Episode 95: May Day and a New Commish

We made a new podcast just for your ears. I know, you’re excited too. Thanks for stopping by. You can download the new Talk to Contact (@TalkToContact) episode via iTunes or by clicking here.
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The podcast returns, a day late, but a dollar better, and with a full suite of podcast hosts. We discuss Trevor May‘s debut, the departure of Josh Willingham and Kevin Correia and what those moves mean for the organization and the youth movement happening in Minnesota.

We’re joined by Brad Swanson (@Bridman77) from the Twins blog Kevin Slowey was Framed (http://smartpitcher.blogspot.com/) to talk about Eduardo Escobar and Twins players heads photo-shopped onto animal bodies (WHAT?! YES!).

We finally get around to answering the expansion draft question submitted last week by former listener of the week, John. Which 15 players would you protect? Send us your list to talktocontact@gmail.com.

We wrap things up by going around the league to talk about the 1st place Royals, everyone being injured, and what the 1994 season might have given us had it not been for the strike.

Enjoy the show.

You can follow Cody on Twitter (@NoDakTwinsFan) or read his writing at NoDakTwinsFan, and you can find Eric on Twitter (@ERolfPleiss) and read his writing at Knuckleballs, and you can find Jay Corn on twitter @Jay__Corn! If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunes. If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are pretty cool, you guys.

Ivan Arteaga on Change ups, Sliders and Curves

There’s much about the game of baseball that never changes. Three strikes and you’re out. Bases are 90 feet apart.

Then again, some aspects of the game are constantly adjusting to the times. Witness the amount of defensive shifting going on in Major League Baseball this season.

You could say that one thing that never changes is that pitchers try to throw fastballs by opposing hitters.

But the arsenal of pitches the pitchers use beyond the fastball seems to differ from one era to another.

Pitchers in the first part of the 20th century could – and did – legally throw a spitball.

Even after the spitter was outlawed, pitchers continued to do whatever they could get away with to gain an advantage over the batter. Roughing up the ball became popular.

Now umpires toss baseballs out of the game the moment there’s the slightest scuff noticed on the surface of the sphere.

Even legal pitches have come in to, and fallen out of, favor among professional pitchers.

Recently, writer Pat Jordan posted an article at SportsOnEarth.com entitled, The Decline of the Curve. Jordan talked to a number of big league pitching coaches about why fewer pitchers are throwing a curveball than was the case in previous eras.

Some of the coaches he talked to indicated that their organizations dissuade pitchers from throwing the traditional curve and others indicated that they don’t teach the pitch to their pitchers.

Since I’ve observed a number of Cedar Rapids Kernels pitchers throwing curveballs, I was curious about whether the Twins organization and, in particular, Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga, have any established policy aimed at dissuading use of the curve or any other pitch.

Over the past weekend, Arteaga graciously agreed to talk to me about the subject.

I started out by asking whether the Twins have any kind of established policy concerning the subject of Jordan’s article, the curveball.

“We actually encourage it,” Arteaga said. “We believe in having a complete mix. I believe, this is my opinion, mix creates value.

“For example, I’ve got (Ricky) Nolasco this week here. He’s got five different pitches. Throws a slider, he throws a curve, he throws a split, he throws a straight change up, he’s got a two-seemer. And he throws low-90s.

“We were having a conversation and one thing we agreed on was that pitchers in the big leagues actually have to reinvent themselves time and time again.

“So that being said, the curve is a pitch that is high-to-low, 12-to-6, you name it. It’ll give you depth. It’ll make your fastball better. It’ll save your arm a little bit.

“So we encourage it. If you have the curve, great. If you don’t, we’ll try to teach you one. Hopefully, you can get it.”

Ivan Arteaga

Ivan Arteaga

Some of the coaches that talked to Jordan blamed the shrinking strike zone for the demise of the curveball. Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan could throw fastballs at the letters and get them called strikes, which set up their devastating curveballs.

Umpires today won’t call that high pitch a strike and Arteaga agrees that the strike zone getting smaller has had an effect on the choices pitchers have made when it comes to their arsenal.

“Over time, pitchers started to throw the change up more, moving back and forth,” Arteaga observed. “I remember in the 80s and 90s, the split finger fastball was the pitch to learn and then came the slider. That’s the pitch these days being taught.

“Those pitches are basically strike zone down, strike zone right or strike zone left. The curve actually starts up away from the strike zone and it gets in to the strike zone at the end with some depth.

