The Cedar Rapids Kernels and their Major League affiliate, the Minnesota Twins, have announced the club’s Opening Day roster and there are a healthy number of players that should be familiar to Kernels fans as 16 of the 25 members spent time with the Kernels at some point during the 2015 season.
The Kernels will open with a 13-man pitching staff and, as has generally been the case since the Twins/Kernels affiliation began in 2013, they appear poised to utilize a 6-man starting pitching rotation.
Indications are that the rotation will include returning arms Michael Cederoth, Sam Clay, Sam Gibbons, Randy LeBlanc and Dereck Rodriguez, along with newcomer Andro Cutura.
The bullpen will have Nick Anderson, John Curtiss, CK Irby, Michael Theofanopolous and Zack Tillery returning to Cedar Rapids, while Kuo Hua Lo and Logan Lombana will be getting their first looks at the Midwest League.
Rafael Valera saw time in the Kernels’ infield a year ago and, since the end of last season has been learning a new position. He will be one of three catchers to open the season in Cedar Rapids and will be joined by new Kernels receivers Bryant Hayman and AJ Murray.
Like Valera, Jorge Fernandez returns to the Kernels to learn an new position. After primarily catching during his time with Cedar Rapids, Fernandez now will be manning an outfield spot. Max Murphy and LaMonte Wade will also be returning to the Kernels outfield and Chris Cavaness will be the lone newbie in Manager Jake Mauer’s outfield.
Infielders Sean Miller and Chris Paul saw time with the Kernels last season and will return in 2016, being joined in the infield by Zander Wiel, Luis Arraez and Jermaine Palacios.
Mauer will be returning for his fourth season at the Kernels’ helm. Mauer has had a different pitching coach in each of his seasons leading Cedar Rapids and that trend continues in 2016. JP Martinez will be the fourth Kernels pitching coach in as many years. Brian Dinkelman will serve his first year under Mauer as the Kernels’ hitting coach.
The Kernels are schedule to arrive in Cedar Rapids shortly after 6:00 pm Monday evening and the club is encouraging fans to join a welcome rally in the Veterans Memorial Stadium parking lot at 6:30.
The annual “Meet the Kernels” event for fans will be held on Tuesday evening, beginning at 5:15 pm. Fans will be able to meet and chat with players and staff on the concourse. At 7:00, Mauer will formally introduce the players fans after which the team will go through their first workout on Perfect Game Field, weather permitting.
The Kernels will open their 2016 season on Thursday, hosting the Quad Cities River Bandits.
For some time, now, I have been trying to find ways to spend my “retirement” years involved with professional baseball. I’ve finally found the answer and decided that April 1 was the perfect time to release the announcement.
I have come to an agreement to purchase the Minnesota Twins from the Pohlad family and yes, I will be moving the club to Cedar Rapids. (I mean, it was either that or I had to move to Minnesota and, no offense, but I’ve lived there already. Pass.)
I’ve always wanted to own a Major League team and, like pretty much every Twins fan (or at least all of them who have access to the internet), I have always believed I could run the team better than anyone who actually was responsible for doing so.
As part of the agreement, the Twins’ Class A affiliation will be in Minneapolis, giving Target Field a tenant for at least as long as the original agreement required when taxpayers paid for construction.
Twins President (for now), Dave St. Peter, was pleased with this development.
“I’ve often said in the past that it would be nice to be able to watch the Twins’ young minor league talent play in the Twin Cities,” St. Peter said. “This agreement brings that dream to reality.”
I have scheduled a meeting with Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett to discuss how we can best go about adding an additional 35,000 seats to Veterans Memorial Stadium. I see no insurmountable issues there, as long as the city is willing to cough up the money for the renovations.
As for staff decisions, all positions will be posted at corridorcareers.com. All current Twins employees from St. Peter to every usher and beer vendor, will be invited to apply for their current positions (or any other job they might think they’d be good at). I learned in my experience in the professional world that is is the way progressive companies do things these days.
There is one exception to this policy. General Manager Terry Ryan will be retained.
I’ve made this decision for two reasons. First, I genuinely respect Mr. Ryan and, though I don’t always agree with his decisions, I believe he is very good at his job. Even if I didn’t feel that way about the GM, I’d keep him anyway, just because I know how much it’s going to piss off Twins bloggers/fans/commenters/know-it-alls all over Twins Territory.
