Jake Mauer has Kernels Focused on Postseason

Cedar Rapids Kernels manager Jake Mauer has been in a unique situation for the past couple of months, since his Kernels nailed down a Midwest League postseason berth by finishing second in the MWL’s Western Division during the first half of the season.

Travis Harrison and Manager Jake Mauer

Travis Harrison and Manager Jake Mauer

Only in minor league baseball is a manager occasionally faced with the challenge of keeping his roster focused on winning games even after locking up a spot in the postseason with 70 games remaining on the regular season schedule.

Recently, Mauer talked about that challenge as well as the steps he and his coaching staff are taking to prepare for the Midwest League playoffs that begin for the Kernels on September 4.

“We’re a lot different team than we were at the beginning of the year,” Mauer pointed out. “Obviously, (Byron) Buxton and (Dalton) Hicks and (JD) Williams were a big part and they’ve moved up, along with some of our pitchers, (Steven) Gruver and (Tyler) Jones and (Tyler) Duffey. That’s kind of what happens and how the nature of the beast is.

“But you’re getting a chance to see (Max) Kepler a little more and you’re getting to see (Joel) Licon on an everyday basis. (Jonathan) Murphy’s another guy that came up and has been helping us. (Mike) Gonzales is kind of on the comeback trail a little bit here, but a guy with a little bit of experience. So we’ve been fortunate. When we’ve lost some guys, we’ve been able to get some pretty good guys to replace them.”

If you compare the final standings in the first half of the MWL season with the current standings, you’ll see what can happen as team rosters change over significantly.

The Beloit Snappers slipped past the Kernels in the final few days of the first half to claim first place in the league’s Western Division, but the Snappers now sit several games under .500 in the second half. Yet, the Snappers have fared far better than the Fort Wayne Tincaps, who won the Eastern Division in the first half. The Tincaps have been struggling to escape the cellar of their Division during the season’s second half.

While Mauer’s Kernels have had significant roster turnover, as well (only nine of the Opening Day Kernels remain on the current 25-man roster), Cedar Rapids has managed to continue competing at a high level. They have held or shared first place in the West for all but four days since the All-Star break reset.

Mauer believes much of the reason can be found on the pitcher’s mound.

“Really, our pitching has been the key this second half. The pitching has been way better. Guys are throwing the ball over the plate,” said the manager.

Mauer pointed out that, while his team lost several effective pitchers to promotion, the replacements have stepped right in and done the job.

“Adding a (Madison) Boer and a (Brian) Gilbert to the back end of the pen, that’s two pretty reliable guys. (Alex) Muren has been pretty steady the whole year,” said Mauer, adding, “Our starters are doing a pretty good job. (Tim) Atherton has done a wonderful job starting. (Josue) Montanez has been a lot better.”

Of course, talking about pitching brings up another topic rather unique to the world of a minor league coaching staff.

A number of the Kernels’ most reliable starting pitchers this season are putting more innings on their young arms than they ever have before. This is particularly true of guys who spent last season as relief pitchers or pitched in some combination of high school/college and short-season leagues. Pitchers such as Mason Melotakis, Brett Lee and Jose Berrios who have been cornerstones of the rotation much of the season are seeing their innings limited down the stretch.

That has required Mauer and pitching coach Gary Lucas to find other guys to plug in to the starting rotation and part of the Kernels’ continued success can be attributed to how those pitchers have performed.

Jose Berrios

Jose Berrios

“They’ve been real good,” said Mauer. “Atherton has been excellent, throwing more strikes and still striking guys out like he has been. Berrios has gotten better, Brett Lee’s been great. He had a little scare there with that elbow thing (Lee spent a week on the Disabled List after being struck on the elbow by a batted ball), but he seems to be OK. We’re going to have to keep an eye on him a little bit. I don’t think you’ll see a complete game until, hopefully, the fourth.”

Was that Mauer tipping his hand concerning his plans for the starting pitching assignment in the first playoff game on September 4?

Mauer would only admit that they’re starting to think about who will be starting those postseason games.

“Some of the things we have to start thinking about,” Mauer conceded, “Who are we going to use in the playoffs? Who’s going to be our starters? I think the young man we got, Sulbaran, is going to help us.” Miguel Sulbaran was obtained from the Dodgers organization in a trade recently.

“(Tim) Shibuya’s going to help us,” continued Mauer. “(Brandon) Bixler has done a nice job. Gilbert has been pretty dominant, thus far. Hopefully we can keep that going.”

Clearly, one ingredient a manager needs to keep his team competitive in both halves of a Class A season is talented replacements for the players promoted. But these are still young ballplayers, many just a year out of college or even high school, and a 140-game season can be a grind.

A couple of weeks ago, the Kernels went through a stretch where they lost six of eight games in series with Burlington and the Quad Cities. The club’s pitching, hitting and defense all seemed to collapse at the same time. Is it hard to keep a team focused when a postseason spot is locked up halfway through the year and some players are still wondering if/when they’ll be getting promoted?

The answer to that question is, “It shouldn’t be,” according to Mauer. “Every time you go out there, you should want to win the game. There’s a difference between wanting to win the game and doing things to help you win the game. In that stretch, Burlington and Quad Cities, they took it to us pretty good, but again we gave them a lot of opportunities, extending innings (with errors). That’s not going to do it.

“So you try to refocus. It shouldn’t have anything to do with whether you’re in (the postseason) or not, whether you’re playing for something or not. It should just have to do with you understanding what it takes to play every day and being a professional player.”

“When you get in the game, it’s time to (think about) we’ve got to win this game today,” continued Mauer. “We’ve got to win this inning, win this pitch. You can break it down as far as even pitch to pitch. If you do that, if you win every pitch, then you’re going to win just about every inning and you’re going to win a lot of your games and you’re going to get noticed and that’s how you get promoted. A lot of it is controlling what you can control.”

“There’s some guys in there (the clubhouse) that probably should be in Fort Myers,” Mauer acknowledged, “but they’re backlogged or whatever and they’re still here. Maybe they’re a little (ticked) and maybe they should be, but you’ve got to keep putting numbers up. You’ve got to keep doing your job and you’ve got to keep showing up every day.”

“It’s hard to tell,” what the specific problem was during that early August swoon, according to Mauer. “We just weren’t playing very good and it all just kept going downhill. It just kind of gets going that way and you’re going to go through phases throughout the year where you’re not going to be playing good and others where you’re going to be playing pretty good. What you try to do is you try to keep the focus be the same, whether you’re high or whether you’re low, it shouldn’t matter. Whether you’ve won eight in a row or lost eight in a row, your focus should be the same and that’s what you’re trying to teach.”

It’s not just the postseason success that the players are playing for, of course, and the manager acknowledged that fact, as well. The players and the Twins organization are already looking toward 2014.

“A lot of them are playing for a spot in Fort Myers next year and a lot of them are playing for a spot anywhere. That’s a reality,” said Mauer. “Those boys that are in (Elizabethton) and any guys that come in from (this year’s) draft generally are newer. They get a little more opportunity than some guys that have been around, where we’ve got a decent feeling of what they can and can’t do. We’re going to give these other guys some of those at-bats.

“You’re really playing for a job, whether it’s here (in Cedar Rapids), whether it’s in Fort Myers or wherever it might be. You’ve got to make an impact in these last two weeks.”

Mauer conceded that he’ll be managing the team a little differently headed in to the final couple of weeks of the regular season.

“I know we’re going to play some teams that are in the playoff chase, but we’ve got to get a little healthier for Wednesday, the fourth (of September – the first Kernels postseason game),” predicted Mauer. “The next week at Peoria and Quad Cities, we’ll probably rotate quite a few guys. When Peoria comes back here Sunday (August 25), we’ll try to get us cranked up again to where we’re getting ready and trying to get sharp again for the playoffs.