“So if you have that pitch, the hitters are so used to looking for pitches in the strike zone, that once they see the ball go up, they give up on it. And then once they give up on it, it’s hard for them to actually make an adjustment and hit it. So they give up on it and you get some weak swings.

Arteaga has a theory, beyond those that the coaches Jordan interviewed expressed, concerning why you see fewer pitchers throwing a curveball today.

“This goes beyond professional baseball. Because in college, you get big programs, the same way you get big programs in Venezuela, Dominican and Puerto Rico, and so forth and so on. What creates value? The fastball.

“Thirty-five or forty years ago you had to mix, you learned how to pitch. These days, you get kids that are 17-18 years old, they’re just fastball throwers. If they throw something else, it will be a change up and it will be a slider, because it’s easier to throw. But at the same time, it creates more stress on the shoulder and in the elbow.”

Jordan, in his article, claimed that the curveball actually is easier on the pitcher’s arm than other pitches, which goes against some conventional wisdom in the game. Arteaga agrees, however.

“It’s less stressful. It’s not as stressful as the slider.” Arteaga explained. “What happens with the slider is, there’s some kids who believe the slider should be lateral – should be either right or left – it’s more sidewise than it is up and down. And for them to create that, they have to actually drag their arms a little bit.

“So when they drag their arm a little, they get a lower angle. Once you want to make that ball spin, the elbow suffers a lot. So you get tight. Once you get tight, those muscles start to pull against those tendons. That’s when you get all the injuries.”

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and then-Kernels pitcher Ethan Mildren

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and then-Kernels pitcher Ethan Mildren

There has been talk among the fan base about the Twins limiting the number of sliders and similar pitches that some of their youngest pitching prospects throw in a game. The coach’s next comment perhaps sheds some light on that philosophy.

“If you ask an 18-19 year old to pitch at a level like this,” Arteaga observed, “where he understands he has to come up with something more than the fastball, then he’ll throw the slider more than he should. He might not be ready to throw it, because he needs to mix.“

Arteaga doesn’t necessarily see the curveball as the hardest pitch for his young pitchers to master.

“The change up to me is like the last pitch to come in an arsenal,” Arteaga said.
“There’s not many guys that have the feel for the change up and the repeatability for the change up. And so it’s easier to throw fastball-slider-fastball-cutter than become a fastball-slider-change up guy. So the change up is like the last pitch to come in to the arsenal.

“It’s hard to repeat, because there’s a couple of things that come in to play,” he explained. “One is the grip. You have to find the perfect grip. And number two, you have to find a repeatable delivery, the same as the fastball. So you can get that extension out in front and the pronation to actually make the ball fade a little bit or go down as much as you can.

“So you need to repeat it a lot. Almost as much as your fastball. You need to repeat it so you can get that same feeling, every time, of extension, pronation and arm speed.

“Because if you ask any guy what they fear the most, it is to leave a fastball or change up or breaking ball up in the zone. They say, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ so what do they do? They develop a sinker, they develop a slider; anything they can do to make it go down.“

Arteaga was asked about that split-fingered fastball that he acknowledged was all the rage 20 or so years ago. Does he, or do the Twins, teach splitter?

“No, we don’t,” he answered quickly. “If you have one out of college or whatever and you can throw it, yeah, we’ll let you throw it. Why not? But we don’t encourage that.

“We believe the less stress you put on the arm, the better it is. If you see the games on TV, in the big leagues, you don’t get that many guys throw the split finger fastballs any more. Maybe a few, but not what it used to be.

“And it really has to be a good one for you to throw it in the big leagues, because they can see the seams. If it looks like a fastball, yes, you’ve got an advantage. Make it look like a fastball, in and out of the strike zone, you’re OK.”

As Arteaga alluded to earlier, Nolasco spent the better part of a week in Cedar Rapids, getting a pair of rehabilitation starts in with the Kernels. The interview came before Nolasco’s final Kernels appearance Sunday, but the coach liked what he saw of Nolasco leading up to that point.

“He threw everything he’s got in the first outing so I expect the same in this one too. He got in to a jam a little bit there, and struck out a couple of guys. He looked like a big leaguer. Throwing his pitches down, making it go right, left, down.

“Like Joe (Mauer) was saying, he’ll make it tough on hitters, when he’s right, he’ll make it tough because everything goes different directions and it’s the same motion.

“Just seeing him throw in the bullpen, he’s got command, he’s got control. And he’s healthy, so hopefully he’ll be OK.“

And did Arteaga’s young Kernels pitchers watch the way Nolasco went about his business?