There will be some pretty noticeable changes, however. For example, because of my fondness for the Iowa Hawkeyes, much of my wardrobe is black and gold. After paying for the Twins, I’m not going to also go out and buy a new wardrobe. The Twins’ colors will instead become black and gold.
Finally, while I will not be lifting the MLB.tv blackout policy from covering the entire state of Iowa, at least that blackout policy will finally make some sense.
I look forward to meeting all of the new Twins fans when the team opens the 2017 in Cedar Rapids. I hope those of you in the Twin Cities enjoy your final season of watching the Twins and I’m sure you will enjoy watching Midwest League games in the future.
Today was my last day hanging around the Twins spring training site. Tuesday is a beach day and we hit the road to head back to Iowa on Wednesday morning.
Today was a bittersweet day at the complex as several minor leaguers were given their release early in the morning, including several former Kernels that we’ve gotten to know over the past couple of seasons. I wish them all the best of luck in whatever comes next in their lives, whether with baseball or otherwise.
I spent my afternoon on the minor league side of the complex, once again watching the future Kernels and future Miracle take on their Red Sox counterparts, followed by a stop for some local craft brews to take home and dinner near the Fort Myers Beach pier.
That’s enough writing. Here are a few final photos from this year’s trip.
Today will likely be my final day at the Twins’ spring training complex for this season and even that will fall into the “weather permitting” category.
I’m sure those of you who woke up to sub-freezing temperatures this morning won’t be feeling sorry for us down here, but the forecast for today is temperatures just in the 60s and winds strong enough to make the “wind chill” feel several degrees cooler than that.
Still, the plan is to try to catch one more afternoon of minor league baseball so I’ll endeavor to carry on through the day.
Tomorrow is the last full day of the trip to Florida before packing up to start the drive home on Wednesday and it seems like a day in the upper 70s means one last day hanging out on and near the beach would be appropriate.
Before I head to the ballpark today, I thought I would post one more set of photos from the last couple of days, which included time both on the minor league side and also within Hammond Stadium watching the Twins fall to a team of Evil Empire wannabes on Sunday afternoon.
First a few players looking to spend time in a Kernels uniform either this year or, possibly, the next. Some have already spent a little time in Cedar Rapids, while others would be getting their first taste of full season minor league ball.
Now, a few old friends who have already passed through Cedar Rapids on their way up the Twins’ organizational ladder.
The 2016 Kernels field staff
Finally, a few current Twins who did not have the privilege of spending time in a Kernels jersey on their way up to the big leagues model their new red jerseys.
Jose Berrios has shot up the national “top prospect” rankings based on his performance the past couple of years in the Minnesota Twins organization and on Wednesday night, Berrios joined his former manager with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, Jake Mauer, and Twins farm director Brad Steil to participate in a “roundtable” discussion at the Kernels’ annual Hot Stove Banquet.
Before the banquet got underway, all three men were available for media interviews.
It was the first time Berrios had been back to Cedar Rapids since he was part of a 2013 Kernels squad that was loaded with potential big leaguers, including Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Tyler Duffey, Adam Brett Walker and many others.
Berrios said he was enjoying the homecoming.
“Coming here today in the afternoon, I saw things and thought, ‘I remember that.’ It’s different because now, you’ve got a lot of snow, but I remember some things. My host family, Abby (Pumroy) is coming tonight and I’m excited about that. This is where I played my first full season and I enjoyed it. My family came for my birthday in May. I enjoyed all of my year in 2013 in Cedar Rapids.”
Pumroy, his host mother during his stay with the Kernels (as she is every summer for many of the Latin-American players), not only came to see Berrios at the banquet, but joined him on the stage during the roundtable to serve as interpreter, if necessary.
That service wasn’t needed often. Berrios has made a lot of improvements since his time with the Kernels and that would include his command of English.
In truth, his season with the Kernels was Berrios’ worst as a minor leaguer. He didn’t turn 19 until the second month of the season and notched a 7-7 record and 3.99 ERA and gave up, on average, just over one hit per inning. He struck out “just” 8.7 batters per nine innings. That’s certainly not bad, but 2013 is the only season of his young career in which he failed to top the 9 Ks per inning mark.
Maturity on the mound was an issue for Berrios at times that season. There were times when an inning would start out with an error or two or maybe a couple of hits and the young right-hander would appear to lose his composure a bit, leading to crooked numbers going on the scoreboard that inning for the opponent.
