Berrios Headlines Kernels’ Hot Stove Banquet

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.

Jake Mauer, Brad Steil and Jose Berrios talk baseball at the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet
Jake Mauer, Brad Steil and Jose Berrios talk baseball at the Kernels 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.”

Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios

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.”

Brad Steil and Jake Mauer chat before the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet with former big leaguer Tom Lawless, who was inducted into Cedar Rapids' baseball hall of fame Wednesday. Lawless managed the last Kernels team to win A MWL championship.
Brad Steil and Jake Mauer chat before the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet with former big leaguer Tom Lawless, who was inducted into Cedar Rapids’ baseball hall of fame Wednesday. Lawless managed the last Kernels team to win A MWL championship.

-JC

Seeing Into the Future (and not liking it much)

Make a list of the top three things you think are wrong with professional baseball today. In fact, make it five things, if you wish.

A year from now, the landscape regarding those issues is likely to be quite different than it is today. Things may be better, from your point of view, or they may be worse.

I take that back. Unless you’re a Major League ballplayer, they’re almost certainly going to be worse.

Major League Baseball and the players’ union (MLBPA) are about to begin hammering out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and the result is likely to have a direct or indirect effect on just about every aspect of professional baseball that any of us care about in the least.

Yes, this is going to be that big.

mlb and union600The thing is, we already know which side is going to win. It will be the players. We just don’t know the final score, yet.

There will also be more than one loser. It won’t be just the owners, though they will certainly be losers, some of them much more than others (that would be you, Minnesota Twins).

Owners/operators of some minor league teams are also possible losers (some of them potentially big losers).

Minor league players will be losers (as they always are in these CBAs).

Amateur ballplayers, in the United States and elsewhere, will be losers.

On the other hand, I’ve looked into my crystal ball and the future looks very, very bright – if you’re Mike Trout. In fact, the future also looks pretty good if you’re swimming anywhere in the top half of the MLB player talent pool.

For the rest of us, though, it could be a very bumpy ride.

In the early 2000s, estimates placed the percentage of MLB revenues paid out in Major League salaries at about 55%. Current estimates have been reported at something close to 43%. The players are clearly going to want to see those numbers project closer to 50% in the new CBA and they have enough leverage this time to get what they want.

You always want to be cautious about speaking ill of the dead, but the former head of the players union, Michael Weiner, who passed away in 2013, arguably gave away the farm to Bud Selig and the owners in his first, and only, CBA negotiation back in 2011.

In his defense, he wasn’t exactly dealt a strong hand going into those negotiations. Players’ reputations were continuing to be tarnished by the image among fans that they had all built their careers on Performance Enhancing Drugs, making it certain that any work stoppage resulting from a failed CBA negotiation would be blamed on the players. Regardless of the reasons, though, the final result was a contract in which the owners got most everything they wanted.

Current MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark, the first former player to lead the union, should carry a much stronger bargaining position into this round of negotiations.

As a group, baseball’s owners are making money by the boatload, thanks to incredible increases in local television revenues in many markets. That’s a double-edged sword, however, when it comes to negotiating a new CBA.

It makes it impossible for baseball to contend that they can’t afford to give a bigger share of the financial pie to the players, yet those revenues are anything but evenly distributed. As a result, increasing salaries across the board would adversely affect the competitiveness of teams who have not been able to cash in on the local TV bonanza (see: Twins, Minnesota).

On top of that, the owners with those huge TV deals stand to lose a lot of money in the event of a strike or lockout that results in games not being played, as do owners who rely on revenue sharing from those teams. Wide public awareness of the enormous revenues also makes it likely that ownership will be viewed by fans as being primarily at fault for any such work stoppage, should it occur.

The result is a players’ union with a very strong negotiating position and plenty of motivation to take advantage of it.

Here’s how the union could attempt to go about increasing the share of revenues that go to players’ salaries:

Significantly increase the minimum salary for Major League players

The minimum player’s salary was $507,500 in 2015. That may not immediately increase to $1 million in 2017, but it won’t be surprising if it’s closer to that number than where it currently sits.

This is important to the union because significantly increasing the minimum would potentially result in fewer players signing early team-friendly extensions that buy out arbitration years and, in some cases, free agency years. These extensions are viewed by the union as a drag on average player salaries.