“Oh yeah. That’s the way it should be. They’re paying attention.“

Video from Kernels Walk-off Win

Just a quick post with a couple of videos I took at the Kernels game Thursday night.

First, we have Jake Reed, who pitched the 9th and 10th innings for the Kernels. Here, we have video of his 9th inning.

With the game tied at 3-3 in the bottom of the 11th inning, Mitch Garver comes to the plate for the Kernels.

And here we have the climactic moment as Bryan Haar comes to the plate  with pinch runner Jon Murphy at second base, running for Garver.

Joe Mauer in Cedar Rapids – Day 2

Tuesday night was a big deal at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids.

Twins Joe Mauer and Ricky Nolasco were in the Kernels’ line up together and at least twice the usual Tuesday night crowd squeezed in to the ballpark to watch them.

I don’t know that from witnessing it first hand, but only from accounts from media and family members that used my season tickets that night.

Seems I had foolishly committed to making a business trip to St. Louis Sunday through Wednesday this week.

So I missed the filled ballpark and, from what I understand, filled pressbox on Tuesday when Nolasco pitched and Mauer DHed for the Kernels, who beat the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers 9-0 that night.

I did make it home from St. Louis Wednesday in time to see Mauer’s rehab debut in the field at first base. I didn’t expect to see another huge crowd, but I certainly didn’t expect to see what was essentially a pretty normal 2,000+ crowd, either. Yet, that’s exactly what I saw.

I’m not sure what that says about baseball fans in Eastern Iowa.

Maybe it says we aren’t as awe-struck by the presence of big leaguers as some people think we should be.

Maybe it just reemphasizes that the Twins organization still has a lot of work to do in the area if they want to truly make a dent in the Cubs’ stranglehold around here and make this area a part of “Twins Territory.”

Maybe it reflects the reality that Joe Mauer, himself, does not have the star power that he did when he was winning batting titles and MVP awards, not to mention being the cover-boy of MLB video games for two straight years.

Still, while a lot of the Twins fans in Minnesota who have been booing Mauer at Target Field this season might scoff, he’s an almost certain future Hall-of-Famer and he was in uniform playing for the Kernels Wednesday night. If you’re a baseball fan, why the heck would you NOT show up to watch?

You can’t say nobody tried to get you out there.

The Kernels began marketing the Mauer arrival even before they could officially announce it was happening. When it was still an “unofficial” thing, the Kernels announced via every media outlet they could get access to that they would have special extended ticket office hours Saturday and Sunday.

And people did take advantage. They got tickets for Tuesday and they got tickets for this weekend’s games, but there was little demand for Wednesday’s contest.

It’s great that there will be big crowds Friday and Saturday, but honestly, there were going to be big crowds Friday and Saturday, anyway. Already-planned promotions and tie-ins with a major local employer or two this weekend guaranteed the Kernels would have a couple of pretty full houses those two nights, with or without a big league headliner.

That’s good, perhaps, because there’s no assurance that Mauer will play both nights. He’s scheduled for an off day on Thursday and he indicated after Wednesday’s game that he still has a few things on his, “checklist,” that he wants to accomplish before returning to the Twins, so I think we can safely assume he’ll be on the field Friday night. If I were a betting man, I’d put money on him also being with the Kernels on Saturday night.

I would also be betting he’s en route to Houston to rejoin the Twins before the Kernels take the field on Sunday.

Anyway, I just don’t understand the mediocre crowd Wednesday night.

At least the fans who did show up didn’t boo Mauer when he walked to the plate. They didn’t rise to their feet with an ovation, either, but the polite applause is better treatment than he gets from his home town fans at Target Field these days. I don’t understand that treatment, either.

Anyway, on Wednesday night, Mauer continued to kick off the rust a bit. He went 0-3 before calling it a night. He grounded in to a force out in the first inning and was stranded at second base. He barreled up on one in his second at-bat and drove the ball to the warning track in left-center field. In his third trip to the plate, he watched two strikes go by and then went down swinging.

Defensively, I don’t recall a ball being hit to him at all. He did get one ball thrown to him on a DP attempt that went in the dirt and he didn’t come up with it.

He obviously is not lighting up the Class A pitching he’s seeing, but that’s why you rehab in the minors. Keep in mind, it’s not like he’s been taking BP throughout his time on the Disabled List. His injured oblique muscle meant he was pretty much on the shelf until taking a few cuts in the few days before coming to Cedar Rapids. Anyone who thinks it’s easy to sit out a month and then step in and immediately hit any level of professional pitching has never tried to do it.