That’s not unusual, of course, especially in the lower levels of the minor leagues, as Mauer pointed out while talking about the progress that Berrios has made since their time together with the Kernels.
“He was pretty young, obviously, when he was here,” Mauer recalled. “He came up late (in April). One thing he would do is he would always compete. Really it was probably the first time he had been hit in his life. He had struck everybody out.
“Kohl Stewart went through some of that, when he was here, too. Some of those guys, that’s what they learn to do here – they start to learn how to pitch, learn how to overcome adversity. Sometimes you get yourself out of innings that maybe your defense created for you. Do I just roll over or do I compete and get through it? I think both of those guys are starting to figure that out pretty good.”
Berrios, who will still be just 21 years old when the 2016 season opens, agreed that he has developed a more mature approach to his craft.
“I’ve matured every year,” he said. “You have to be under control in every situation. That’s what I work on every year and that’s what I’ve learned.
This is the second year that Berrios has been invited by the Twins to open Spring Training with the big club in Fort Myers. A year ago, he wasn’t shy about telling people his goal was to open the season in the Twins’ rotation.
That didn’t happen, of course, and Berrios ended up throwing all 166 1/3 of his innings in the minors, split between AA Chattanooga and AAA Rochester.
His goals going into 2016 have not been tempered from his experience last year, however. If anything, he has taken them up a notch.
“Yeah, I’m keeping the same goals,” he confirmed. “Trying to make the 25 man roster in April with the Minnesota Twins. Then keep going, work to be selected for the All-Star Game in July and then at the end of the season, maybe the Rookie of the Year.
“That’s my goal, that’s what I’m preparing myself for, to make that goal. Be ready for spring training this year. I’m excited about that.”
There may still be snow on the ground, but Berrios said he’s ready to get the new season underway.
“Yeah, there’s too much offseason, I want to play a game.”
Steil, voicing the views of the Twins front office, wasn’t prepared to predict a Rookie of the Year award for his young prospect, but he clearly is looking for good things from Berrios in 2016.
“We’re looking for him to keep improving, which he’s done a nice job at every level he’s been through in our system, Steil said. “Last year, when he went from AA to AAA, he was a little shaky to start with at AAA, which is to be expected.
“I think once you saw him get settled in and get comfortable, he made some adjustments and really pitched well the last month of the season. So he’s going to give some guys at spring training a run for their money when it comes to competing for a roster spot there.”
While it’s too early to make any firm predictions about the Kernels’ 2016 roster, Steil did talk about what he’s expecting at this early point in time.
“I think, looking at it right now, a rough idea of what kind of team we’re going to start with, I think it will be another strong pitching staff, similar to last year,” he offered. “I think as the season goes on, some of the younger hitters will get better and I think we’ve got a chance to have a better lineup than we did last year, just because of the talent that some of these guys have that are coming here.
“Jermaine Palacios, a shortstop that was in the GCL and Elizabethton last year, is one of those guys. I expect LaMonte Wade will be back here to start the season. Chris Paul is another guy that will probably be back to start the season. So I think we’re going to have a few guys that can swing the bat. We should have a little bit more of a threat in the middle of the lineup than they maybe did last year.”
Steil also talked about a couple of pitchers that Kernels fans saw a little of two years ago, Lewis Thorpe and Fernando Romero.
Regarding Thorpe, Steil said the 20-year-old Australian lefty is, “doing very well.”
“He’s probably not going to be ready to go to start the season, so he’ll probably start in extended and get stretched out and build up his arm strength.
“Fernando Romero is in a similar situation,” Steil added. “A guy that pitched here briefly two years ago. He’s got a really good arm. He’ll touch 97, 98 (mph). He’s doing really well. He’s a little ahead of Thorpe, so he may be ready to go at the beginning of the year.”
The Twins assigned each of the managers in their system to the same teams they led in 2015, but the departure of a couple of coaches at the AAA level meant wholesale coaching changes among most of the minor league staffs. As a result, Henry Bonilla, the Kernels pitching coach last season, is moving up to handle the Miracle’s pitching staff and Tommy Watkins, who has coached Kernels hitters for three seasons, will be in Chattanooga with the Lookouts.