“I don’t like to sit my guys right before the playoffs. I’d like to do it this next week and then we can button some things up and hopefully, they’ve got enough rest and here we go.”

Evidence of the change has already become evident. For instance, Tyler Grimes, one of the Kernels’ catchers and a converted middle infielder had done nothing but catch and DH all season, until Friday night.

When Murphy left the game for precautionary reasons after being hit in the head by a pitch, second baseman Licon moved in to the outfield and Grimes entered the game as the new second baseman. The next night, Grimes started at second base, as well.

Tyler Grimes

Tyler Grimes

“(Grimes) is going to play some middle (infield) through these last two weeks here. He’s been an infielder his whole life, so he can still go out there. We’ll try to give some of our middle guys a little bit of a (rest),” said Mauer. “You’ll probably see guys like (Adam) Walker get another day off here. Kepler, (Niko) Goodrum, (Jorge) Polanco, guys like that, that have been playing a lot are going to get some rest. (Travis) Harrison is another one, too. Try to freshen them up and try to walk that delicate line between becoming stale and becoming fresh – sit guys for a maybe a day, maybe two days at the most, and get them back out there if you can.”

(NOTE: Polanco was placed on the 7-day Disabled list on Sunday, retroactive to Friday, August 16.)

There will be a few other, more subtle, changes that most fans won’t likely notice, as well, according to Mauer. “We probably won’t hit for as long or take infield as much, things like that. We’ll pick our spots with that. We’ll rest.”

The Kernels’ skipper was asked whether he thought there was an advantage entering the postseason, either to teams that qualified with their success in the first half of the season or with a playoff run at the end of the second half.

Mauer likened it to the NFL. “Those wildcard teams show up in the Super Bowl because you’re playing for your life every week. And that’s the intensity that you should have, even if you’re (already) in.”

Still, it’s nice to have the luxury of resting your players and setting up your pitching rotation the way you want it to start the postseason while the teams who have yet to qualify, as the manager puts it, “have to go pedal to the metal.”

“Each team is going to be different,” Mauer said. “You just try to feel the best you can. Gauge how you’re feeling health wise. Who’s doing what and who can help you. But you want to try and make sure you go in to September as ready as you can.”

At the end of the day, Mauer feels his group is going to be ready when the postseason begins.

“Yeah, we’re excited,” Mauer concluded, concerning his team’s chances in the playoffs. “We’ve got a good group and these kids have worked hard and the new additions have been doing a nice job. We’re happy with how we’re progressing and we’ll see how these last two weeks end up. Hopefully, we’re playing better two weeks from now, you don’t want to peak too soon. We want to be playing our best baseball in September.”

Kernels Video: Joel Licon’s Walk-off Single Tops Quad Cities

Heading in to Sunday afternoon’s game with the Quad Cities River Bandits, the Cedar Rapids Kernels held a slim 1/2 game lead over QC for the top spot in the Midwest League’s Western Division for the second half of the season.

Each team scored once in the first inning and the Bandits scored in the top of the ninth to take a 2-1 lead. Jorge Polanco singled with one out in the Kernels’ ninth and Adam Brett Walker followed with a single to CF. The Bandits’  center fielder let the ball get by him for a two-base error, allowing Polanco to score the tying run  and Walker to reach third base.

After a strike out, Joel Licon came to the plate with Walker on third base and the game tied 2-2. Which led to this:

Was it fair or was it foul? I’ll refrain from opining, but I will say this much: IF it was foul, it certainly wasn’t the first call this particular plate umpire blew in the game.

Kernels Manager Jake Mauer was ejected for pointing out a previous mistake by the same umpire, which is perhaps why it’s  hitting coach and acting manager Tommy Watkins (8) congratulating Licon (2) in front of the dugout.

- JC

Jonathan Murphy playing a big role in Cedar Rapids

A year ago, Jonathan Murphy was a 22-year old 19th round draft pick out of Jacksonville University just starting out his professional baseball career in the Minnesota Twins organization with the Twins’ complex-rookie level Gulf Coast League team in Fort Myers.

Today, Murphy is the primary leadoff hitter and centerfielder for the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

It’s not at all unusual for a second-year professional player drafted out of college to be spending time with the Kernels, but Murphy, the younger brother of New York Mets infielder Daniel Murphy, didn’t take the normal path to Cedar Rapids this season.

Jonathan Murphy

Jonathan Murphy

Murphy didn’t set the world on fire in his 52 games with the GCL Twins in 2012, hitting just .216 and reaching base at a .288 clip, so it’s probably safe to say that expectations for Murphy this season, based on last year’s results, were marginal, at best.

Murphy started 2013 at extended spring training in Fort Myers while awaiting news of which affiliate he would be sent to begin his season. The rookie league team in Elizabethton TN seemed logical or perhaps Class A Cedar Rapids would need an outfielder when Murphy was deemed ready to get his year started.

But neither place was where Murphy found himself assigned.

Instead, the Class high-A Fort Myers Miracle ran in to a bit of bad luck with injuries and Murphy was dispatched across the parking lot from the back fields where the GCL Twins play to Hammond Stadium, home of the Miracle.

“I was just in the right place at the right time. It had nothing to do with my own merit,” Murphy explained during an interview over the weekend. “It just had to do with (the Miracle) had a lot of injuries and I happened to be the oldest guy, I think, running around in (extended spring training) so they decided to ship me over there.”

Regardless of the circumstances, Murphy valued the experience.

“(Playing for the Miracle) was really a great opportunity for me. A great learning experience, too, just getting to go to a higher level like that and learn from some of those guys that have some experience and see what it’s like to be a professional, with this being my first (full) professional season.”

Murphy indicated he definitely noticed the higher level of competition he’d been thrown in to. “The game was moving pretty fast, but it was exciting. It was a challenge and an opportunity for me and I was appreciative of the organization for it.”

A few days after Twins top prospect Byron Buxton was promoted to Fort Myers, Murphy found himself assigned to the Kernels, essentially to replace Buxton in the Cedar Rapids outfield and, eventually, at the top of the Kernels’ batting order, as well.

Was Murphy worried about replacing perhaps the top rated minor leaguer in America?

“I was worried about him replacing me in Fort Myers,” Murphy responded, laughing.

“No, Byron’s a great guy and an unbelievable player. He’s got more talent than I’ll ever imagine having. To try to compare myself to him wouldn’t be real fair. He’s a great player and I’m just going to try to play the best that I can.”

Murphy certainly doesn’t see himself competing with Buxton. “Byron’s a Major League baseball player and I don’t think there’s a lot of doubt about that. He’s going to play in the Major Leagues. So, if I were to get caught up in trying to compare myself to him constantly, it would drive me crazy.

“Basically, all I can do is show up every day and whoever is pitching that day, it’s my job to compete against him and do the best I can. If I can do that every day and compete and be successful, then maybe I’ll look up in a couple of years and find myself in the Major Leagues, too.”

Murphy knows there’s no guarantee in his line of work, though. “Maybe (it will turn out) I’m not quite good enough. But all I can do is come out here and compete every day and as far as I’m concerned the pressure is taken off me. I have a job to do every day and however good I am and how much talent I have will dictate where I go as long as I put the effort forth.”

While not competing with Buxton, Murphy has filled in well for the departed star. Through the past weekend, Murphy was hitting .311 in his 23 games for the Kernels and had put up a .398 on-base percentage, while showing good range in the outfield.

So, after spending a couple of weeks facing the Class high-A pitching, apparently Murphy is finding Midwest League pitchers relatively easy to hit off, right?

That question pulls a laugh from Murphy. “Not at all! You must not have come to many of the games! Oh, my goodness, no. There are still plenty of talented arms and talented pitchers. It’s been exciting, though, to have the opportunity to come here and get to play every day.”