If he’s not making consistent solid contact by the time the weekend is over, then I’ll be a bit concerned.

The Kernels and Twins PR guy Andrew Heydt have done a good job of getting media access to Mauer without totally disrupting the clubhouse and other aspects of the game day routine for the Kernels. As was the case Tuesday, Mauer met with the media after exiting the ballgame in an auxillary locker room near the Kernels’ clubhouse.

Here’s some video I shot of that exchange. I think you can tell he’s not pleased with his results on the field, but he’s also glad to just be back on the field again. His response to a question I posed also gives a little insight in to those items on his “checklist” that he still wants to try to do before rejoining the Twins.

The Kernels got pretty well drubbed in the game. Chih-Wei Hu had his first rough start as a Kernel, giving up six runs in the fourth inning.

Nick Burdi pitched the ninth inning for Cedar Rapids. He maxed at 99 mph on the scoreboard gun, which is known as a “slow gun.” We use a +2 guideline in Cedar Rapids, adding 2 mph to what shows on the board, which means Burdi likely hit about 101 on that pitch. Otherwise he was in the mid-upper 90s with the fastball and around 90 with the slider.

Finally, here are a few photos of the evening.

You may have heard, Joe Mauer is a Cedar Rapids Kernel this week.

You may have heard, Joe Mauer is a Cedar Rapids Kernel this week.

She'll have a story for her kids some day.

She’ll have a story for her kids some day.

"Hey, I think I recognize this guy."

“Hey, I think I recognize this guy.”

Jake Mauer picking up after his younger brother after Joe is left stranded at 2B

Jake Mauer picking up after his younger brother after Joe is left stranded at 2B

Wednesday was Joe Mauer's first game in the field in more than a month

Wednesday was Joe Mauer’s first game in the field in more than a month

First time Mauer played behind Chih-Wei Hu. May not be the last time.

First time Mauer played behind Chih-Wei Hu. May not be the last time. Wednesday’s fourth inning notwithstanding, Hu has been very good for the Kernels.

We’re celebrating my grandson’s first birthday on Friday by having a “Party at he Park,” and I’m looking forward to seeing Mauer donning one of these, “Jimmy Buffet Night” jerseys on Saturday night.

Hawaiian_Jersey_Promo_8g1ishv5Mauer may well be on his way to Houston to rejoin the Twins by Sunday, but I’ll be at the ballpark that afternoon to watch Ricky Nolasco stretch himself out to 75 pitches in his second rehab start with the Kernels. – JC

Episode 94: The Future of the Twins?!

You can download the new Talk to Contact (@TalkToContact) episode via iTunes or by clicking here, and if you want to add the show to your non-iTunes podcast player, this is the RSS Feed.

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After a week off, we’re back and making podcast magic!  This week we discuss the roster moves that happened surrounding the trade deadline, and talk about how the Twins are going to put a roster together when Joe Mauer returns.  We muse ont he future of Ron Gardenhire and who is going to manage the Twins in the future.  We talk about some of the young taelnt coming through the organization and how everything could fit together.  Plus we do the regular – beer, baseball, and the news.

90 minutes to make your ears bleed.

 

I hope you enjoy this special episode.You can follow Cody on Twitter (@NoDakTwinsFan) or read his writing at NoDakTwinsFan, you can find Paul on Twitter (@BaseballPirate) you can find Eric on Twitter (@ERolfPleiss) and read his writing at Knuckleballs, and you can find Mr. Jay Corn on Twitter (@Jay__Corn)!

If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review our show on iTunes.  iTunes ratings and reviews are the main way we judge our self-worth.

Twins & Kernels Nearing Affiliation Extension

MetroSportsReport.com in Cedar Rapids is reporting this afternoon that officials of the Minnesota Twins and Cedar Rapids Kernels met on Tuesday afternoon and appear to be on the verge of announcing a four year extension to their existing affiliation agreement.

Jim Ecker of MSR reports that, “neither side would publicly confirm an
agreement had been reached, but one board member said a ‘positive’ announcement could be made Wednesday.

“It appears both sides have agreed to a four-year extension of their original four-year deal, which would push the arrangement through the 2020 season,” according to the report.

The Twins and Kernels are finishing the second of their original four-year player development contract and the four year extension would be added to the end of that original term.