Mauer will be welcoming J.P Martinez and Brian Dinkelman to his staff in Cedar Rapids this season as pitching and hitting coaches, respectively.
While Mauer had known Bonilla and Watkins going back to the days that they were teammates in the Twins organization, he said he doesn’t have a similar background with Martinez and Dinkelman. As Mauer was moving through the organization as a player, Martinez and Dinkelman were always a rung or two below him on the ladder. By the time they were reaching the upper levels as players, Mauer had begun his coaching career back in rookie ball.
“I missed being a teammate with them, but I remember them in Spring Training and being around them last year a little bit. They’re both competitors and they both have a lot of information. They’re both really good personalities as far as they’re hard workers and they’re excited.
“This is more ‘real baseball’ than what extended and Gulf Coast League are. They’ve heard a lot of the positive things that are going on up here and both played in this league. I spoke to both of them right around Christmas time. They’re both heading down to Florida early to get down there and get around some of our boys a little sooner.”
Mauer indicated that one benefit of the coaching changes is that Martinez and Dinkelman have already worked some with many of the players likely to pull on a Kernels jersey this summer.
“To be honest, I don’t know many of the guys,” Mauer admitted. “I’ll probably rely on JP and Brian quite a bit. They had them in instructional league and some of them in extended, so they have a feel for them. We’ll shake it out in spring training and figure out who can do what and where they all fit.”
Mauer has set the expectations bar high for next season after leading Cedar Rapids to within one game of a Midwest League championship. On Wednesday, his boss expressed how impressed he has been with the Kernels’ skipper.
“He and Tommy and the pitching coaches here have done a great job in our three years here, advancing a level deeper into the playoffs the last two years,” Steil said. “Especially last year, they did a great job as a coaching staff.
“I don’t think that team was as talented as the first two years we were here. But they did a really good job and those players battled and they never gave up. They played good, sound baseball. They didn’t beat themselves and that was a credit to Jake and Tommy and Henry.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
We’ve reached the end of the Dog Days of Summer, that period that stretches from 20 days before Sirius (the Dog Star) is precisely in conjunction with the sun until 20 days after those bodies are in alignment.
Those 40 or so days are typically the most cruelly hot of the summer and, coincidentally or not, the days when young professional baseball players often hit the proverbial “wall” during their first full season of pro ball. Players that are accustomed to playing anywhere from 40 to 70 games in a summer, find themselves having already eclipsed that mark by mid-June, with another 70 yet to play on the schedule.
It’s when bats become heavier in a hitter’s hands and pitchers often lose velocity or some sharpness to their breaking ball due to a “tired arm.”
Then again, the Dog Days of Summer really is a Northern Hemisphere phenomenon, so Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher Sam Gibbons, who hails from Geelong, Victoria, in Australia, may well be immune to the Dog Day effects.
After a shaky start to his season, the 21-year-old Aussie didn’t really begin to hit his stride until the second week of July.
As Gibbons toed the rubber in Kane County on July 12 to begin his seventh start after joining the Kernels at the end of May, he shouldered an unimpressive 5.34 ERA after giving up 21 runs (19 of them earned) in his first six starts for Cedar Rapids.
The righthander gave up one run in the fourth inning of what would become a no-decision start against the Cougars that night and, from there, ran his scoreless inning streak up to 28 consecutive innings before giving up a pair of runs (one earned) in an 8-2 win over Bowling Green on Saturday night before a near-capacity home crowd.
Included in that stretch was a nine inning complete game shutout on the road at Kane County on August 1. It has been the only complete game shutout twirled by a Kernels pitcher this season and only the Kernels’ second complete game this year. (Mat Batts lost a 1-0 decision despite throwing a complete seven-inning game in the nightcap of a doubleheader at Peoria in May.)
Finishing the complete game meant Gibbons threw a few more pitches than normal.
“Last year, we were generally around the 80-90 (pitches) mark,” Gibbons explained, “but very rarely would we go over 85. Throwing 110 pitches (in the complete game), I was feeling it the last inning, but there’s no way I was going to give in.”
After that extended outing, Gibbons knew he was destined for a shorter night in his next start on Saturday.
“I think I was on some sort of pitch count (Saturday), but I was cruising through the middle three through six innings pretty well and then got two outs in the seventh. Then things got a bit sticky. But, you know, things happen. It’s OK and we ended up winning, so that’s the main thing.”
