If you go to the web site of the baseball program at the University of South Carolina-Aiken, you’ll find a link listing all of the Pacer ballplayers who are playing professional baseball.
Well, not quite all of them.
Cedar Rapids Kernels infielder Sean Miller spent three years in a Pacers uniform and he’s now played for two minor league teams, but South Carolina-Aiken’s webmaster hasn’t updated the list since last September and Miller just wrapped up his college career this past spring.
Miller, the first of the Minnesota Twins’ 2015 draft class to suit up for the Kernels this season (Chris Paul joined Cedar Rapids later), was a “young junior,” to use Kernels manager Jake Mauer’s words. He was just 20 years old throughout his junior year of college and won’t turn 21 until after the current season ends.
That may have been one factor that the Twins found attractive about Miller, whom they selected in the 10th round of the 2015 draft. The Twins sent the middle infielder to their Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton, Tennessee, just about a four hour drive north of his college campus in Aiken, immediately after signing him to a contract that included a reported $125,000 bonus.
It was a short stay for Miller in Tennessee. On July 11, he was promoted to the Kernels.
The quick promotion caught Miller a bit by surprise.
“Actually, it did. Kind of a lot,” Miller admitted. “Because I was only in Etown for two or three weeks, I guess. I played in 12 or 13 games (it was officially 11 games). So it was definitely surprising, but it was really exciting.
“I was playing good defense there and I was hitting okay. I was hitting balls hard but I didn’t have a great average or numbers, like that.”
Short as it was, Miller said he enjoyed getting his first taste of professional ball in Elizabethton.
“It was exactly what I was expecting. It was awesome to get a chance to play and be on your own and just get the whole experience of it.”
In truth, Miller was hitting just .209 in Elizabethton when he was promoted to Cedar Rapids. But his numbers since joining the Kernels have been much more encouraging. He’s not showing a lot of power, but he carried a .303 batting average with the Kernels through this past weekend.
“Sean’s put the ball in play and gives us a little bit of speed that, obviously with (Tanner) English gone, we’ve been lacking a little bit,” Mauer said of Miller.
Miller played high school ball in Maryland for his father, Steve Miller, who had his own five-year minor league career after being the 13th round pick of the San Francisco Giants in the 1983 June Amateur Draft.
Having a dad with that kind of background comes with both advantages and disadvantages.
“It’s always hard with him being your dad,” Miller conceded. “You don’t want to listen to him, but you have to because you know he’s been there. He’s been through the same stuff you’re going through.
“It’s definitely (a battle), always arguing about something, but you’ve just got to realize that he knows more than you do.”
The elder Miller has made two trips to see his son in his first minor league season, one to Tennessee and the other to Cedar Rapids.
The Kernels infielder said his dad’s advice has remained on the practical side from the beginning.
“He always kind of told me it’s not as glamorous as everyone makes it out to be. It’s more of a job than a game now. And it’s kind of how he described it. He was pretty right on it.”
Miller is finding that to be true as he nears the end of a year that began in the Peach Belt Conference and is concluding in the Class A Midwest League. He’s found there’s a pretty significant difference in the quality of the pitchers he’s now facing.
“It’s definitely a lot better, more consistent” Miller acknowledged. “Night in, night out, you face guys that are definitely a lot better. Position players, too. A lot of the outfielders, if they get a chance, they’re going to run it down and catch it. They’re not going to allow a hit there. It takes some getting used to.”
As you’d expect, Miller is happy with the success he’s had thus far with the Kernels.
“Definitely,” he confirmed. “I’m just trying to come in every day and have fun and just play ball.”
So far, Miller has found the biggest challenge in pro ball to be just maintaining an even keel over the course of a long season.
“I think getting too high, sometimes you have a good game and you’re kind of up here,” Miller said, lifting his hand toward the top of his head. “And you come up the next night and go 0 for 4 or something like that. I mean it sucks, but you’ve got to find a happy medium there and kind of stay consistent with your attitude. Can’t get too excited when you have a good game and can’t get too upset about a bad game.”