Such an extension would presumably put to rest any conjecture, public or private, concerning the Twins moving their Midwest League affiliation to a team in the St. Paul, Minnesota, area for at least the next six years.

The full story can be found by clicking here.

– JC

 

Kernels in a Dogfight for MWL Postseason Spot

In mid-June, after a brutal first half to their Midwest League season, the Cedar Rapids Kernels limped in to the MWL’s All-Star break with a 31-39 record, not only 14 games behind Western Division leader Kane County, but also 7.5 games behind the Burlington Bees.

The latter is important because, in the world of Class A minor league baseball, seasons are split in to two halves, with the first and second place teams in each division, each half-season, earning berths in the postseason playoff series.

Kane County and Burlington snatched the MWL West spots in the first half, leaving Cedar Rapids, Quad Cities, Clinton, Beloit, Peoria and Wisconsin to slug it out in the second half for two more spots, with each team starting with fresh 0-0 records on June 19.

With Peoria, Wisconsin and Quad Cities all assembling winning records in the first half, it was logical to assume that those three teams would contend for the Western Division’s two second-half playoff spots – and they have been doing just that.

Entering Wednesday, Peoria and Quad Cities were tied for second place in the Division’s second-half standings, trailing Kane County by just one game, and Wisconsin is two games back.

Clinton and Beloit have repeated their first-half fortunes, each at least 11 games under .500 and filling the final two spots in the standings, as they did in the first half.

And then there’s the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Rather stealthily, manager Jake Mauer’s Kernels have turned around what, as recently as three weeks ago, looked likely to become a lost season.

There weren't a lot of reasons for Kernels manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga to smile in the season's first half, but that's changing.

There weren’t a lot of reasons for Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and manager Jake Mauer to smile in the season’s first half, but that’s changing.

The Kernels lost four of their first five series to begin the second-half schedule and had compiled just a 6-11 second-half record through July 6.

They haven’t lost a series since.

Cedar Rapids has taken six consecutive series, against six different clubs, while putting together a 15-5 record in that time and launching themselves in to a second place tie with Peoria and Quad Cities, just one game behind Division leader Kane County in the MWL’s Western Division standings.

Since the Cougars and the Burlington Bees locked in their postseason spots in the first half, it doesn’t matter where they finish in the second-half standings so, from a practical standpoint, Cedar Rapids was tied entering Wednesday, with Quad Cities and Clinton, for the top available playoff spot, with Wisconsin trailing that group by one game.

The Kernels will face those three rivals 12 times in August and nine of those games will be on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids, where the Kernels have accumulated an 11-5 home record in the season’s second half.

How have the Kernels propelled themselves in to a four-team dogfight for playoff spots entering the final month of the regular season? And can they keep it up?

The answer to the first question is pretty clear when you look at the numbers and there is no way to know the answer to the second.

In the first three series of their current six series winning streak, Cedar Rapids essentially bludgeoned the opposition. In those ten games, they scored 6.7 runs per game. It’s a good thing, too, because their pitching was allowing 4.2 runs per game.

The offense stepped up in those series, but since then, things have taken a pretty dramatic turn.

In the nine games covering the last three series of this stretch, the results have come from pitching. While Kernels hitters were averaging just 3.9 runs per game, themselves, the pitching was giving up only two runs per game.

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

Digging deeper, it’s tough to find much in the offensive statistics that indicate a significant turnaround.

About half the club’s current position players hit a bit better in July than they had been hitting and about half had fallen off a notch, perhaps.

Catcher/DH Michael Quesada appears to have found his stroke and is hitting .270 in July, with a pair of home runs, after a dreadful June in which he managed just .150 with no extra-base hits.

Fellow catcher (turned primary right fielder) Alex Swim is hitting .364 in July after posting a .267 mark in June.

Alex Swim

Alex Swim

But a number of their teammates, including Mitch Garver and Chad Christensen, who have been among the team’s offensive leaders all season, have seen some of their numbers fade slightly in July, too, so it’s hard to credit this turnaround strictly to the offense.

Perhaps the most important contribution the offense has made has been its consistency.

Before Tuesday’s game with the Burlington Bees, Mauer emphasized the importance of that consistency.

“Knock on wood, we’ve had a steady core group,” Mauer said. “Obviously, (Jason) Kanzler was (promoted), but we’ve had that set core group for about four weeks.

“Position player wise, we haven’t really changed much. It’s pretty much the same group of guys other than Swim and Wade playing a bigger part. Christensen, Garver, Haar, 3-4-5, have been that way since about May.”