Elimination of the Qualifying Offer/draft pick compensation system for teams that stand to lose free agents

Despite changes that have been made to lessen the market-dampening effect for many free agents, the players still hate this system. It’s seen as being particularly hard on the union’s “upper-middle class” of players – those who aren’t in the elite category, but for whom having to settle for merely $15 million or so on a one year contract is “unfair.”

Significantly reducing the number of years a player is “under team control”

This refers to the total number of years that a club can restrict a player’s ability to shop his services to the highest bidder on the free agent market. It consists of a three-year (usually) period of essential “serfdom,” during which the player has no alternative but to accept whatever salary (subject to the Major League minimum) the team offers and another three-year period of years during which the team must decide whether to offer the player binding arbitration or grant him unconditional release.

The result is a total of six years (in most cases) of team control before a player can become a free agent, meaning that currently a player who makes his MLB debut on or after turning 24 years old will be at least 30 by the time he’s eligible to file for free agency if his team exercises every year of control they have over the player.

In combination with the increased minimum salary, reducing the number of years of team control could make it far more likely that players would forego the additional security of an early team-friendly contract extension, in favor of playing out their arbitration years to reach free agency as soon as possible. It could also make it much more likely that young superstars hit free agency right at their peak, in terms of productivity, rather than somewhere at the beginning of the downside of that curve.

More time off for players

The MLB schedule is a gauntlet. Between the day games after night games and, perhaps worse, the night games followed by cross-country overnight travel to begin another series the next day, the 162-game schedule is more than merely grueling and players want more than the three or so days off each month they currently get. The problem is that, with the extra postseason games resulting from the Wild Card era, the season already is starting and finishing during time periods where no sane person should be trying to play meaningful baseball in many northern big league cities.

One idea often floated to address this problem is to cut the schedule back to the 154 game levels that existed before the leagues expanded from eight to ten teams in the early 1960s. This would result in each team losing four home dates, however, and that would cut into revenues, not only with regard to attendance, but also in programming for those local TV partners that are shelling out big bucks to show the games.

Another possibility would be to expand active rosters. If you have 27 players, for example, instead of 25, it would be easier to give everyone an extra day off occasionally. It probably sounds better in theory than it would work in practice, however. Still, it would increase union membership by 8%, so don’t be shocked if the union pushes the idea pretty hard. In a worst case scenario, it gives them something they can “give up” when it comes time to finding a way to allow the owners to save some face.

Each of these would have the net effect of increasing the share of MLB revenues that go into the pockets of the players, collectively. Since the owners really cannot afford a work stoppage, if the MLBPA is willing to play hardball, we shouldn’t bet money against the players’ chances of getting some version of these changes. All of them.

What the owners will get

Of course, the owners won’t just cave on those issues while getting nothing in return – and that’s where things can turn bad for the rest of us.

The owners might get more drug testing. After all, the union has gone down this path already, so what’s the big deal about going a bit further? On the other hand, this “give” doesn’t put even a dime in the pockets of the owners, so they aren’t likely to push too hard for it.

The owners want an international draft, to further dampen costs of acquiring new talent. Since giving in on this issue costs the union membership absolutely nothing, they may posture about how unfair it is, but they will capitulate to the owners.

If the owners want further restrictions on bonuses paid to players subject to the draft, both foreign and domestic, the union can give on that issue, too. Again, it doesn’t cost their membership anything, so why not?

Of course, at a time when fewer parents are allowing their sons to play football, giving MLB an ideal opportunity to come up with ways to attract kids back to baseball, this is exactly the time when MLB should be adopting a system that encourages the best athletes in this country and around the world to choose baseball as a potential career over other sports, not discourage it.

But that might cost money and owners, by the time this subject gets addressed at the negotiating table, are probably going to be ticked off about the extra money they’re having to shell out to players already in the big leagues, so we shouldn’t expect logic to win the day.

Indirect side effects on the rest of us

Unfortunately, none of the ownership “wins” are going to even come close to making up for the money the owners are going to lose to their players in this deal, so they’re going to end up looking elsewhere to recoup some of those bucks.