His manager concurs, but feels the Miller is off to a good start.
“He’s handled himself good,” Mauer added, of Miller. “He needs to learn what it takes to play every day and maintain his strength. It’s going to be a big offseason for him to get bigger and stronger and continue to improve his speed, but he’s been very good for us.
“He’s been doing a pretty nice job in the middle of the infield, mostly just shortstop is all that he’s played. He’s learning how to play second and handled himself pretty good there.”
Off the field, you are likely to find Miller on a golf course.
“I like to play golf,” he said. “I haven’t really got a chance to play too much, lately, but hopefully I’ll get a chance in the offseason.”
Miller said he’ll make South Carolina his primary home once the season ends.
“I’ll be back and forth between Maryland and South Carolina, but I just kind of wanted to get started and be on my own a little bit.”
Every minor leaguer’s goal entering the season is to develop his game to the point where he earns a promotion to the next higher level in the system.
Sometimes, that call comes when a player has dominated play within their league. Other times, circumstances align to create an opportunity for players to move up the organizational ladder, at least temporarily.
Such circumstances allowed Cedar Rapids Kernels third baseman TJ White and catcher/first baseman Brett Doe to spend a few weeks each in the middle of this summer wearing the uniform of the Fort Myers Miracle, the Minnesota Twins’ Class high-A affiliate, one level above the Class A Kernels.
White and Doe both got their promotion opportunities in part due to some misfortune of others, as the Miracle began to rack up injuries among their early-season regulars at the corner infield positions. Both players had been holding their own in the Midwest League when their calls came, but both were also aware that their stays in Fort Myers might be short-lived.
“Yeah, Jake pretty much let us know,” White recalled last week. “He said it could be four to five days, it could be two weeks or it could be the whole the season. So we were looking to just go play and have fun with it.”
For Doe, who wasn’t on the Kernels’ original roster out of spring training, it wasn’t the first time this season that he’s lived with uncertainty concerning how long he’d be on a roster.
“That’s kind of what I came up here (to Cedar Rapids) with, when (Jorge) Fernandez got hurt,” Doe recounted. “Once I got up here, it took me about a month and a half to unpack my bag, to actually unpack everything. So when I got there (to Fort Myers), I didn’t unpack.”
At least players in a situation like what Doe and White found themselves in don’t have to try to find a short-term place to live during their time with the Miracle. Fort Myers doesn’t have a host family program similar to what exists in Cedar Rapids, but they do have an on-site Players Academy with dormitory-like housing.
“We both stayed at the Academy,” confirmed White. “They set it up pretty much that way. We could have found a place to live, but with our situation, the Academy was a lot easier for us.
“It’s nice. They’ve got the pool tables and ping-pong tables and everything. And they feed us, so it’s not bad.”
The food and lodging might be nice, but maybe the biggest benefit to having even a temporary promotion to the next higher level of minor league ball is the exposure the players got to the Class high-A game. Both Doe and White noticed significant differences in the quality of the game played in the Florida State League.
“For me, we see the same velocity and stuff like that up there, but guys have a plan to get you out and they can execute that plan a little bit better,” observed Doe. “They didn’t miss as many spots – not saying guys here miss spots, but you just didn’t get as many pitches to hit. When you’re up there, I felt like, you can’t miss that pitch. If you get a pitch to hit, you can’t miss it.”
“We kind of talked about it jokingly, because guys can locate their off-speed (pitches) so much more, which makes it so much more dangerous,” White agreed. “You might not see a fastball again after that first pitch, because they can control it so much better. Here, you’ll probably most likely get another fastball or two before the end of the at-bat.”
Doe, who is attempting to learn the catching trade this season, after primarily being an infielder at the college level, didn’t get much time behind the plate in Fort Myers. But he’s not complaining.