The pitching side of the ledger tells a slightly different story, however.

As the Kernels’ manager observed, “The starting pitching’s been good, bullpen’s been outstanding.”

Indeed.

Of the ten pitchers currently on the Kernels roster who made appearances in June and July for Cedar Rapids, nine dropped his ERA in July, as compared to June.

The tenth, reliever Dallas Gallant, couldn’t cut his. He had a 0.00 ERA in his three June appearances and has exactly the same 0.00 ERA through eight trips to the mound in July.

Fellow bullpen arm Jake Reed also has a perfect 0.00 ERA in his six appearances in July after posting a 4.50 mark in June.

Chris Mazza hasn’t been that perfect in relief. His July ERA is 0.69. It was 2.25 in June.

Jared Wilson has slashed his ERA from 4.60 in June to 1.84 in July.

Hudson Boyd did the same. He had a 10.00 in June and a 1.13 in July. (Boyd, however, was suspended on Tuesday for an unspecified period of time for violating team rules.)

The sharpest drop, however, has to be Nick Burdi, the Twins’ second round draft pick in June of this year. How can you beat a drop from infinity to 2.25?

Burdi made one infamous appearance upon joining the Kernels at the end of June in which he walked all four batters he faced and all four came around to score. In July, he has allowed just a pair of earned runs. He has also struck out 16 batters in his eight July innings, while walking just three.

The rotation arms are getting in to the act, as well.

Aaron Slegers, who leads the Kernels with 113.1 innings pitched this season, struggled in June to a 7.97 ERA in four starts. It sits at 1.96 through six starts in July.

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers

18 year old Lewis Thorpe posted a 6.50 ERA in his four June starts, but he’s cut that to 3.51 in his six starts this month.

Kohl Stewart, Minnesota’s top draft pick in 2013, had an ERA of 2.16 in June. That’s pretty good. In fact, it was better than Stewart posted in April or May. But he’s bettered that in July, posting at 1.32.

Stewart, unfortunately, finds himself on the 7-day Disabled List at the moment, with a sore shoulder.

His replacement in the rotation is Stephen Gonsalves, freshly arrived from the Twins’ Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton.

Gonsalves has made just one appearance for the Kernels since arriving, but the lefty threw six shutout innings against Dayton on Sunday.

Chih-Wei Hu, the 20 year old from Taiwan, wasn’t with the Kernels in June, but he’s posted a 1.50 ERA in four July starts for Cedar Rapids.

Chih-Wei Hu

Chih-Wei Hu

Earned Run Average is not the only important pitching statistic. Arguably, it’s not even the most important, especially among relief pitchers.

But when your entire pitching staff is slashing their ERA from one month to the next, that’s a sign that good things are happening for your team.

The Kernels have put themselves in to contention for postseason play, but they’re going to need to overcome some challenges over the final month to earn one of those final MWL playoff spots.

They may need Stewart to come back from his DL stint healthy and effective.

They lost their center fielder, Jason Kanzler, who was contributing with his bat and his glove, to promotion this week. He has been replaced by Max Murphy, who was tearing up the Appy League to the tune of a .371 batting average and nine home runs.

Murphy, however, got off to an inauspicious start, going 0-4 with three strikeouts and a walk in his Kernels debut on Tuesday.

The Twins’ high-A affiliate in Fort Myers is already postseason-bound, having clinched a spot in the first half of their Florida State League season. There’s certainly no assurance the Twins won’t tab more Kernels for promotion to aide the Miracle’s own playoff preparations. In fact, with the way some of the players in Cedar Rapids are performing this month, you can probably count on it.

However, right at this moment, the Kernels are in serious contention for the postseason and that’s not something many fans would have envisioned just three weeks ago.

Alex Swim Swinging a Hot Bat for the Kernels

The Cedar Rapids Kernels dropped an ugly 5-2 game to the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers back on July 9 and Kernels manager Jake Mauer clearly was not a happy man afterward.

His line up had left eight runners stranded in scoring position on the night and played some shoddy defense in a loss on a night when Kernels pitching combined to strike out 13 opposing hitters.

“We’re going to have some changes,” Mauer promised that night, in a post-game interview.

Catcher Alex Swim went 1 for 4 as the team’s designated hitter in that loss and he has not DH’d since.

Then again, he hasn’t done much catching, either.

The next night, July 10, again against the Timber Rattlers, Swim was inserted as the Kernels’ right fielder.