Jonathan Murphy goes through pregame baserunning drills as Jorge Polanco and Niko Goodrum wait their turns

Jonathan Murphy goes through pregame baserunning drills as Jorge Polanco and Niko Goodrum wait their turns

Murphy’s got one advantage that most minor league ballplayers don’t: an older brother who has already made it to the big leagues. Daniel Murphy is in his fifth season with the Mets and the two brothers are close.

“We encourage one another,” Murphy said. “We send each other texts. He had a day game yesterday and he had a real good day. I think he had like three or four hits. I (texted), ‘I think you win today, I don’t think I’m going to be able to match that.’

“Sometimes whenever we’re both going well, we’ll try to encourage one another like, ‘hey, you got two today, I’ll try to join the party,’” Murphy added. “Then when we’re struggling, it’s nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of and he’s always there for me when I need him. It’s a great tool and resource to have for baseball and for life. He’s just been a good role model for me.”

Asked what he likes to do away from the ballpark, Murphy gave an answer quite different than most ballplayers do.

“I just got engaged, so that takes up a lot of my free time, in a good way. We’ve been doing some wedding planning.” Murphy and his fiancé chose October 12 for their wedding. “Right after the season. Hopefully, the Mets won’t be in the World Series. I think we’ll be OK there.”

Picking that date was a little dicey with a brother playing Major League Baseball, where mid-October is right in the middle of the postseason. The Mets, however, are having just about as much success this season as the Twins are, which is to say, not much success at all.

The timing was questioned by at least one member of Murphy’s family, however.

“My dad sent me a text, ‘What if the Mets are in the World Series?’ I said, ‘I think this year we’ll be OK dad.’” Murphy then smiled and almost mumbled, “I might catch some heat for that one.”

But Murphy is clearly looking forward to the event as the culmination of an exciting year. “My family will be there, we’re going to have a nice small wedding. I’m really looking forward to it and excited that God’s really blessing both of us and it’s been an exciting time in my life.

Jonathan Murphy

Jonathan Murphy

“Getting to come out (to the ballpark) and do something I love every day and now I’ve found a wife I’m going to get to spend the rest of my life with. So, I’ve really been blessed here in the last few months.”

Kernels players who have spent prior years playing at lower levels in the organization or at Beloit during the last season or two of the Twins affiliation with the Snappers have expressed their enthusiasm for the facilities and environment in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy, however, has a different perspective, having arrived in town after playing at the next level up in the organization. The Fort Myers Miracle, after all, play their home games at Hammond Stadium, the spring training home of the parent Twins.

That said, Murphy’s assessment of the environment in Cedar Rapids is much the same as those who’ve moved up the ladder to reach the Kernels.  “It’s unbelievable. Fort Myers was good and it was exciting, but as far as crowds go and the fans, they’re way better here. Just numbers-wise and they seem to care a lot more,” said Murphy.

“When I go around town and I run in to someone and I say, ‘I play for the Kernels,’ almost every single person has said, ‘Oh, yeah, I went to a game last week,’ or ‘I love going to the Kernels games every once in a while.’” Murphy indicated that was not necessarily the case in Fort Myers.

“It’s definitely more of a community here. It’s been enjoyable and the fans really care a lot. It makes it a lot of fun to play in front of them. They’re passionate.” – JC

 

“Twins Weekend” in Cedar Rapids

Celebrating the affiliation agreement with the Minnesota Twins has been pretty much an “all season long” thing for the Cedar Rapids Kernels and their fans, but this weekend was the official Twins Weekend event in Cedar Rapids.

Guests of honor have included all-time Twins great Tony Oliva, Twins organist Sue Nelson and mascot TC Bear. All three made appearances at the Kernels’ game with visiting Peoria on Friday night.

Oliva signed autographs for a long line of fans before the game, Nelson treated fans to her talents on an electric organ during the game and TC teamed with Kernels mascot Mr. Shucks to entertain fans throughout the game.

On Saturday morning, all three joined several Kernels players and coaches, along with over 100 fans, for a breakfast event benefiting the Cedar Rapids Convention & Visitors Bureau.

As a fan who grew up in Minnesota in the 1960s watching Oliva play ball for the Twins at Metropolitan Stadium, I have to say it was a really big deal to me to have an opportunity to interview Oliva along with other local media Friday evening during the Kernels game.

It was even a bigger deal to find myself alone with Oliva in the pressbox for several minutes a short while after the formal media intervew and having the opportunity to just watch a ballgame and talk about a number of the young Twins prospects with Oliva.

On Saturday morning, during his remarks at the breakfast and in a “Q & A” session, Oliva shared a number of observations and anecdotes with the crowd.

If you’re interested in reading some of Oliva’s comments to the media from Friday night, click here to read my story for Metro Sports Report, which include Oliva’s thoughts on the current Major Leaguers from his native Cuba. Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Jeff Johnson also has a story focusing on Oliva’s comments concerning PED usage in baseball.

Here are a few photos I took from the weekend’s events.

OlivaAutograph

Tony Oliva patiently signed autographs for about an hour before the game

Twins organist Sue Nelson

Twins organist Sue Nelson

TC Bear entertained fans and posed for pictures

TC Bear entertained fans and posed for pictures

OlivaMedia

Tony Oliva met with local media on Friday during the Kernels game

Kernels pitcher and Twins prospect Brett Lee answers a question during the breakfast event Saturday morning

Kernels pitcher and Twins prospect Brett Lee answers a question during the breakfast event Saturday morning as Niko Goodrum, Adam Brett Walker, Kernels broadcaster Morgan Hawk, Tony Oliva, Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins look on.

Tony Oliva speaking to fans at the Breakfast event Saturday

Tony Oliva speaking to fans at the Breakfast event Saturday

Kernels outfielder and Twins prospect Adam Brett Walker answers fan questions during Saturday's breakfast

Kernels outfielder and Twins prospect Adam Brett Walker answers fan questions during Saturday’s breakfast

From left to right: Mike Gonzales, Dallas Gallant, Morgan Hawk (standing), Niko Goodrum, Brett Lee, Adam Brett Walker, Tony Oliva, Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins

From left to right: Mike Gonzales, Dallas Gallant, Morgan Hawk (standing), Niko Goodrum, Brett Lee, Adam Brett Walker, Tony Oliva, Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins

Kernels roster changes but results don’t

With just 40 games remaining in their regular season schedule, now seems like a good time to step back and take a look at the state of the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

It’s almost laughable to even question whether or not the affiliation switch from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to the Minnesota Twins has been good for Cedar Rapids. Of course it has, by pretty much every measurement.

The Kernels have already qualified for the Midwest League postseason by virtue of their second place finish in the first half of the season and fan interest is up.

Attendance is up some, but even more telling, the fans who show up for games are enthusiastically engaged in what’s happening on the field. That has not always been the case at Veterans Memorial Stadium the past few years.

It certainly didn’t hurt that one of the Twins’ top prospects, Byron Buxton, got off to such an incredible start this spring. He drew fan and media interest from well beyond the local community.

But even after the inevitable promotion of Buxton to the Twins’ Class high-A affiliate at Fort Myers in June, the Kernels have continued to win games. That may come as a surprise to those so blinded by Buxton’s aura that they didn’t notice the Kernels roster included a number of other very talented players.

Jonathan Murphy

Jonathan Murphy

Of course, Buxton isn’t the only Kernels player the Twins have rewarded with a bump up in playing  level. The Kernels have seen about a dozen players, in total, promoted to Fort Myers already this season.

The Twins, as an organization, have a reputation for being conservative with their promotions. They historically have preferred to see most players spend at least an entire season, if not more, at most minor league levels.

No doubt, Kernels officials were hoping that trend would continue. In past seasons, the Angels seemingly couldn’t wait to promote players as soon as they demonstrated any level of productivity in a Kernels uniform.