“I was first base, every game,” he said. “I worked with the bullpen, to stay sharp for me, catching. But once the game rolled around, I was at first base pretty much every day, which was nice. I went from being a third string catcher here (in Cedar Rapids) at the beginning of the year to playing first base every day at high-A.”
The experience did cement one thing in to the minds of both players. They want to earn spots on the Fort Myers roster full time next season and getting some time there this year gives them some idea what they need to do to make that happen.
“For next year, yeah I think it did,” White confirmed. “Just showed us a little bit, gave us a little taste of it and hopefully, we’ll both be starting there next year. I think that’s our plan. But just seeing the pitchers and a little bigger ballpark, so we kind of know how to approach that, as well.”
“That and then just us playing, what is it today, 122 games?” added Doe. “We’ve learned a lot from that, too. We’ve learned a lot in our first full season – how to get through and be ready for next season.”
Enduring the number of games in a full minor league season is no small factor for a player’s development, as White pointed out.
“Last year, me and Brett both only played about 15 games, I think, all season. So this year we’re grinding through, but it’s gone well so far.
On the subject of “grinding through,” the Kernels clinched their playoff spot in June by finishing second in the MWL’s Western Division during the first half of the season. The two players talked some about whether that’s made it harder or easier to maintain focus, as a team, in the season’s final few weeks.
“I think as far as preparation, it can be tempting for us to sit back, as a team, and kind of be like, ‘we’re in the playoffs,’” conceded Doe. “But once the lights come on and the game starts, no one is thinking, ‘we’re in the playoffs so we don’t have to play hard.’”
Doe, White and their Kernels team mates are already getting the message from their manager, Jake Mauer, that now is not the time to ease up on the throttle.
“Jake kind of told us, ‘hey, we want to finish strong. All these games are going to be close.’ He said they’re going to be close ballgames and we want to be hot rolling into playoffs, not kind of stumbling in getting started.”
While both Doe and White would obviously prefer to have finished out their 2015 season in Fort Myers, returning to Cedar Rapids does bring with it one benefit. While the Kernels are preparing for postseason play, the Miracle are on the verge of elimination from playoff contention.
So, while those on the Miracle roster will likely be playing their final game of the season on September 6, Doe and White will be with the Kernels as they begin their quest for MWL championship rings on September 8.
We’ve reached the end of the Dog Days of Summer, that period that stretches from 20 days before Sirius (the Dog Star) is precisely in conjunction with the sun until 20 days after those bodies are in alignment.
Those 40 or so days are typically the most cruelly hot of the summer and, coincidentally or not, the days when young professional baseball players often hit the proverbial “wall” during their first full season of pro ball. Players that are accustomed to playing anywhere from 40 to 70 games in a summer, find themselves having already eclipsed that mark by mid-June, with another 70 yet to play on the schedule.
It’s when bats become heavier in a hitter’s hands and pitchers often lose velocity or some sharpness to their breaking ball due to a “tired arm.”
Then again, the Dog Days of Summer really is a Northern Hemisphere phenomenon, so Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher Sam Gibbons, who hails from Geelong, Victoria, in Australia, may well be immune to the Dog Day effects.
After a shaky start to his season, the 21-year-old Aussie didn’t really begin to hit his stride until the second week of July.
As Gibbons toed the rubber in Kane County on July 12 to begin his seventh start after joining the Kernels at the end of May, he shouldered an unimpressive 5.34 ERA after giving up 21 runs (19 of them earned) in his first six starts for Cedar Rapids.
The righthander gave up one run in the fourth inning of what would become a no-decision start against the Cougars that night and, from there, ran his scoreless inning streak up to 28 consecutive innings before giving up a pair of runs (one earned) in an 8-2 win over Bowling Green on Saturday night before a near-capacity home crowd.