Alex Swim

Alex Swim

Maybe Mauer was just trying to give some of his regular outfield crew a wake-up call or maybe he knew something nobody else did, but Swim gunned down Rattler baserunner Omar Garcia at home in that game and he has been the starting right fielder for the Kernels on every line up card Mauer has filled out since.

He’s put on the catcher’s gear for a game in that stretch only twice. Once to finish a rain shortened game in which he had started as the catcher (he played right field in the full game following the completion of the postponed contest) and he made one appearance at catcher late in a game after starting catcher Michael Quesada was removed for a pinch runner.

Swim was already riding a six game hitting streak pieced together starting June 30 as he rotated between catching, DHing and taking his turn riding the pine as part of what was, for a time, a four-man catching rotation that included Mitch Garver and Bo Altobelli, along with Quesada and Swim.

After being inserted in to the every day line up, Swim swatted hits in another eight consecutive games, making him the proud owner of a 14-game streak, the longest by a Kernels hitter this season, before the streak was snapped on July 21.

On the season, Swim is batting .341 in the 26 games he’s suited up with the Kernels.

Alex Swim in the Kernels special “Duck Dynasty” camo jersey

In an interview late last week, Swim said he played some outfield during his junior and senior years at Elon University in North Carolina, “just to get a little break from behind the plate.”

Coming in to the season, though, he wasn’t expecting to see this much time on the outfield grass.

“During (extended spring training), they asked me if I had an outfielder’s glove and I did. They said, ‘get a few reps out there just in case,’” Swim recalled.

Acknowledging that he’s been out there every game lately, he added with a smile, “maybe (the Twins organization) gave me a position change and didn’t tell me, I don’t know.”

He’s not complaining.

“I’ll play anywhere,” he said. “I love throwing the ball and showing off the arm a little bit.”

That’s a healthy approach to have for a player in Swim’s position with the Twins organization.

Swim, Garver and the current catcher for the Class high-A Fort Myers Miracle, Stuart Turner, were all college catchers selected by the Twins in the same draft class a year ago. Turner was the Twins’ third round pick, Garver was picked in the 10th round and Swim in the 22nd.

The Twins also selected a high school catcher, Brian Navarreto, in the sixth round. Navarreto is currently with the Twins’ Elizabethton short-season rookie level affiliate.

As if that weren’t enough, the Twins drafted six more catchers in the 2014 draft, though none were higher than the 19th round and not all were inked by the Twins before the signing deadline on July 18.

Still, Swim recognizes that he’s up against some tough competition as he tries to work his way up the organizational ladder, not only from other recent draftees, but from players with more professional experience, such as his Cedar Rapids teammate Quesada.

“Obviously, I know who’s there,” Swim conceded. “But I think everyone is good in their own way. If you’re meant to keep going and playing, you’re going to get there.

“I try to make it where I can play different positions to help me out. If you need a right fielder, I’ll play right field. If you need a first baseman, I’ll do that. Whatever they need.”

In baseball, hitters can run hot and cold, but in his first month as a Kernel, Swim has definitely been hot with the bat.

Alex Swim

Alex Swim

“I feel pretty comfortable in the box and the ball does look a little bigger right now,” he admitted.

Fellow Kernels catcher Garver hit three home runs in one game on Monday, but Swim doesn’t expect to be putting on that kind of power display any time soon.

“Generally, with my swing, I’m not going to hit the ball out of the park or drive a bunch of balls in to gaps, so I just try to really stay up the middle and just stay short and sweet to the ball and just try to get on base.”

Swim worked out with the Class A group during most of spring training, but when the time came to head north to start the season, he was left behind in extended spring training.

That sort of thing can be disappointing to a player, of course, but Swim pointed out that there were some benefits, too, for a guy from Greensboro, North Carolina.

“It’s not that big of a deal when you’re playing in 85 degree weather in the spring down in Florida, so that was the good part,” he recalled with a bit of a laugh. “I was texting a few of the guys and they were saying it was 30 degrees and they had four layers on. I was, like, I’m in a pair of shorts and sandals right now.”

Swim had the opportunity to turn professional after his junior year of college when the St. Louis Cardinals made him there 36th round selection in the 2012 draft, but he opted to pass at the time.

“Right around draft time my junior year, mom was sick, was in the hospital,” Swim explained. “I really didn’t know how that was going to affect her as far as what was going to happen. I didn’t want to push it by leaving at that time, so I decided to forgo the draft, stay at home, work a little bit, try to help out around the house and get things situated.