Among position players, Buxton was the only key offensive contributor to be lost to promotion until J.D. Williams and Dalton Hicks were bumped up to Fort Myers about a week ago.

It’s not easy to replace players found in the top 10 of most Midwest League offensive statistical categories like Williams (on-base percentage, OPS), Hicks (home runs, RBI, slugging pct., OPS) and Buxton (almost everything), but players brought in to Cedar Rapids by the Twins to replace the departing hitters have done well.

Max Kepler

Max Kepler

Max Kepler joined the Kernels once he completed rehabilitating his injured elbow in Fort Myers. He arrived four days before Buxton was promoted and he has hit for a .263 average. Thirteen of his 31 hits have been for extra bases.

Jonathan Murphy is hitting .333 in the 17 games he’s played since his arrival at the beginning of July and Joel Licon has performed well in a utility infielder role since he joined the team in early June.

It’s too early to know for certain how well Mike Gonzales will fill in for the departed Hicks, but the big first baseman has four hits in his first eight at-bats as a Kernel. Gonzales hit .289 and stroked 15 home runs for the Beloit Snappers in 2011. He missed much of his 2012 season in Fort Myers and after starting this season again with the Miracle, a wrist injury has sidelined him for the past several weeks.

On the pitching front, the Kernels lost Taylor Rogers before most fans even got to know him. He made three unimpressive starts for the Kernels before being moved on to Fort Myers. Jose Berrios, a supplemental first round draft pick in the 2012 First Year Player Draft and one of the top pitching prospects in the Twins organization, essentially took Rogers’ spot in the Kernels rotation.

The subsequent promotion of Tyler Duffey in early June left a much more significant hole at the top of the Kernels’ rotation. Duffey carried a 2.78 ERA and a 0.943 WHIP through nine starts when he left Cedar Rapids.

Josue Montanez initially worked from the Kernels bullpen after his promotion to Cedar Rapids in June, but has shown some potential since joining the rotation about a month ago.

Perhaps even more critically, the Kernels have seen four important members of their bullpen earn promotions. Matt Tomshaw and Manuel Soliman had contributed a total of 59 innings of work over a combined 30 appearances before they were promoted. Last week, the Twins elevated Steve Gruver and Tyler Jones, who had combined to provide a formidable left-right relief combination late in games.

Reliever Alex Muren has been relatively effective since arriving from extended spring training in early May, and the early returns from more recent additions Madison Boer, Dallas Gallant and Tim Shibuya are encouraging.

But the bottom line in baseball is all about wins and losses.

The Kernels were 44-28, for a .611 winning percentage, with Buxton on the roster. Since his promotion four games in to the second half schedule, the Kernels are 17-9 (.654) and they are leading the MWL West Division by three games over first half champion Beloit.

It’s certainly too soon to know what effect losing the four players promoted a week ago will have on the team’s fortunes. However, the Kernels have won five of the first six games played (all on the road) since Hicks, Williams, Jones and Gruver got their well-deserved promotions.

On Tuesday, the first member of the Twins’ draft class of 2013 was promoted to Cedar Rapids when seventh round pick Brian Gilbert was added to the Kernels’ roster.

Roster turnover is just a fact of life in minor league baseball. When the local team starts out winning a lot of games, it’s probably because a lot of players are performing very well and players that perform very well deserve promotions to the next level in the organization.

One way to measure the strength of an organization is to look at how a minor league team performs after a number of their best players are promoted. If the new players perform well and the team continues winning, that’s a very good sign.

So far, that’s what we’re seeing in Cedar Rapids. That bodes well, this season, for the Kernels and for the Twins in the long run.

Change is a Challenge Tyler Grimes Has Embraced

A number of this year’s Cedar Rapids Kernels have had to make an adjustment to wearing a Kernels uniform this summer after playing last season for the Beloit Snappers, who were the Minnesota Twins Midwest League affiliate during the eight prior years. It no doubt felt a little odd to some of them.

But to Tyler Grimes, who was the Snappers primary shortstop much of last season, the change in geographic location was far from the most drastic of the adjustments he’s had to make.

Tyler Grimes (9) shares a light moment in the on deck circle with Kernels team mate Niko Goodrum

Tyler Grimes (9) shares a light moment in the on deck circle with Kernels team mate Niko Goodrum

A couple of weeks before the Snappers’ season ended, Grimes was informed by the Twins minor league field coordinator, Joel Lepel, that the organization intended to convert him to catcher during the fall instructional league. Grimes said he hadn’t caught since Little League.

“At first, I didn’t know how to take it,” Grimes said during an interview on Saturday. “There was a lot of things going through my head. I just didn’t know how I was going to approach it when I got down there, at first.

“I got down there and everything started working out and I started to like it more and more. But it was tough, don’t get me wrong.”

And now, how does Grimes feel after spending dozens of games behind the plate in the catchers’ gear that ballplayers have long dubbed, ‘the tools if ignorance?’

“It’s been a tough transition, but here in July I can honestly say I enjoy going out there each night that I catch and I’m having fun with it. It’s like a new love for the game. I’ve got a new challenge and I’m always up for a challenge.”

That challenge has had some down sides, of course.

“My body, I’ve got to take care of it differently. I wasn’t used to taking ice baths, but I’ve been in the ice bath a lot,” Grimes said with a bit of a smile.

As a shortstop, Grimes had some responsibility for communicating with his fellow infielders, but he’s learned those responsibilities pale in comparison to what he’s had to take on as a catcher. Being the team’s “quarterback” behind the plate hasn’t always come naturally to him.

“Yeah, it was a little mind-boggling for me at first,” Grimes admitted. “(Lepel) is always on me, ‘hey you need to be more talkative and let those guys know.’ I wasn’t used to that. I’m not really like that. I’m not too loud out there on the field. I kind of let my game play itself and keep my mouth shut.”

But Grimes feels that part of his game is progressing. “That’s coming more in to everything now, I think. At first, it was position for blocking and other mechanics. Now I’m getting used to that more and more. I’ve still got a lot to work on and I do every day. But the talking side of it, and getting to know your pitchers, is starting to come more and more.”

Grimes literally takes a very professional approach to his new responsibilities.

“It’s a tough thing when (pitchers) aren’t hitting their locations or not hitting the vicinity that you think it’s going to be. You’re trying to call a curve ball and those guys are trying to throw it for a strike and it’s in the dirt.

It’s your job to block the ball. At these levels, now, you need to block the ball. We’re not in college or high school, this is our job, this is what we’re paid to do. So I take a lot of pride in blocking now. Even if it looks bad or weird, I’m going to do whatever I can to throw my body at it.”

His manager, Jake Mauer, likes the progress Grimes has made this season.

“He’s progressing pretty good, starting to receive the ball better, throws great,” said the manager. “His game-calling has gotten better. If we can get him to receive a little bit better on the low pitch, which a lot of catchers have trouble with.”

“He’s come a long ways,” added Mauer. “He wants to catch, which is a good thing. He wants to be good at it, which is better.”

Tyler Grimes

Tyler Grimes

One aspect of the game that Grimes has had considerable success at this season is controlling the running game of the Kernels’ opponents. He has thrown out about 44 percent of opposing baserunners that have attempted to steal a base against him. That’s a percentage most Major League catchers would love to have.

“It always feels good when you throw somebody out,” admitted Grimes. “You can block a ball and everything like that, but once you throw somebody out, it’s kind of like, ‘ok, I’m starting to like this more and more,’ you know?”

Still, it takes a certain kind of fearlessness for a player to willingly adjust from playing a position that’s a relatively safe 100 feet or more away from the hitter to being the guy setting up right behind the hitter. As it turns out, Grimes comes by that trait naturally. He played hockey until a series of concussions forced him to give up that game and focus on baseball.