Included in that stretch was a nine inning complete game shutout on the road at Kane County on August 1. It has been the only complete game shutout twirled by a Kernels pitcher this season and only the Kernels’ second complete game this year. (Mat Batts lost a 1-0 decision despite throwing a complete seven-inning game in the nightcap of a doubleheader at Peoria in May.)
Finishing the complete game meant Gibbons threw a few more pitches than normal.
“Last year, we were generally around the 80-90 (pitches) mark,” Gibbons explained, “but very rarely would we go over 85. Throwing 110 pitches (in the complete game), I was feeling it the last inning, but there’s no way I was going to give in.”
After that extended outing, Gibbons knew he was destined for a shorter night in his next start on Saturday.
“I think I was on some sort of pitch count (Saturday), but I was cruising through the middle three through six innings pretty well and then got two outs in the seventh. Then things got a bit sticky. But, you know, things happen. It’s OK and we ended up winning, so that’s the main thing.”
How has Gibbons gotten stronger as the summer heat has been at its most oppressive?
“You know, I wish I could bottle it and pass it around to other guys,” said Kernels pitching coach Henry Bonilla.
For his part, Gibbons said he does feel like he’s getting stronger, but doesn’t think his workload this season has been all that unusually heavy.
“The thing is, I pitch in the ABL (Australian Baseball League) every year, so I have at least 30 innings before I get to spring training on my belt,” Gibbons explained.” So I’m pretty used to having a fairly deep workload.”
We may not know what to credit for Gibbons’ improvement through the past several weeks, but he knew exactly who to blame for the scoreless streak coming to an end on Saturday.
“I spoke to my mom (after the game) and I told her it was all her fault for making me aware of it,” Gibbons related, with a smile.
Blaming mom? Wow. That’s harsh.
“I had to blame someone,” a laughing Gibbons reasoned.
Typically, Gibbons likes to take a bit of time off in the fall after the season winds up, but things didn’t work out that way for him this past offseason.
“My plan last year was to play after Christmas and the New Year,” he recounted. “Then I was asked to play on the under-23 Australian Team. so I went in November last year. That kind of interrupted things but any chance you get to play for your country is a great opportunity, so I definitely wanted to do that.”
Perhaps taking the extra off-season work into account, the parent Minnesota Twins held Gibbons back in Extended Spring Training when the Kernels came north to start the season, then promoted him to Cedar Rapids on May 28. He made his Kernels debut May 31. His first four starts after arriving were not pretty. surrendering 16 runs in 20 innings of work covering that initial stretch.
“Obviously, I had a bit of a shaky start, but things are coming good now,” Gibbons understated.
“I think after the first month, I was struggling with fastball command a bit, and not being able to throw off-speed pitches in fastball counts, where I have been now. I’ve been attacking guys, but attacking with my off-speed pitches, which is something I’ve never been able to do, really.
“So, having command and just having faith that if I make a bad pitch, that I’m going to come back and make a better pitch to get weak contact or a swing and a miss. I feel that fastball command, knowing I can throw a fastball wherever I want and when I want is something that is pretty big and that will progress you through the ranks.”
Bonilla, his pitching coach, agrees.
“He just came up and he’s been a strike thrower,” the coach observed. “He’s always been a strike thrower, he’s going to throw it over and I think that’s to his credit and also to his detriment. He didn’t really locate. He just said basically, ‘somebody’s going to hit a ball at a guy. If I throw a strike, I’ll be ok.’
“It worked for a while with some of the younger hitters that don’t really drive the ball, but some of these guys are prospects, they can hit the ball, or some of them are grown men. Some are 24- 25 year old men that can hit the ball far. He’s learned that the hard way.
“The first couple outings he got kind of hit around. To his credit, he’s allowed himself to change. He’s going to the corners a little bit more, he’s attacking down in the zone, being more aggressive by not throwing so many strikes. He’s throwing ‘quality misses,’ is what we call it.”