How has Gibbons gotten stronger as the summer heat has been at its most oppressive?
“You know, I wish I could bottle it and pass it around to other guys,” said Kernels pitching coach Henry Bonilla.
For his part, Gibbons said he does feel like he’s getting stronger, but doesn’t think his workload this season has been all that unusually heavy.
“The thing is, I pitch in the ABL (Australian Baseball League) every year, so I have at least 30 innings before I get to spring training on my belt,” Gibbons explained.” So I’m pretty used to having a fairly deep workload.”
We may not know what to credit for Gibbons’ improvement through the past several weeks, but he knew exactly who to blame for the scoreless streak coming to an end on Saturday.
“I spoke to my mom (after the game) and I told her it was all her fault for making me aware of it,” Gibbons related, with a smile.
Blaming mom? Wow. That’s harsh.
“I had to blame someone,” a laughing Gibbons reasoned.
Typically, Gibbons likes to take a bit of time off in the fall after the season winds up, but things didn’t work out that way for him this past offseason.
“My plan last year was to play after Christmas and the New Year,” he recounted. “Then I was asked to play on the under-23 Australian Team. so I went in November last year. That kind of interrupted things but any chance you get to play for your country is a great opportunity, so I definitely wanted to do that.”
Perhaps taking the extra off-season work into account, the parent Minnesota Twins held Gibbons back in Extended Spring Training when the Kernels came north to start the season, then promoted him to Cedar Rapids on May 28. He made his Kernels debut May 31. His first four starts after arriving were not pretty. surrendering 16 runs in 20 innings of work covering that initial stretch.
“Obviously, I had a bit of a shaky start, but things are coming good now,” Gibbons understated.
“I think after the first month, I was struggling with fastball command a bit, and not being able to throw off-speed pitches in fastball counts, where I have been now. I’ve been attacking guys, but attacking with my off-speed pitches, which is something I’ve never been able to do, really.
“So, having command and just having faith that if I make a bad pitch, that I’m going to come back and make a better pitch to get weak contact or a swing and a miss. I feel that fastball command, knowing I can throw a fastball wherever I want and when I want is something that is pretty big and that will progress you through the ranks.”
Bonilla, his pitching coach, agrees.
“He just came up and he’s been a strike thrower,” the coach observed. “He’s always been a strike thrower, he’s going to throw it over and I think that’s to his credit and also to his detriment. He didn’t really locate. He just said basically, ‘somebody’s going to hit a ball at a guy. If I throw a strike, I’ll be ok.’
“It worked for a while with some of the younger hitters that don’t really drive the ball, but some of these guys are prospects, they can hit the ball, or some of them are grown men. Some are 24- 25 year old men that can hit the ball far. He’s learned that the hard way.
“The first couple outings he got kind of hit around. To his credit, he’s allowed himself to change. He’s going to the corners a little bit more, he’s attacking down in the zone, being more aggressive by not throwing so many strikes. He’s throwing ‘quality misses,’ is what we call it.”
According to Bonilla, a lot of Gibbons improvement has come from his mentality, as much as any improvement he’s shown with his mechanics or pitch selection.
“He’s trusting it,” Bonilla said. “I think one of the biggest things for him is his confidence. He’s out there confident that he can make pitches. He does it and he does it with a purpose with all of his pitches.”
The coach also conceded that sometimes a little early failure greases the skids a bit for quicker improvement.
“It’s hard to go away from success on the field,” he explained. “If a (hitter) is hitting .300 and we’re telling him, ‘hey, it’s not going to work when you get to the big leagues,’ he’s going to be like, ‘well, I’m hitting .300.’ If a (pitcher) is getting outs here, he’s like, ‘what do you mean it’s not going to work?’
“So it’s hard for them to get themselves out of immediate success and look at four years down the future. To their credit, the ones that do are the ones that kind of take their lumps early, but you can see them kind of turn it around and stay with it and go good. And he’s one of those guys that’s been doing that. So he’s done a great job, I’m very happy with him.”
Gibbons was signed by the Twins as a 17-year-old in July, 2011, but continued to play in his home country for a while and didn’t make his first appearance for a Twins affiliate in the States until the following year.
“Our school (in Australia) works a bit differently, so I was actually halfway through my senior year of high school, so it was a bit different to how things are out here. It was a big thing for my mom to make sure that I finished high school.”