That’s a fact he may regret letting Joel Lepel in on.

“(Lepel) likes to get on me, which is fine, because I can take it,” Grimes said, smiling. “Ever since then, he’s been like, ‘we’re going to be on you about it because if you’re a hockey player, you’re not scared of nothing.’

“But it is my mentality, catching is my mentality. I just had to get used to it and, like I said, I’m loving it now.”

He may be loving catching now, but there’s little question about which sport was Grimes’ favorite growing up – and it wasn’t baseball.

“We traveled in hockey from Houston to Canada,” Grimes related, concerning his time as a teenage hockey player. “Every spring break we’d go to Calgary and Toronto. Being from Kansas, a lot of people wouldn’t expect that. We actually had a good group of guys and we traveled all over and had fun with it.

“I tell you what, if I didn’t have the concussions that I have, then I probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you, to this day,” Grimes admitted.

Shortly after arriving in Cedar Rapids, Grimes had an opportunity to attend a Cedar Rapids RoughRiders United States Hockey League game. Did watching the RoughRiders make him feel like grabbing a stick?

“Oh man,” Grimes responded with a head shake. “I called my dad and said, ‘I’m going to have to leave.’ I ended up leaving because I can’t watch it. I haven’t put on a pair of skates since I was 17 years old.”

The teenage Grimes “retired” from hockey after a championship game.

“My friend actually passed away this past year and they had a little get-together skate and I couldn’t even go to that,” recalled Grimes. “I showed up to the funeral but I couldn’t go to (the skate) because I can’t put on another pair of skates or I’ll be done with baseball and that’s no lie.”

Grimes’ demeanor turns serious when asked about his family and how they keep up with how he’s doing during the season.

“I’m a big family guy. My dad’s my best friend. I’ve got four little sisters and my mom, so it’s a big deal to me,” said Grimes. “I’m really tight with my little sisters. I went to Wichita State and played there and the reason I why I chose there was because I wanted to watch my sisters grow up. Not only do I play for myself, but I play for them and I play for our last name. I take a lot of pride in that.”

Obviously, the Grimes are a tight-knit family.

“I can sit here and tell you everything about my family and tell you how tight we are, but there’s really no words to describe how me and my family are,” Grimes explained. “It’s about being real and that’s how my personality is. I think that’s why I like catching, because if a pitcher needs to hear something or a pitcher needs to tell me something, I’m not going to be afraid to say anything and that’s how I look at it. But yeah, my family is my everything.”

Tyler Grimes

Tyler Grimes

Grimes also is enjoying the time he’s spending with his Kernels baseball family this season, but he’s also quite philosophical about the life of a minor league ballplayer that he’s leading.

“Now that I’m here, you’ve got to enjoy these guys, got to enjoy the clubhouse, because you never know when your last day is going to be,” said Grimes. “Two of my friends just got released last week. It just happens that quick.

“All these fans that come out and support us would do anything to be in our position. You know what, sometimes as players, we get away from how we have it. Minor league baseball is a grind, but at the same time, if it pays off and you get (to the Major Leagues), you’re going to be accepting a pretty good check every two weeks.”

Whether he achieves his goal of playing Big League ball or not, Grimes feels his time in the minor leagues is preparing him for life after baseball.

“You meet guys in the clubhouse that you don’t like or you dislike or you love, you have to find a way to get along with everybody,” Grimes went on to explain, “because that’s what’s going to take our team to a winning team or a losing team or a mediocre team. You just never know.”

Grimes believes the Twins organization does a very good job of finding players with character.

“I don’t know how deep (the Twins) go in to background checks, but everybody in our organization is a classy guy. Everybody gets along,” said Grimes. “The friendships that you build, it’s not just towards baseball. You never know if  JD Williams is going to own a business or if Joel Licon’s going to be the owner of a hotel and you get put on with him and you guys just keep in touch. It’s just good because it’s more than baseball.

“As much time as we spend together and as much as we get on each others’ nerves, you can’t explain the minor league life to the outsiders. It’s just impossible.”

One thing Grimes could explain, however, was his feelings about playing baseball in Cedar Rapids this season.

“I called my dad after about the first two weeks, and said, ‘I don’t know what the Big Leagues feels like, but this feels like the Big Leagues to me,” Grimes recalled, adding that the host family program was another aspect he appreciates about his Cedar Rapids experience.

Talking about the fan turnout for Kernels games, compared to other places he’s played, Grimes was effusive in his praise for the local support the Kernels fans have shown the team.

“To be able to play in front of an atmosphere like we go out in front of every night, it makes us enjoy what we’re doing,” said Grimes. “I actually feel like a professional baseball player here.”

Kernels: Q & A with Steve Gruver

It’s the top of the seventh inning and his team is leading by two runs. There are two outs, but the bases are loaded with opposing base runners.

It’s the kind of situation the best relief pitchers almost seem to relish coming in to face.

Kernels relief pitchers Tyler Jones (35) and Steve Gruver (R)

Kernels relief pitchers Tyler Jones (35) and Steve Gruver (R)

Lefty Steve Gruver and right-hander Tyler Jones have been among the most reliable bullpen arms in the Midwest League this season and have presented a formidable lefty-righty combination out of the Kernels bullpen.

Gruver was one of eight Kernels named to the Midwest League All-Star Game in June and on Friday night it was Gruver who entered the game with two outs and the bases loaded, determined to protect that two-run Kernels lead.

Gruver would like to forget the moments that followed, as Tyrone Taylor launched a grand slam home run off a pitch that found its way too close to the middle of the plate and put the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers up by an 8-6 score.

Gruver finished the final 2 1/3 innings of the game for Cedar Rapids and the Kernels scored once in the eighth inning, but it wasn’t enough, as they lost to Wisconsin 8-7.

The next day, on Saturday afternoon, before the Kernels took on the Lumber Kings in Clinton, Gruver, who was drafted by the Twins out of the University of Tennessee in the seventh round of the 2011 First Year Player Draft, talked about the life of a professional relief pitcher.

Jim Crikket: Steve, this is your second year in the Midwest League and you spent time in Beloit last year both as a part of their starting rotation and pitching out of the bullpen, correct?

Steve Gruver: Most of the year, I started and then toward the end of the year, actually right around this time, I went to the bullpen.

JC: Was that primarily to limit the number of innings on your arm? I know they had a few guys that pitched in both roles last year.

Gruver: There were a few, but mainly for me, my velocity started dropping a little bit and I had a few bad outings in a row. So I was just trying to get back in to not thinking and just trying to throw hard and get my velocity back up a little.

JC: Coming in to this year, did the Twins tell you that this is your role, working out of the bullpen, or did they tell you to be prepared for anything again?

Gruver: It was kind of be prepared for anything. They don’t really let you know too much. They want you to be prepared for anything. They want you to be able to be versatile and come out in any role so I’ve kind of kept it open and like there was a chance to do anything really.

JC: Do you have a particular preference, now that you’ve done both? Is there one role you prefer over the other?

Gruver: I enjoy both. I’m not too picky, as long as I’m pitching. I try to treat every inning as just one inning at a time, whether I’m trying to go six or seven that day or just one. I try and look at it the same, whether I’m starting or relieving.

JC: The preparation between games has to be a little different, though, right?

Gruver: There’s differences in the preparation between the two and I try and keep that the limit of the differences. But there are definitely differences there.

Starting, you have four or five days in between each start, so it’s a little bit more logistical, I guess, in how you prepare. You have a little bit more of a plan going through each day, on what you do each day in your bullpens in between when you pitch.

When you’re in the pen, you kind of have to let it fly. You never know. You could pitch two, three days in a row sometimes. So you don’t have those days in between to throw pens and work out as much. You kind of have to have somewhat of a loose routine when you’re coming out of the pen, compared to a starter routine, which would be very strict and kind of a more day-to-day basis.