According to Bonilla, a lot of Gibbons improvement has come from his mentality, as much as any improvement he’s shown with his mechanics or pitch selection.
“He’s trusting it,” Bonilla said. “I think one of the biggest things for him is his confidence. He’s out there confident that he can make pitches. He does it and he does it with a purpose with all of his pitches.”
The coach also conceded that sometimes a little early failure greases the skids a bit for quicker improvement.
“It’s hard to go away from success on the field,” he explained. “If a (hitter) is hitting .300 and we’re telling him, ‘hey, it’s not going to work when you get to the big leagues,’ he’s going to be like, ‘well, I’m hitting .300.’ If a (pitcher) is getting outs here, he’s like, ‘what do you mean it’s not going to work?’
“So it’s hard for them to get themselves out of immediate success and look at four years down the future. To their credit, the ones that do are the ones that kind of take their lumps early, but you can see them kind of turn it around and stay with it and go good. And he’s one of those guys that’s been doing that. So he’s done a great job, I’m very happy with him.”
Gibbons was signed by the Twins as a 17-year-old in July, 2011, but continued to play in his home country for a while and didn’t make his first appearance for a Twins affiliate in the States until the following year.
“Our school (in Australia) works a bit differently, so I was actually halfway through my senior year of high school, so it was a bit different to how things are out here. It was a big thing for my mom to make sure that I finished high school.”
There’s that “blame mom” thing again. How dare she do something like wanting him to finish high school before moving thousands of miles away to play baseball for a living?
“I look back on it and I wanted to get over here as soon as possible,” Gibbons recalled, “but it was a slight decision, finishing high school at least.”
In the end, mom won out – as moms are prone to doing.
“So, I made sure I did that (finish high school) and then came over the following (extended spring training). The Twins don’t tend to like to bring Aussies over here for spring training their first year,” he explained. “Trying to wet their feet a bit, I guess, by just coming to extended and seeing how things work and then their second year, bring them over for spring training.”
Gibbons played two years for the Twins Gulf Coast League team in Fort Myers, then moved up to Elizabethton for the 2014 short season, where he teamed with many of the same guys he’s sharing the Kernels clubhouse with this season. That’s not an insignificant factor in his recent success, according to the pitcher.
“I feel that the (catchers) we have on our team, they really take notice of what pitches you have and what works well for the situation. Having (Brett) Doe, Navi (Brian Navarreto) and (Alex) Real behind there, it’s pretty good,” Gibbons offered. “All three of the catchers on this team now were in E-town last year and the majority of our pitching group is the same from last year, so everyone has a good idea of what we throw and when you want to throw it.”
All three Kernels catchers have been successful at controlling the opponents’ running games. Navarreto, for example, has thrown out over half of the runners attempting to steal off of him. That’s a factor Gibbons appreciates.
“Having Navi behind the plate the last couple of outings has been exceptional. We’ve played together for three years now, so he’s known me pretty well. I’m pretty lucky to have him behind there pitch calling and his defensive work is immaculate.”
Gibbons doesn’t appear to be exactly a high-maintenance pitcher for his catchers to have to deal with. If you find him sitting alone for a couple of hours before each start, he’s probably watching a movie or listening to music, not focused on envisioning every pitch that’s about to come out of his hand.
“No, no, not at all,” he admitted.” I don’t really do that until I’m out on the mound going, ‘ok, let’s go and see how this goes.’”
As the season winds down, Gibbons stands to play a critical role in the postseason for the Kernels. He’s thrown just over 64 innings since joining Cedar Rapids, so there shouldn’t be any concerns about the front office limiting his work just when the team needs him the most in the playoffs.
When his year in Cedar Rapids wraps up, Gibbons will be headed back “down under” for the off-season. For him, that means beach time.
“Back home, I live about 15 minutes from the beach,” he said. “I’m always going down there with buddies or just hanging out and kicking back. I play club ball sometimes or I practice and train with my brother. (Club ball) is like a mens’ league sort of thing that I just go down and I have some fun with my brother and my buddies that I grew up playing with.”
