience, but that’s nothing unusual for English.

South Carolina’s baseball program has been a big-time Division I program for years and English got to experience the thrill of playing in the finals of the 2012 College World Series with the Gamecocks as a freshman.

“That was probably one of the coolest experiences of my life,” English recalled, despite the fact that his club lost to Arizona in the finals. “Shoot, 30,000-plus fans at the game, everyone was going nuts. I know that every kid that plays college baseball, that’s their dream is to get there and I’m one of the rare few that can say that got to play there and play for a championship.”

With the promotion Granite to Fort Myers, English is likely to be the primary leadoff hitter for the Kernels. It’s a role he feels he’s ready for.

“I’ll hit wherever they want me to hit,” English said. But he’s aware his role is changing following Granite’s promotion and he’s working with Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins to be prepared to be the club’s table-setter at the top of the lineup.

“Really just trying to shorten things up, because I have a tendency to get a little bit long and try to hit the ball a lot further than I should, obviously, now as the leadoff hitter. That’s one of the big things I’ve been working on with Tommy and Jake (Mauer).”

Tanner English

Tanner English

Watkins believes English can handle the spot at the top of the Kernels’ batting order.

“Yeah, I think so. I’m a big fan of his. He’s got tools,” Watkins said, of English, over the weekend. “We’re trying to get him to trust himself – believe in his abilities. He can play baseball.”

“I think  there is a difference when you lead off,” Watkins added, “but just talking to Tanner about slowing things down a little bit and not using his body as much. He’s been doing a good job with that. Hopefully, he just keeps getting better – keep progressing on cutting the body down and using his hands a lot more.”

English acknowledged that he and his fellow position players are going to need to step up their games if the Kernels are going to be successful. Early in the season, the club’s pitching has largely been carrying the bulk of the load on the field, while the offense has been sporadic.

English is confident the hitting will come around.

“We probably need to stop missing our pitch, as a team. We have great hitters on the team, but I don’t think we’re hitting to our fullest potential right now. We just need to get to a point where everyone’s in that groove and feeling comfortable and getting to where we can barrel everything up.

“I know that baseball is hard, but just kind of do a better job in certain situations.”

If he and the Kernels can do that, the Kernels’ chances of competing for a third straight Midwest League Championship will improve significantly, but don’t expect to see English doing any celebratory back-flips on the field.

Then again, don’t bet him that he won’t do it.

– JC

Kernels Pitching is Hot Out of the Gate

It may not be what casual baseball fans want to see, but in most cases and at most levels of professional baseball, the teams with the best pitching win the most games. Sometimes, it really is that simple.

(L-R) Zack Larson, Stephen Gonsalves, Zach Granite and CK Irby sign autographs on the field after a Kernels game on April 26

(L-R) Zack Larson, Stephen Gonsalves, Zach Granite and CK Irby sign autographs on the field after a Kernels game on April 26

It arguably has been exactly that simple for the Cedar Rapids Kernels over the course of the first three weeks of their season.

The Kernels are 11-7 on the year and sitting in a second place tie behind the Quad Cities River Bandits in the Midwest League’s Western Division standings. They open their first series with the Bandits on Tuesday in Davenport.

Cedar Rapids’ offense has been, at best, a bit streaky. They sit at or near the middle of the MWL pack in most hitting categories, though they have managed to score the fourth-most runs in the league.

But, through the weekend’s games, Kernels pitchers lead the MWL in team ERA (2.27), strikeouts (187) and WHIP (1.09).

When you see team numbers like those, obviously it’s not just one or two guys carrying the load.

The Kernels are consistently getting quality work out of their starting rotation and their bullpen has been locking things down in the late innings.

Manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Henry Bonilla have primarily used six pitchers in their rotation, so far. Stephen Gonsalves, Mat Batts, Felix Jorge, Michael Cederoth, John Curtiss and Jared Wilson have accounted for all but two of Cedar Rapids’ starts this year.

Zack Tillery has one spot start and Twins pitcher Ricky Nolasco started Sunday’s game on a rehabilitation assignment.

Michael Theofanopoulos

Michael Theofanopoulos

Gonsalves, Batts and Jorge each have ERAs at 1.50 or better, with Gonsalves leading the team at 0.90.

The success of Gonsalves and Batts is impressive, but not entirely unexpected. The two pitchers combined to make 13 starts for the Kernels last season and both were being counted on from the season’s onset to make strong contributions again in 2015.

Jorge’s success was far from a sure thing, however, at least in the minds of fans who only saw his work on the mound for Cedar Rapids early last year. In 2014, he put up a 2-5 record in 12 appearances (including eight starts) and amassed a 9.00 ERA before being sent back to Extended Spring Training by the Twins.

Jorge turned his year around with a solid season at rookie-level Elizabethton, but nobody was quite certain what to expect from the 21-year-old righthander during his second shot in the Midwest League.

“This was the Jorge we thought we were getting last year,” Mauer said recently. “It’s a lot of things. Here it was freezing cold, he probably didn’t get comfortable right away.