JC: As a starter, your pitching coach can work with you in between starts, maybe work on a new grip for one of your pitches. How do you go about making those sorts of adjustments as a reliever when you don’t know whether you’re going to have to pitch that night or not?

Gruver: You have to limit your pitches. You have to really be diligent in what you do and every pitch has to matter when you’re in a relief role.

When you’re trying to get that extra work in, you have to use every pitch. I may only throw 10 pitches in my bullpen when I go out, but I try and make sure every pitch counts and I have a plan for each pitch so that every time I throw, I’m getting something out of it.

JC: What about the mental approach to relieving, as opposed to starting? Out of the bullpen, you have to be prepared to go in either to start an inning or with guys on base.

Gruver: I enjoy that. I enjoy having that excitement, especially when you come in with guys on base. It’s a do or die situation and it kind of gets you focused, it gets you excited and it kind of gets your heart rate up a little bit.

Starting is different. Starting, you have to be a little bit more under control. You’re starting the game and you know that you’re the one the team is counting on to get through the long innings.

There are different approaches to it, but both are exciting in their own way.

JC: Which leads us to last (Friday) night. Bases loaded, you come in and second pitch didn’t go where you wanted it to go. At least it didn’t end up where you wanted it to end up.

Gruver: No, it didn’t. The pitch didn’t go where I wanted it to go, either.

I made a bad pitch and he got the best of me on that one.

As a relief pitcher, that’s got to just disappear from your mind, because tonight they may call on you again in the same situation and you can’t go in there thinking about what happened last time.

Even closer to the situation, I had to go two more innings afterward. I had to get out of that situation and tell myself we can still come back. I have to be able to put that behind me and keep going through the game, just in case we score.

We were only down two and still had a chance to come back. If that was still on my mind, I could have given up two or three more runs the next innings and really blown it.

You have to have a very short memory in those situations.

JC: You said you enjoy that aspect of being a relief pitcher, of always being ready. Is that part of it, too, knowing there’s a little bit of a mental challenge to have that short memory?

Gruver: Yeah, that’s definitely something that’s tough for a lot of guys, but it is exciting. When you can push through that, you feel good even in a bad situation like that. You feel good coming out of it, knowing that you got through it.

You really tell yourself it’s not the end of the world. So next time, you might come in a little bit more relaxed and get out of that situation.

JC: There are some who believe that it takes greater mental fortitude to be a late-inning reliever, as opposed to a middle reliever. Do you look at it that way or does it really not matter when you go in to a game?

Gruver: I try not to make it matter. I try and take every inning as the same. Really, you can break it down in to one pitch at a time, even less than an inning. I’m trying to throw that one pitch, whether you’re up five or down five, you’re trying to make that one pitch at a time.

If you’re coming in during the fourth inning, you tend to be either up a lot or down a lot, so there is a little bit less pressure sometimes. You can come in and try to pound the zone a little more, knowing that even if you give up one or two that you’re still going to be in the game or you’re not inherently affecting the game, where coming in in the eighth or ninth, a lot of times the game’s on the line.

But, overall, you try and look at it the same way.

JC: There’s a perception that it may take a guy less time to reach the Big Leagues as a relief pitcher than as a starting pitcher, particularly for a lefty. Does that influence your preference as far as your role or do you even think about that kind of thing?

Gruver: It’s not my decision. I do what they tell me and I’m happy to be in whatever role, as long as I’m still playing. And If I’m moving up, it doesn’t really matter to me what role I’m in.

JC: Tell me a bit about how you’re finding the Cedar Rapids experience this year. Is there anything in particular about playing in Cedar Rapids that stands out to you?

Gruver: I really enjoy the fans. They get behind us a lot. The games are always exciting in that way. It’s always loud and the fans get in to it. When we’re playing well, the fans let us know. It’s fun to hear a loud crowd. When you’re on the field and something good happens, the fans get in to it just as much as you do.

JC: Off the field, do you have hobbies or other interests? What do you enjoy doing when you’re not at the ballpark?

Gruver: I enjoy some movies. I enjoy being outside a lot. Anything I can. Playing other sports, but I really can’t do that in the season. In the season, in the time I’m not at the field, I enjoy some movies.

I enjoy reading a lot, especially with all the road trips we have and all the time on buses, I’m really getting in to some books. I enjoy that a lot.

JC: Do you have a favorite movie?

Gruver: One of my favorites is “Shawshank Redemption.” It’s a classic favorite.

************************************

Speaking of redemption…

On Monday night in Clinton, In Gruver’s first appearance since Friday’s tough loss, Gruver entered the game in the fifth inning with the Kernels trailing Clinton 3-1.

He threw three shutout innings, giving up just two hits and one walk, while striking out three Lumber Kings hitters, while his team mates came back to take a lead and earning Gruver his fifth win of the season.

- JC

Meet Kernels Hitting Coach Tommy Watkins

Cedar Rapids Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins knows his way around a minor league field, having spent parts of 11 seasons as a player in the Minnesota Twins minor league system. Toward the end of the 2007 season, he got to live the dream of every player who ever put on a minor league uniform when he was called up to the Big Leagues by the Twins.

Tommy Watkins hitting ground balls to third baseman Travis Harrison

Tommy Watkins hitting ground balls to third baseman Travis Harrison

Since 2009, Watkins has been coaching in the Twins minor league organization and this season is his fourth as the hitting coach for the Twins’ Class A affiliate in the Midwest League (the first three coming with the Twins’ then-affiliate, the Beloit Snappers).

Watkins recently sat down and talked about his role with the Kernels and more.

Jim Crikket: This is the first year in Cedar Rapids for you and the team after spending a few years in Beloit. How do you feel things are going here?

Tommy Watkins: Things are going great here. The people are amazing, just like the people in Beloit were pretty amazing. But things have jumped off here pretty well.

The facility is one of the best in the league, especially in our division. In the other division, you’ve got a lot of the newer parks, but we’ve got one of the best parks in our division and we get a lot of Twins fans, which is fun.

For me, the (batting) cage is right outside the clubhouse so if the guys want to get some extra work, we can go right out and get right to it. It’s been fun.

JC: Describe the work you do as the hitting coach. I’ve been told the organization puts a plan together for all the players in the minor leagues. How do you go about implementing that plan with the hitters?

Watkins: Everybody’s different. We have a hit plan that we stick to throughout the organization, but each guy is different with the drills they like to do or things they need to work on. So, like I said, we’ve got a hit plan over the whole minor leagues. Bill Springman (Twins Minor League Hitting Coordinator) put that together for everybody. And then we go through and we get individual hit plans for each guy.

JC: That sounds like a lot of work.

Watkins: It’s a lot of work, but I’m only dealing with twelve or thirteen guys at a time, so it’s not too bad.

JC: I understand the Twins have implemented some kind of “balance” program for the players in Cedar Rapids and Fort Myers. A program Jim Dwyer (the hitting coach for the Fort Myers Miracle, the next level up the Twins organizational chain) recommended. How’s that going?

Watkins: I think it’s good. The guys all take it pretty serious. I just think it’s training your brain. Just like we go out and take BP every day, they get on that balance board to train their brain. It helps with a lot of things, concentration being one of them I think, for me. I’ve even heard a couple guys talk about getting on it to help their golf game to focus and train your brain.

Jimmy (Dwyer), he got in to it big time last year. Just to see the guys do those exercises, he saw a change in their on-field stuff. It’s just like anything, you’ve got to train your body and you’ve got to use your brain to play and I think it helps you focus more.

We’ve even had guys in the dugout doing it during Batting Practice.

JC: I’ve heard that you sometimes serve as a translator for some of the guys from Latin America. I’d think it must be tough as a coach to communicate with players that don’t speak English. Are you bilingual?