There’s that “blame mom” thing again. How dare she do something like wanting him to finish high school before moving thousands of miles away to play baseball for a living?
“I look back on it and I wanted to get over here as soon as possible,” Gibbons recalled, “but it was a slight decision, finishing high school at least.”
In the end, mom won out – as moms are prone to doing.
“So, I made sure I did that (finish high school) and then came over the following (extended spring training). The Twins don’t tend to like to bring Aussies over here for spring training their first year,” he explained. “Trying to wet their feet a bit, I guess, by just coming to extended and seeing how things work and then their second year, bring them over for spring training.”
Gibbons played two years for the Twins Gulf Coast League team in Fort Myers, then moved up to Elizabethton for the 2014 short season, where he teamed with many of the same guys he’s sharing the Kernels clubhouse with this season. That’s not an insignificant factor in his recent success, according to the pitcher.
“I feel that the (catchers) we have on our team, they really take notice of what pitches you have and what works well for the situation. Having (Brett) Doe, Navi (Brian Navarreto) and (Alex) Real behind there, it’s pretty good,” Gibbons offered. “All three of the catchers on this team now were in E-town last year and the majority of our pitching group is the same from last year, so everyone has a good idea of what we throw and when you want to throw it.”
All three Kernels catchers have been successful at controlling the opponents’ running games. Navarreto, for example, has thrown out over half of the runners attempting to steal off of him. That’s a factor Gibbons appreciates.
“Having Navi behind the plate the last couple of outings has been exceptional. We’ve played together for three years now, so he’s known me pretty well. I’m pretty lucky to have him behind there pitch calling and his defensive work is immaculate.”
Gibbons doesn’t appear to be exactly a high-maintenance pitcher for his catchers to have to deal with. If you find him sitting alone for a couple of hours before each start, he’s probably watching a movie or listening to music, not focused on envisioning every pitch that’s about to come out of his hand.
“No, no, not at all,” he admitted.” I don’t really do that until I’m out on the mound going, ‘ok, let’s go and see how this goes.’”
As the season winds down, Gibbons stands to play a critical role in the postseason for the Kernels. He’s thrown just over 64 innings since joining Cedar Rapids, so there shouldn’t be any concerns about the front office limiting his work just when the team needs him the most in the playoffs.
When his year in Cedar Rapids wraps up, Gibbons will be headed back “down under” for the off-season. For him, that means beach time.
“Back home, I live about 15 minutes from the beach,” he said. “I’m always going down there with buddies or just hanging out and kicking back. I play club ball sometimes or I practice and train with my brother. (Club ball) is like a mens’ league sort of thing that I just go down and I have some fun with my brother and my buddies that I grew up playing with.”
He’s going to take a bit more time off this year before starting the real training for his 2016 season.
“Definitely take off a fair chunk of the offseason and come back in mid-January at some point, I guess,” Gibbons said of his plans. “Play a bit of ABL and get a couple of starts before spring training.
“I have to be in contact with (Twins farm director Brad Steil). Henry (Bonilla) and I will sit down before the season finishes and see where the innings are at and see what they want – a pitch count or innings limit sort of restriction.”
Those limits will then be communicated to Gibbons’ ABL coaching staff.
“They’re happy to have me pitch whatever that is,” he added.
It’s good that the ABL coaches are so easy to work with. At least that’s one less thing Gibbons should have to blame his mom for.
The first, last and most important job any minor league baseball player has is to work hard at improving his skills to move on up the organizational ladder to the next level. That said, when Cedar Rapids Kernels infielder Pat Kelly gets his next promotion, it may be bittersweet news for Pat and, more specifically, his family members that have been making frequent trips from Red Wing, Minnesota, to Cedar Rapids to watch Pat and the Kernels.
That could become a much more difficult trip to make as Kelly’s career carries him from Cedar Rapids to other stops on the Minnesota Twins affiliate list in Florida, Tennessee and New York.
According to Kelly’s father, Jim, who works in the Goodhue County (MN) Sheriff’s Office, the Kelly clan has made the trip to Cedar Rapids, “about every other weekend.”