“He’s got a different look to him (this year). He’s way more confident. He’s worked really hard with Henry as far as his timing, when his hands break. he seems to be way more in rhythm than he was last year. If you can be way more in rhythm, you’re going to throw a lot more strikes.”

Bonilla, who was also Jorge’s pitching coach in Elizabethton last year, is happy to see the improved version of the pitcher this season.

“It’s good to see him get some good games under him early, especially with the cold,” Bonilla said over the weekend, of Jorge. “I think the cold kind of had him a little bit last year. But he’s kind of taken responsibility for that and he’s gone forward.

“Ultimately, at the end of the year, you can hopefully start seeing his (velocity) get back to where it was when he was a young kid and his delivery get down in the zone a little bit. His breaking balls are coming along pretty good.”

Bonilla thinks Jorge was primarily throwing an 88-89 mph fastball a year ago, which is not what the Twins were expecting when they gave the then-17-year-old Domincan a $250,000 signing bonus in early 2011.

“That’s not really what he is. I think he’s kind of getting back to it. We’re doing some stuff mechanically. Hopefully, by the end of the season, we’re talking more plan and location, instead of delivery, with him.”

Of course, the downside for Kernels fans to having pitchers get off to hot starts is that the fans may not get many more opportunities to watch those players in Cedar Rapids. They are all just a phone call away from a promotion to the class high-A Fort Myers Miracle.

Batts, at 23 years old, might be a guy the Twins want to push up a level as soon as he appears ready and, between the end of last season and his start to the current campaign, the Twins could be getting close to wanting to see what he can do against more mature hitters.

It may be likely that the parent club would want to see Jorge demonstrate more extended success in the Midwest League, given his false start at this level a year ago.

Gonsalves doesn’t turn 21 until July, but his manager feels the Twins’ fourth round pick in 2013 has already shown just about enough to move up a level.

“He’s getting close,” Mauer said recently, when asked if he thought Gonsalves might be ready for a promotion. “I’d like to see a little more shape on his breaking ball, but he’s dominated the teams that he’s thrown against. If he gets a breaking ball, he’s going to be really dangerous. Really, really dangerous.”

Gonsalves’ velocity on his fastball has ticked upward this season but his manager doesn’t think he’s topped out yet.

“I think it’s going to even get better. As he keeps maturing, I think he’s going to be a 94-95 (mph) guy. I really do. When he gets his ‘man-muscles,’ as they say. I think he’s really going to bring it.

“He’s thrown some better this year. Some breaking balls have had some shape, compared to last year. He gets bigger and stronger, that ball will have even more shape. He’s got a good change up. But I think he’s going to run it up there pretty good.”

The bullpen could be ripe for plucking by the Miracle, as well, if the need arises.

It’s a bullpen that even their manager had expressed some nervousness about at the onset of the season.

“We didn’t know who was going to step up,” Mauer recalled over the weekend, ”and they’ve been outstanding. Really, really good.”

The nine pitchers who have made relief appearances for the Kernels have put up a combined 1.92 ERA out of the pen.

Relievers Cameron Booser (1.13), Trevor Hildenberger (1.00) and Michael Theofanopoulos (1.74) are each sporting sub-2.00 ERAs for the Kernels.

Zack Tillery

Zack Tillery

This crew has brought some heat in April.

The only full-time reliever who hasn’t averaged a strikeout per inning is newcomer Miles Nordgren, who has made just two appearances since joining the Kernels as the replacement for Curtiss, who went on the disabled list with a concussion. And, while Nordgren hasn’t been a strikeout machine in those two appearances, he also hasn’t given up a run.

In that regard, he joins Tillery and Wilson, neither of which have surrendered an earned run in their relief appearances.

Bonilla is glad to see his staff get off to a good start, before the hitters start to catch up to them.

“They’re taking advantage of the cold and that’s a good thing,” the pitching coach explained, “because once it gets warm, the bats get hot, too. Those guys want to swing the lumber. It’s good numbers-wise. It’s a confidence boost a little bit.”

But Bonilla believes the hot start for his pitching corps is important for reasons that go beyond the obvious results on the field. He believes that early success also aids individual development.

“There’s some things each guy is working on – his own individual plan and the goals we have for him,” he explained. “It’s good to get off to a fast start because it builds confidence in the season and they’re more open to do things that maybe they werent – that they’re reluctant to do when they’re struggling.

“When you’re struggling, you want to get back to what you’re comfortable with. So we can maybe add a few things like maybe sink the ball a little bit more to certain guys – working on breaking balls. They’re a lot more open, when you’re having success, to do things. When you’re struggling, you’re just grinding away.”

If the Kernels can keep most of this pitching staff intact and the bats in the lineup can heat up as the weather warms up, Cedar Rapids could be a serious Midwest League contender in 2015.

– JC

What a Terrific Start!

It’s pretty hard to imagine this baseball season getting off to a better start, isn’t it? I mean, even the most optimistic of us probably wouldn’t have predicted a .789 winning percentage through the first week of games! This looks like it could be a fun summer of baseball!

What’s that? You say the Twins are languishing with a 1-6 record? Who cares? I’m talking about their full-season minor league affiliates! That’s where the action (and literally ALL of the fun) is!

The AAA Rochester Red Wings are 3-1.