Kernels Hitting Coach Tommy Watkins

Kernels Hitting Coach Tommy Watkins

Watkins: I like to call it Spanglish. It’s not really Spanish. It’s English mixed with Spanish. All of our guys speak (English) enough. The Twins do a good job of giving the guys classes during spring training and instructional league.

I went down to the Dominican and we had an English teacher down there. So, the Twins do a really good job of trying to help these guys learn English. I think it’s a big part of development and making it to the Big Leagues is learning how to speak the language.

The Twins gave me Rosetta Stone in Spanish. I’ll use it on the bus. It’s pretty good. But I think you learn a lot more by actually dealing with people and talking to people.

JC: During a game, fans can see you motioning to players in the field, moving them around some. Do you have particular in-game responsibilities?

Watkins: I think me and Jake (manager Jake Mauer), we work together on moving the defense around, depending on the batter, depending on the pitcher. We keep a book on what they (opponents) do, so it kind of helps us plan for how we play them defensively. That’s one of the things I do with defense.

When it’s late in a game, we’ll play a guy back in “no doubles,” I’ll let them know that. Or throwing the ball to the cutoff man or whatnot. Just those kind of details.

Hitting wise, I just try to watch their at-bats and see if I can help them out with anything. With approach or maybe a swing they took. A lot of times just trying to see what they were thinking and just get some feedback from them.

The guys are good to work with, all of them. We just talk a lot about approach. I ask them what they see and tell them what I see and try to fix whatever it may be.

JC: Do you get video of your hitters’ at-bats to review with them?

Watkins: We get video of a couple guys every night. Maybe we’ve got a lefty pitching (against us) and we’ll get all the right handed hitters that day. We’ll put it on the video and guys can go back there and take a look at it, analyze it. I have my iPad and sometimes I like to get video on that. They’ve got the video any time they need it. I think they also send it out within the organization so they can see it, too.

JC: You made it to the Major Leagues for a bit as a player with the Twins. Now you’re in your next career as a coach. Is it your goal to work your way back up to that level?

Watkins: I love the coaching part of it and coaching in the Big Leagues is a goal of mine. That’s what I want to shoot for, whether it be managing, coaching third base, first base, whatever it may be. I would love to have a chance to get up there and coach in the Big Leagues.

JC: Just as an observer, the guys seem to really like working with you. It’s got to be easier to coach a guy that you have some sort of rapport with.

Watkins: Yeah it is. We’ve got a bunch of good guys on the team and they get along with each other just as well as they get along with the staff.

JC: They see how you turned Byron Buxton from a nobody in to a prospect like that. It really gives you instant credibility, right? (question posed with a smile and tongue firmly in cheek)

Watkins: (Laughing) Yeah, yeah, right.

JC: That has to give your resume a pretty good shot. “I was Byron Buxton’s hitting coach.”

Watkins: I thank him. He might be able to help me out a lot!

No, but Buxton’s got tremendous talent, as everyone can see. You know, I just tried not to mess him up. When he left, I was like “alright, good.” I was joking with Jim, “hey, Dwyer, don’t mess him up.”

He was a fun guy to watch, man. Easy to coach. You’d suggest something to him, he’d listen and try to work on it. What was good about him was that he could apply it.

A couple times, he’d go 0 for 2 and he’d say, “what am I doing?” I’d say, “you’re alright, you’re OK.” Then the next two he’d hit right up the middle by the pitcher.

I just try to keep all the guys happy and just try to make them feel comfortable. I think that’s the biggest thing. Being comfortable, confident and just trusting in your ability.

Q & A with Kernels Infielder Niko Goodrum

Cedar Rapids Kernels middle infielder Niko Goodrum was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the second round of the 2010 First Year Player Draft and spent the past two years playing for the Twins short season rookie league team in Elizabethton.

Niko Goodrum

Niko Goodrum

The 21 year old switch-hitter from Georgia got off to a good start with the Kernels, most often batting second in Manager Jake Mauer’s batting order, behind lead off hitter Byron Buxton. He was named to the Midwest League’s Western Division All-Star team.

On June 2, Goodrum collided with Kane County catcher Willson Contreras and came away with a concussion that sidelined him on the team’s Disabled List right up until the final day of the first half of the Midwest League season on June 16. His activation that day allowed him to participate in the MWL All-Star Game on June 18.

A few days ago, Goodrum talked about his season, so far, his injury and a number of other topics.

Jim Crikket: You’ve now played in about the same number of games you played in an entire year of rookie league ball. Have you been able to tell a difference in the full season of a Midwest League season, compared to the short season rookie leagues?

Niko Goodrum: You’ve got more games and if you’re in a slump, there’s no way to stretch it out (in short season). So that’s better. Body wise, there’s more on your body in a full season, but I don’t really feel a big difference between the rookie ball and the full season. They say it’s a big jump, but my body’s holding up well.

JC: You got of to a pretty good start to this season and then you had the issue over in Kane County. Exactly what happened there?

Goodrum: I was on first base and stole second base. Jorge Polanco was up and hit a line drive to left field. Jake (Manager Jake Mauer) rounded me around third base so I’m headed home. But then the catcher was up the line so it was either just stop or, if I try to slide, he’d probably end up dogging me or something. My first reaction was try to run him over.  He kind of punched me in my chin. I don’t remember contact at all. I didn’t feel anything. I was down. I woke up and I was just strapped on to a cart.

JC: How long after that did it take before you felt like you could be playing?

Goodrum: I had headaches for probably three days after I had the concussion. But after that, when I started back to activities, I felt like “I’m ready to play,” but it was just a long process they had to do with concussions. Sending paperwork up to Minnesota and MLB so they can clear it, so it was a long process but I felt like I could play after the headaches went away. I felt ready to go.

JC: I recall you were hoping to get cleared a day or two earlier than it actually happened.

Goodrum: They told me I was going to be cleared on Saturday so we were just waiting for Saturday to come and then they told me they didn’t hear anything back from them. Then once the game finally started, that’s when they ended up telling them I’m cleared to play. So I ended up getting cleared for Sunday.

JC: The team struggled a bit while you were out of the line up. That had to be kind of tough to sit and watch while the lead in the standings dropped from five games, four games and so on. And there was nothing you could do about it.

Niko Goodrum

Niko Goodrum

Goodrum: Yeah, it was. It was tough watching and knowing I can’t do anything to help them. Not even a chance I could get in to maybe play defense or pinch hit or run or something. There was nothing. So it was tough watching and seeing my team go down like that.

JC: Tell me about the All-Star Game experience.  That must have been a good time.

Goodrum: It was fun. Being around guys from other teams. The atmosphere. The home run derby was fun, watching that. Playing in front of ten thousand people was fun. Just the atmosphere. It was just great, a great time, I had a good time, yeah.

JC: With Byron Buxton’s promotion, your role has changed perhaps a little bit. You’ve had some opportunities to bat lead off. Do you take a different approach when you lead off or do you just try to get on base?

Goodrum: Yeah, just get on base. That’s all I’m worried about is trying to get on base.

JC: I know your father was in Cedar Rapids early in April. Has your family been back up to see you play? How do they follow how you’re doing with the Kernels?

Goodrum: Most of my family does it online, they look at the game play-by-play online. All my family came up to the All-Star Game to see me play.

My dad hasn’t been back up yet, but my mom and my brother and my girlfriend, they came up to CR to see me play. They’ve been up here a couple times.

JC: Tell me about your hobbies and interests off the field. What do you like to do away from the ballpark?

Niko Goodrum

Niko Goodrum

Goodrum: Sometimes I play video games, go to movies. Chill. I’m pretty much at Tyler Grimes’ house, me and JD (Williams) are pretty much over there hanging out. But we don’t really do too much.