“My schedule, I’m off every other weekend, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and this particular year, the Kernels have been home when I’ve been off pretty much,” the elder Kelly added. “When I first looked at it, I miscalculated and I thought, ‘I’ve got to work every weekend they’re home.’ But it turned out to be the opposite, so it worked out real good”
“There’s like 25 of them here,” Pat Kelly said Saturday. “My dad’s one of ten (siblings) so I have a lot of uncles. They’re all in Red Wing pretty much. I have an aunt up in Cottage Grove, Minnesota (about 35 miles from Red Wing), and that’s about the farthest they go.
“They love coming down and coming to some games. They did that every Easter at Nebraska (where Pat played college baseball for the Cornhuskers). We’d get about 50-60 family members, they’d all make the trip down to Lincoln for Easter. It’s quite the crew.”
The “crew” during the most recent Kernels weekend homestand included not only family, but Cornhusker Head Athletic Trainer, Jerry Weber, whose career at Nebraska has spanned the Kelly generations. He was there when Jim was on campus as a Husker football player, as well as during Pat’s baseball career there.
Despite his dad’s connection to “Big Red,” it was no sure thing that Pat would follow in his father’s footsteps to Lincoln. And there was no chance he’d follow those footsteps to the football field at Nebraska, or anywhere else.
“I grew up loving baseball, basketball and football, all three, (but) baseball was always my favorite growing up. I played football, it was probably my third favorite.
He said he wasn’t just playing football growing up out of some kind of obligation to his dad, either.
“No, I liked it, I really did.”
By his junior year of high school, however, football was left behind.
“In tenth grade I was playing like eight quarters of football every Friday night. I was playing tenth grade games and then the varsity needed players so I would go play cornerback, running back, quarterback, like every Friday night. Then come my junior year, it was just like, it’s going to be too much.
“I was doing a lot of baseball in the fall. So I gave up football. I didn’t even start my junior year. I just started doing a lot more baseball in the fall. I played basketball, I love basketball. But baseball’s always been my favorite.”
That focus on baseball began early, according to his father.
“All baseball,” Jim confirmed. “He never really gave me a break. We work 12 hour shifts (at the Sheriff’s Office). I go to work at six in the morning and get home at six at night and he would be sitting on the steps with a bucket of balls, his bat and his glove and I would get in the driveway, ‘Let’s go dad.’ So we’d just go down the street to a park and he’d hit for as long as I could throw balls to him.”
Jim recalled it wasn’t until Pat was in fifth or sixth grade that his son discovered, while looking through an old scrapbook, that his dad had played football for Nebraska. “He saw that and he said, ‘We should go to Nebraska sometime.’ I said, ‘sure.'”
“Sometime” turned out to be when Pat was a freshman in high school.
“He had a Nebraska schedule up and he said, ‘I want to go to watch Nebraska and Texas A&M,” the father recalled. “In whatever year that was, they were ranked 4th and 5th in the country, respectively and I said, ‘alright, we’ll go.’”
That baseball game made an impression on Pat.
“There was like nine or ten thousand people there. The game went like 16 innings long and not a fan left. Pretty cool. So from then on, I just felt like, ‘I really want to go to Nebraska.’ It ended up working out.”
It was the only basball game the Huskers and Aggies got in that weekend as rain washed out the scheduled Saturday and Sunday contests.
“We ended up leaving early on Sunday and I think we got as far as Omaha and he said, ‘I know where I want to go to college, dad. I’m going to go to Nebraska.’ I said, ‘oh, okay.’ You know it was so early yet, but you know, let the kid dream. Why not?”
Why not, indeed. Kelly ended up living his dream as a Cornhusker, earning 2nd team All-Big Ten honors his freshman year and was 1st team All-Big Ten in both his sophomore and junior seasons.
Not bad, considering he nearly never had the opportunity to attend his chosen school.
“It’s kind of funny though. Nebraska was one of my last recruiting letters,” Pat recollected. “I was just waiting for it, waiting for it. I’d always come home from school – I didn’t play football then, so my falls were open – so I’d come home early. I remember coming home and there were two letters, North Carolina and Nebraska, and I didn’t give a crap about the other one. I was pretty excited about that.”
“He called me at work and said, ‘dad, I got it!’ ‘You got what?’ ‘I got the letter.’ ‘OK, let me guess,’” Jim added.
“I had an amazing time at Nebraska,” Pat said. “Coach (Darin) Erstad is an unbelievable guy and a great coach and did a lot for me. Yeah, I love Nebraska. I can’t wait to go back there in the offseason and go to football games and hang out there.”