The newest Twins affiliate, the AA-level Chattanooga Lookouts (with arguably one of the most loaded rosters in all of minor league baseball) are sitting at 4-1.

The Class A Advanced Fort Myers Miracle are 3-2 (pending the outcome of their Tuesday game – what’s up with these morning start times, anyway?).

And last, but certainly not least, the Class A Cedar Rapids Kernels are still on pace to be a perfect 140-0 at the end of the year after winning their first five games of the season.

That means that the four minor league affiliates, combined, are 15-4 through Monday night and have lost two fewer games than the Twins have managed to drop all by themselves.

Does this represent the Twins' pitching woes or their farm clubs' hitting prowess? Take your pick.

Does this represent the Twins’ pitching woes or their farm clubs’ hitting prowess? Take your pick.

Of course, it’s early. You don’t want to read too much in to the small sample size of a week’s worth of games. After all, will even the Twins continue losing at their current pace to finish the year with a 27-135 record? Of course they won’t. Well – probably not, anyway.

But while those of you who insist on following only the big leaguers continue to wonder why you’re paying big league prices to watch what even Torii Hunter has admitted to essentially being “Bad News Bears” baseball, here’s a small sample of what you’ve been missing on the farm:

  • The Red Wings have three guys, all deemed by Twins management to be unworthy of a spot with the Twins, with an OPS over 1.000. Two of them, Danny Ortiz and Aaron Hicks, would likely improve the Twins’ outfield defense if they weren’t wearing Rochester uniforms. The third, Josmil Pinto, probably deserves an entire post dedicated to discussing why he should or shouldn’t be in Minnesota.
  • The consensus top two Twins prospects, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, both are in the Lookouts’ everyday lineup, so it’s not surprising that Chattanooga also has three guys with above-1.000 OPS numbers. Then again, none of those three guys are named Buxton or Sano. Stephen Wickens, DJ Hicks and Travis Harrison are bringing the lumber, so far, for the Lookouts. They aren’t the only productive hitters, however. That lineup is stacked, as expected. Their TEAM OPS is .829. Oh, and their pitchers are striking out almost 1.3 batters per inning, too.
  • Niko Goodrum is a .400 hitter, going in to Tuesday’s game, for the Miracle, who also had two starting pitchers, Aaron Slegers and Ryan Eades, who each tossed six shutout innings in their initial starts of the season.
  • No less than five Kernels hitters have put up 1.000+ OPS numbers through the first five games. As a TEAM, the Kernels have put up a .316/.380/.471 (.851 OPS) slash line. That Midwest League-leading team batting average is a full 47 points over the next highest team in the league. Not to be outdone, the pitching staff has put up a 1.80 ERA, so far, and have struck out 57 batters in a combined 45 innings of work.

Conversely, the Twins have put up a team OPS of .530 on the season, which is the worst in Major League Baseball. Their team ERA is 6.52, which is also dead last among the 30 big league teams. Not coincidentally, their 35 staff strikeouts is also good for dead last.

All of this might be more understandable if the Twins had made clear that, for the good of the franchise, they were going to punt on 2015 – that the plan would be to plug journeymen “replacement level” players in to fill every perceived gap in their big league roster, in order to give their much-heralded minor league prospects more time to become adequately seasoned on the farm.

But that’s not what they did. Every public comment from everyone in the organization from the end of 2014’s fourth consecutive 90+ loss season through the final days of spring training expressed the company line that they were expecting significant improvement this season.

That’s not really surprising. Twins fans generally hear that refrain every offseason.

The truth is that the Twins have been hoping that fans would be patient, because there really is a ton of young talent approaching the Major League team’s doorstep. From the sounds coming from Target Field on Monday, it seems that ‘patient’ is not exactly what much of the fan base is feeling.

I don’t think it had to be this way.

Back in early October, I wrote that I thought it was time for the Twins to adjust their model, when it comes to promoting their prospects. I suggested that, despite both guys losing virtually their entire seasons a year ago to injury, the Twins should consider simply promoting Buxton and Sano and letting them learn their craft on the big stage.

I argued that, yes they would struggle, but they’re likely to struggle a while whenever they are finally promoted and both young men have demonstrated that they learn, adapt and, ultimately, dominate, very quickly as each new challenge is presented.

I also argued for either signing one of the top free agent starting pitchers or simply getting Alex Meyer and Trevor May in to the rotation from the start and setting up Jose Berrios for a debut not too deep in to the season.

I didn’t discuss the bullpen, at the time, but if I’d known what the Opening Day bullpen was going to look like, I’d have argued pretty forcefully for an immediate youth movement there, too.

Instead, the Twins have assembled a cast at the big league level that deflated and discouraged its fan base (warm welcome-home ovation for Torii Hunter, notwithstanding) virtually before the Home Opener was finished.

The future does look bright. There is an embarrassment of riches in terms of baseball talent in the Twins organization.

Unfortunately, the Twins have decided that you won’t see a lot of it at Target Field for a while.

That’s bad news for fans in Minnesota, but Twins fans in New York, Florida, Tennessee and Iowa look to be in for a lot of fun this summer.

– JC