JC: You’ve been in Cedar Rapids for over three months now. What’s been the best part of the Cedar Rapids experience so far?

Goodrum: New city, it’s always fun playing in front of new fans. It’s a great field, great stadium. A great coaching staff, so it’s always good.Overall, it’s a big jump from Elizabethton, city-wise, so all around, it’s good.

JC: Have you set any specific personal or team goals for the rest of the year?

Goodrum: Try to win a championship.

Kernels: Life After Buck and a Mike Pelfrey Appearance

Minnesota Twins super-prospect Byron Buxton led the Cedar Rapids Kernels through a pretty amazing first half of their Midwest League season. They led the league’s West Division almost from wire to wire.

Almost.

But on Sunday, June 16, the Kernels gave up a late lead to the Peoria Chiefs and sealed their fate as the Division Runner-Up.

That was the last day that Buxton wore his Kernels home whites on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

After returning from the MWL All-Star Game, Buxton boarded the team bus for the trip to Wisconsin. There, the team swept a four-game series with the Timber Rattlers and did so under the watchful eye of Twins General Manager Terry Ryan.

On that same bus, during the trip home to Cedar Rapids, Kernels Manager Jake Mauer got a phone call from the Twins front office and then told Byron Buxton he was being promoted to the Fort Myers Miracle.

You could understand if the Kernels, without the statistical leader of their offense, had needed to take a step back and regroup. Nobody would have been surprised if they had lost a few games as they searched for a new leadoff hitter and a new center fielder. After all, you can’t just replace a guy who many consider perhaps the top minor league prospect in baseball.

What the Kernels have done instead, however, is continue winning.

Since Buxton’s promotion, the Kernels have swept a four-game series with the Burlington Bees and a three-game series over the Peoria Chiefs. Heading in to Tuesday night’s game at Beloit, the Kernels are 11-0 in the second half of their MWL season.

Yes, it has been an eventful couple of weeks since that gut-wrenching meltdown during the final series of the season’s first half.

Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

It certainly didn’t hurt that the Kernels finally welcomed outfielder Max Kepler to the roster to start the second half of the season.

Kepler, another of the Twins’ top prospects, had been slated to open the season with the Kernels but an elbow strain in March kept him in Fort Myers for extended spring training.

Kepler has only four singles in his 44 at-bats since joining the team. Then again, he also has five doubles, a triple and three home runs. That’s good enough for a .659 slugging percentage over an admittedly limited sample size.

The German native has also helped fill Buxton’s shoes defensively. He’s not likely to make the jaw-dropping defensive plays that Buxton seemed to make almost every other game in the outfield, but Kepler has the speed to cover plenty of outfield grass.

JD Williams

JD Williams

Niko Goodrum and JD Williams have both spent time filling Buxton’s shoes at the top of the Kernels’ batting order. Goodrum’s sporting a second-half on-base percentage (OBP) of .362, which isn’t bad, but check out Williams’ second half slash line: .462 BA/ .517 OBP/ .731 SLG/ 1.248 OPS.

Goodrum’s primary middle infield partner, Jorge Polanco, has hit .375 and put up an OPS of .969 since the All-Star break.

Dalton Hicks hasn’t homered yet in the second half, but he’s hitting .306 with five doubles.

Travis Harrison leads off third base

Travis Harrison leads off third base

Travis Harrison has a pair of home runs and six doubles since his All-Star Game appearance. He’s hitting .371 and has a 1.214 OPS.

Adam Brett Walker has a pair of home runs, as well, to go with his .303 batting average.

The second half success hasn’t been limited to the hitters, either.

The next earned run that Tyler Jones or Steve Gruver give up will be the first an opponent has put up against the two bullpen arms. In fact, opponents have a grand total of one hit off the two pitchers, combined, since the All-Star break.

Jose Berrios has made just one start since the break, but he went seven innings in that start and struck out nine hitters without a single walk, while giving up just five hits.

Brett Lee has struck out 12 over the 13 innings that have comprised his two starts this half.

Christian Powell is sporting a 2-0 record and a 0.69 ERA over the 13 innings he’s thrown during his first two starts of the second half.

And just in case the Kernels players needed a reminder of what it is they’re putting in all this work for, they got a visit this week from Twins starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey, who drove down from the Twin Cities with his family to make a rehab start for the Kernels on Monday night.

Mike Pelfrey warms up in the bullpen before his rehab start in CR

Mike Pelfrey warms up in the bullpen before his rehab start in CR

The plan was for Pelfrey to work five innings or throw 75 pitches, whichever came first.

But after throwing just 54 pitches through five innings, Pelfrey went back to the mound for the sixth.

“We got there in the fourth and the fifth and they said, ‘hey you’re done.’ I said, ‘hey I want to go back out for one more.’ I was just starting to get the command of my fastball back, which is very important to have to succeed, obviously, at the Big League level.”

As Pelfrey freely admitted in an interview before the game, his season didn’t get off to the kind of start he and the Twins hoped it would. But, as Kernels pitching coach Gary Lucas said after the game, “It was fun to watch him. Man, what a pro. What a good pro he is,” said Lucas. “To see how he handled himself and how he interacted with the guys on the bench. Pretty cool.”

It was a pretty cool night for the Kernels organization and their fans, as well.

Mike Pelfrey addresses the CR media (including a scruffy looking blogger in a faded ballcap)

Mike Pelfrey addresses the CR media (including a scruffy looking blogger in a faded ballcap)

According to Kernels General Manager Doug Nelson, a typical Monday crowd at this point in the season is about 1,500 fans. The Kernels drew 2,246 to see Pelfrey pitch, with a sizable portion of that total coming from “walk up” ticket sales. That extra 746 fans may not seem like a lot to those accustomed to seeing Major League attendance totals, but that’s several thousand dollars of extra revenue that the Kernels wouldn’t have had if the Twins hadn’t sent Pelfrey to Cedar Rapids for his rehab start.

Nelson indicated before the game that the topic of rehabilitation assignments had come up last September when the Twins and Kernels were discussing a possible affiliation agreement. While the Twins made no specific promises, they did tell the Kernels that they were comfortable with the facility in Cedar Rapids from a player-safety standpoint and that rehab assignments here would be simply a matter of schedules and timing working out.

With Pelfrey’s appearance, the Twins have now equaled the total number of rehab assignments that the prior Kernels affiliate, the Angels, sent to Cedar Rapids during the entire 20-year relationship between that organization and the Kernels. Angels pitcher Ken Hill joined the Kernels for a rehab stint in 1998.

The Kernels ballboy and the home plate umpire might have had the toughest challenge getting through Pelfrey’s appearance.

Plate umpire and Kernels ballboy switch out MLB balls for MWL balls between innings

Plate umpire and Kernels ballboy switch out MLB balls for MWL balls between innings

Pelfrey brought a supply of Major League baseballs with him to use in Cedar Rapids, which meant every half inning, the ballboy and plate umpire had to completely switch out the umpire’s supply of baseballs to allow Pelfrey to use Major League balls and the Peoria pitchers to use the Midwest League versions they are familiar with.

By winning their tenth straight game this past Sunday, the Kernels earned a free dinner from the team’s Board of Directors. By tradition, the Board treats the team to dinner at the Ox Yoke in the Amana Colonies whenever they reel off 10 straight wins. No date has been set yet, but it’s something the Kernels players are looking forward to.

That’s especially true of Kepler, the German native. The restaurant specializes in traditional German food, something Kepler said he hasn’t had in awhile.

While the team will have to wait for an evening they can fit a trip to the Amana Colonies in to their busy schedule to collect on that meal, they tasted the benefits of Pelfrey’s appearance immediately after the game.

According to Nelson, Pelfrey treated his temporary Kernels teammates to prime rib for their postgame meal in the clubhouse.

- JC