This is where minor league players, teams and fans should start feeling nervous.

Minor league players, you can forget about seeing your pay go up to anything close to a living wage. Consider yourselves lucky if they don’t lower your base pay. After all, neither the union nor the owners are looking out for your interests in this negotiation.

You might find yourself with less competition for that low paying minor league roster spot you’ve got, though.

The number of minor league teams with MLB affiliations hasn’t changed significantly in decades. The current working agreement between MLB and MiLB assures owners of current affiliated minor league teams of having a MLB affiliation every year, but that agreement expires after 2020. Renegotiation of that agreement is just one of many things that is waiting for the completion of the new CBA.

If owners decide they have been terribly abused under the new CBA, it shouldn’t be too surprising to see them propose elimination of some affiliated minor leagues.

That would mean fewer communities with affiliated minor league teams, fewer jobs for minor league staff, fewer spots for minor league players and fewer games for minor league fans to attend.

Is this a Doomsday scenario that can’t possibly happen? Maybe. But neither MLB nor the players’ union has ever been shy about screwing over minor leaguers in CBA negotiations. After all, minor league teams and players are not represented in those negotiating sessions, making it easy for both sides to sacrifice minor league interests if it means getting something of even moderate value in return. It’s not unlikely that minor league baseball could look a little bit different in 2021 than it does today if Major League owners determine it’s in their best financial interests to impose significant changes.

A year from now, we’ll likely know a lot more about the changes coming for professional baseball going forward. Unless you happen to be a big league ballplayer today, you have a right to feel very uneasy about those changes.

-JC

Arizona Fall League Photos

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

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

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

Enjoy.

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

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

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

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

-JC

Wednesday and Thursday in Scottsdale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a video of his RBI single.

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

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

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

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

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

Again, you can see the results for yourself.

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

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

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

-JC

Tuesday Afternoon in Scottsdale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a picture of Scottsdale Stadium

Scottsdale Stadium

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

Backdrop

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

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

And a few pitches from Hildenberger.

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

Kernels’ Sean Miller is Moving Up Fast

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

Well, not quite all of them.

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

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

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

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

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

The quick promotion caught Miller a bit by surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sean Miller
Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doe and White: To the Miracle and Back Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brett Doe (Photo: SD Buhr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kernels’ Gibbons Immune to the Dog Days of Summer

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.

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)

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.”

DogDays
The Dog Days of Summer

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.”

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sam Gibbons shows off his form, as well as Saturday’s “Jimmy Buffet Night” Kernels jersey (Photo: SD Buhr)

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.”

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)

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.

– JC

Pat Kelly’s Baseball Career is a Family Affair

Pat Kelly
Pat Kelly (Photo: SD Buhr)

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.

Pat Kelly (in Minnesota Hero t-shirt) and some of his cheering section
Pat Kelly (in Minnesota Hero t-shirt) and some of his cheering section (Photo: SD Buhr)

“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.’”

Pat Kelly gets pregame work in at third base under the watchful eye of Kernels manager Jake Mauer (Photo: SD Buhr)
Pat Kelly gets pregame work in at third base under the watchful eye of Kernels manager Jake Mauer (Photo: SD Buhr)

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.”

Pat Kelly (Photo: SD Buhr)
Pat Kelly (Photo: SD Buhr)

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.”

– JC

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

In each of the past several seasons, the Cedar Rapids Kernels have held an “Autism Awareness Night” at the Veterans Memorial Stadium, with the Kernels wearing special jerseys that are auctioned off to benefit The East Central Iowa Autism Society.

The Society’s web site reports that the rate of autism is currently 1 in 88. However, as the site goes on to point out, “To most Americans, 1 in 88 is a number. To the families of a child with autism, our 1 in 88 has a face and a name.”

For one Kernels player, that face is his younger brother’s and that name is Max.

Cedar Rapids outfielder Zack Larson doesn’t need to wear a special jersey to remain aware of autism. In the unlikely event that Larson would require such a reminder, he needs only to look at his own right arm and the tattoo there consisting of the puzzle piece logo, widely used to promote autism awareness, along with his brother’s name.

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

Larson’s a native of the Bradenton, Florida, area, but moved to Virginia with his family when he was just five years old.