“Honestly, I don’t have any regrets. I would do it the same way every time. She’s doing well right now. She’s getting healthy. She’s staying at home and listening to the games (over the internet).”

Away from the ballpark, Swim escapes the daily grind of the game with a good book.

“I like biographies and stuff like that,” he explained. “That kind of gets me away from the game and not thinking about anything really about baseball.”

– JC

Episode 92: Reviewing the First Half

You can download the new Talk to Contact (@TalkToContact) episode via iTunes or by clicking here, and if you want to add the show to your non-iTunes podcast player, this is the RSS Feed.

"Peace to my All Star homies in West Fargo." - Cody Christie, probably

“Peace to my All Star homies in West Fargo.” – Cody Christie, probably

This week we talk all about the first half, the Twins best players and worst players before the All Star break, and what we think might happen in the second half. Jay Corn rags on Joe Mauer, Cody Christie praises Brian Dozier, and Eric Pleiss raves about his boyfriend Phil Hughes.

Join us for the Twins talk, stay for the beers and baseball chatter.

 

I hope you enjoy this special episode.You can follow Cody on Twitter (@NoDakTwinsFan) or read his writing at NoDakTwinsFan, you can find Paul on Twitter (@BaseballPirate) you can find Eric on Twitter (@ERolfPleiss) and read his writing at Knuckleballs, and you can find Mr. Jay Corn on Twitter (@Jay__Corn)!
If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review our show on iTunes.  iTunes ratings and reviews is how to government funds unemployment.

Hu’s on first? No, he’s pitching (for the Kernels)

The merry-go-round that is a minor league team’s roster continued to spin over the weekend in Cedar Rapids as the Kernels saw two pitchers promoted to high-A Fort Myers, one infielder put on the 7-Day Disabled list and two new pitchers arrive from Elizabethton.

The new pitchers, right handed starting pitcher Chih-Wei Hu and righty bullpen arm Jake Reed, were in uniform for Tuesday night’s series opener with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, won by the Kernels, 15-5.

The two will replace starter Ethan Mildren and co-closer Todd Van Steensel on the Kernels’ pitching staff.

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Ethan Mildren

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Ethan Mildren

Mildren has been dominant through his most recent pair of starts, throwing seven shutout innings against Clinton on June 29 and duplicating that feat on Independence Day against Beloit. He allowed just seven hits and three walks over that 14-inning stretch.

Van Steensel had not been charged with allowing a run, earned or otherwise, in his last seven appearances for Cedar Rapids. Overall, he put up a 1.30 ERA covering 34.2 innings of work in 23 appearances in a Kernels uniform.

If early impressions mean anything, Reed will be a capable replacement for Van Steensel in the Kernels bullpen.

The 21-year old righty, drafted in the 5th round out of the University of Oregon last month, threw nothing but shutout innings for the E-Twins in his first six innings of work this season. He struck out eight batters and held opponents to a .053 batting average.against him.

That scoreless streak, however, came to an end in Reed’s first appearance in a Cedar Rapids uniform on Tuesday night. Reed gave up one unearned run in an inning of work on Tuesday night when the first batter he faced reached on a two-base error and came around to score on a subsequent single.

Reed recorded his first strikeout as a Kernel to finish the eighth inning.

The man with the biggest shoes to fill with the Kernels, perhaps, will be Hu.

Cedar Rapids has struggled to find consistency from their rotation and Mildren was just beginning to provide much needed leadership in that area.

Hu will get Mildren’s spot in the rotation and should get his first start for the Kernels on Thursday against the Rattlers, in front of the home crowd.

Like Reed, Hu was off to a strong start for Elizabethton.

The Taichung, Taiwan, native had time to make just three starts for the E-Twins before being promoted. He was 1-0 with a 1.69 ERA. He threw six shutout innings of two-hit baseball in his last start, striking out nine batters in the process.

After watching Hu throw a bullpen session on Tuesday, Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga pronounced the 20-year old Hu, “ready to go.”

“His fastball moves a lot and his slider’s got good rotation,” Arteaga added. “He really competes, according to the reports we got.”

The Kernels played Tuesday a man short on their roster as shortstop Engelb Vielma has been placed on the 7-day DL with concussion symptoms and no corresponding roster move was immediately announced.

Manager Jake Mauer indicated to media after the game that infielder Logan Wade would be re-activated from the DL on Wednesday to replace Vielma. – JC