According to Pat, It wasn’t easy to leave a year early and begin his professional career. He knew it was time to move on, but it was a difficult decision to make.
“Yeah for me it was,” he recalled. “just because I loved Nebraska so much. It’s hard to leave those guys and the coaching staff.
“At the end of the day, every kid’s goal is to be a big leaguer. You just had to look at that and obviously I had no doubt if I go back to Nebraska, it would have been a great year and we probably would have had a great team, I mean they had a good team this year. But at the end of the day, you want to be a big leaguer and you want to get that going.”
For Pat, getting that going meant being signed by the Minnesota Twins as their 12th round selection in the 2014 draft and heading to Elizabethton, Tennessee, last summer to begin his professional career.
Nobody will confuse the environments for playing ball in Elizabethton with those in Lincoln, but Kelly didn’t mind the change.
“It was definitely a little bit of an eye-opener going down to E’town,” Pat said of his first impressions of the community where the Twins’ short-season Appalachian League affiliate is located. “I didn’t really have any expectations, to be honest. I just kind of went in with an open mind. It was fun, we made the playoffs and had a good season. Getting paid to play baseball, that’s a pretty good deal.”
This season, Kelly has been on the Kernels roster since Opening Day, making this his first year of enduring a full 140-game minor league schedule. Some players feel like they hit a wall, physically and/or mentally, at about this point in their first full season.
“Yeah it’s kind of funny. Around the all-star break, you get half way and you’re like, ‘alright, we’re doing that again. Same thing over,’” Kelly said. “But no, I haven’t really seemed to hit that wall yet. I’m still enjoying every day with the guys and just can’t really complain. Getting paid to play baseball.
“I think just the base adjustment from college to now is, here it’s every day, you play every day. In college, you didn’t play every day. You had class, you had other stuff. But now, every single day, this is your job. I think that’s just the biggest adjustment.
“Even if you’re not in the lineup, you have a full day. You’re at the park from 1:30 to 10 or 11 at night. You’re still doing your work. You’re in the cage, you’re doing stuff. You’re still drained at the end of the day and then the next day, you do it again. I think that’s just the biggest adjustment for me, just getting mentally ready every day to go to work and get better.”
With that mentality, it’s no wonder Kelly uses Florida Georgia Line’s “Every Night” as his walk-up song.
After Kelly hit .242 in 39 games, all at second base, for Elizabethton a season ago, he’s been running closer to .220 over the season for the Kernels. He played second base through most of the season, but has been spending more time at third base since TJ White’s promotion to Fort Myers.
Kelly’s also been faring better at the plate more recently, hitting .258 in his last ten games and carrying a four-game hitting streak into Thursday night’s contest with Clinton.
That stretch includes Kelly getting three hits, including a pair of doubles, in eight at-bats with his personal cheering section in the Cedar Rapids crowd last weekend.
This offseason, Kelly will return to Lincoln where he’ll live and work out with Cedar Rapids native (and 2014 Kernel) Chad Christensen, who is also a former Husker ballplayer.
“We lived together last offseason and we’re going to live together this offseason,” Kelly explained. “We do everything together and work out there.”
Lincoln is also much closer than Red Wing to his girlfriend’s home in Kansas City, but that’s probably just a coincidence.
No matter how far away from his home and family in Red Wing Kelly’s professional baseball career may take him, however, he’ll always carry something of his home with him.
Yes, the love of his family, certainly, but also the oil he uses to break in his gloves.
“I oil them with oil from Red Wing Shoes in Red Wing. I always use their boot oil for my gloves and it seems to work really well.”
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.
Larson’s a native of the Bradenton, Florida, area, but moved to Virginia with his family when he was just five years old.
“I lived there for four years,” Larson recalled, “then, my little brother was born in Virginia and was diagnosed with autism. So we moved back down to Florida where we found a school for him to go to. That’s where we’ve been since.”
Max and the rest of Larson’s family follow Zack and the Kernels as closely as possible from Florida.
“They bought that (MiLB.tv) package so they watch the games on TV that are there to watch and they listen to every game with Morgan (Kernels radio broadcaster Morgan Hawk). My mom came (to Cedar Rapids) in May, so it was good to see her.”
If, as you’d expect, Max looks up to his big brother the ballplayer, it’s equally apparent that Zack admires Max, as well.
“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.”
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.”