“I lived there for four years,” Larson recalled, “then, my little brother was born in Virginia and was diagnosed with autism. So we moved back down to Florida where we found a school for him to go to. That’s where we’ve been since.”

Max and the rest of Larson’s family follow Zack and the Kernels as closely as possible from Florida.

“They bought that (MiLB.tv) package so they watch the games on TV that are there to watch and they listen to every game with Morgan (Kernels radio broadcaster Morgan Hawk). My mom came (to Cedar Rapids) in May, so it was good to see her.”

If, as you’d expect, Max looks up to his big brother the ballplayer, it’s equally apparent that Zack admires Max, as well.

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

“He has pretty severe autism,” Larson explained. “He doesn’t talk very well but he knows words. He’s really brilliant on the computer. He knows how to work every electronic thing you can think of. My dad won’t know how to turn on something and Max will go in there and turn it on right away. My dad’s like, ‘what the heck?’ He’s a genius when it comes to electronics and computers and stuff.

“Not many people totally understand what it’s all about. It was eye-opening for me when I first started to understand what my brother was diagnosed with. I was still young. It made me a better person, it made my family better people and it’s a blessing to have my brother.”

Larson was signed out of high school in 2012 after being drafted by the Twins in the 20th round. Like virtually all high school players that are drafted, he had to choose between starting his professional career immediately or going to college first and trying to improve his future draft status. It really wasn’t a difficult decision for Larson, however.

“I signed with a junior college, but ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a professional baseball player and the Twins gave me the opportunity,” Larson recalled. “I didn’t want to pass on it. I could have gone to college and got hurt and could have never gotten another chance to play professional baseball.”

Larson said he did discuss options with his family, but, in the end, “it was always my childhood dream to play pro ball, so I did it.”

Had Larson gone to a four year college instead, he’d have been a draftable junior in this year’s draft. That’s not something he gives any thought to, however.

“I don’t play any ‘what if’ games. I just did what I wanted to do.  I just followed my dream and I haven’t looked back since.”

Is he happy with how that dream has turned out, so far?

“Yeah, absolutely. It’s awesome.”

Zack Larson
Zack Larson

Larson played 41 games with the Kernels a year ago, but missed much of the season with a hamstring injury.

The result of missing so much time with an injury was being assigned, again, to Cedar Rapids this spring as he works to resume his rise up the Twins’ organizational ladder.

“My goal was just to have good quality at-bats, not to give any at-bats away,” Larson said, of his plans for 2015. “Just get on base however I can. I never really set any number goals or any of that. I wanted to get to the playoffs the first half and we did.”

Larson got off to a slow start in April, hitting just .211 for the month, but he and Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins have been working together and that work is starting to show results.

“I’m working with Tommy just on staying through the ball, working down to the ball instead of lifting the ball,” Larson explained. “I’ve been getting under it and lifting it. I’ve just been working with Tommy every day in the cage and starting to improve.”

Larson has been particularly effective at driving in runs for the Kernels, hitting .347 with runners in scoring position and leading his team with 39 Runs Batted In headed in to the July 4 weekend.

Watkins said he likes what he’s seeing from his pupil.

“He’s got a pretty good swing,” Watkins observed. “We’re just working with him on using the whole field, trying to drive some balls to the gap. Right now, just trying to get him to stay on top of the ball and use the middle to the opposite way. To pull the ball, let that happen on its own.

“He’s a student of the game and he’s a guy that I look to lead our club, being here last year. He’s more of a quiet guy and he’ll lead more by example than anything, but I look for him to be a leader on this team. Great guy with runners in scoring position. He hunts out those RBIs and that’s a good thing.”

Larson and his teammates put together a 41-29 record in the first half of their Midwest League season, good enough to lock up a playoff spot by finishing second in the Western Division, but they know they have more work to do.

“We had a pretty good first half, but we think we can do better,” Larson said. “We had a meeting with Jake (manager Jake Mauer) and he said that if we had averaged four runs per game, we could have won 50 games in the first half. So, we were like, ‘what the heck, we can score four runs.’

“We don’t want to take the second half lightly, we want to show the teams that we’re playing some ball and we’re ready for the playoffs, that we can push it all the way into the playoffs and make a run.”