He’s going to take a bit more time off this year before starting the real training for his 2016 season.
“Definitely take off a fair chunk of the offseason and come back in mid-January at some point, I guess,” Gibbons said of his plans. “Play a bit of ABL and get a couple of starts before spring training.
“I have to be in contact with (Twins farm director Brad Steil). Henry (Bonilla) and I will sit down before the season finishes and see where the innings are at and see what they want – a pitch count or innings limit sort of restriction.”
Those limits will then be communicated to Gibbons’ ABL coaching staff.
“They’re happy to have me pitch whatever that is,” he added.
It’s good that the ABL coaches are so easy to work with. At least that’s one less thing Gibbons should have to blame his mom for.
The first, last and most important job any minor league baseball player has is to work hard at improving his skills to move on up the organizational ladder to the next level. That said, when Cedar Rapids Kernels infielder Pat Kelly gets his next promotion, it may be bittersweet news for Pat and, more specifically, his family members that have been making frequent trips from Red Wing, Minnesota, to Cedar Rapids to watch Pat and the Kernels.
That could become a much more difficult trip to make as Kelly’s career carries him from Cedar Rapids to other stops on the Minnesota Twins affiliate list in Florida, Tennessee and New York.
According to Kelly’s father, Jim, who works in the Goodhue County (MN) Sheriff’s Office, the Kelly clan has made the trip to Cedar Rapids, “about every other weekend.”
“My schedule, I’m off every other weekend, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and this particular year, the Kernels have been home when I’ve been off pretty much,” the elder Kelly added. “When I first looked at it, I miscalculated and I thought, ‘I’ve got to work every weekend they’re home.’ But it turned out to be the opposite, so it worked out real good”
“There’s like 25 of them here,” Pat Kelly said Saturday. “My dad’s one of ten (siblings) so I have a lot of uncles. They’re all in Red Wing pretty much. I have an aunt up in Cottage Grove, Minnesota (about 35 miles from Red Wing), and that’s about the farthest they go.
“They love coming down and coming to some games. They did that every Easter at Nebraska (where Pat played college baseball for the Cornhuskers). We’d get about 50-60 family members, they’d all make the trip down to Lincoln for Easter. It’s quite the crew.”
The “crew” during the most recent Kernels weekend homestand included not only family, but Cornhusker Head Athletic Trainer, Jerry Weber, whose career at Nebraska has spanned the Kelly generations. He was there when Jim was on campus as a Husker football player, as well as during Pat’s baseball career there.
Despite his dad’s connection to “Big Red,” it was no sure thing that Pat would follow in his father’s footsteps to Lincoln. And there was no chance he’d follow those footsteps to the football field at Nebraska, or anywhere else.
“I grew up loving baseball, basketball and football, all three, (but) baseball was always my favorite growing up. I played football, it was probably my third favorite.
He said he wasn’t just playing football growing up out of some kind of obligation to his dad, either.
“No, I liked it, I really did.”
By his junior year of high school, however, football was left behind.
“In tenth grade I was playing like eight quarters of football every Friday night. I was playing tenth grade games and then the varsity needed players so I would go play cornerback, running back, quarterback, like every Friday night. Then come my junior year, it was just like, it’s going to be too much.
“I was doing a lot of baseball in the fall. So I gave up football. I didn’t even start my junior year. I just started doing a lot more baseball in the fall. I played basketball, I love basketball. But baseball’s always been my favorite.”
That focus on baseball began early, according to his father.
“All baseball,” Jim confirmed. “He never really gave me a break. We work 12 hour shifts (at the Sheriff’s Office). I go to work at six in the morning and get home at six at night and he would be sitting on the steps with a bucket of balls, his bat and his glove and I would get in the driveway, ‘Let’s go dad.’ So we’d just go down the street to a park and he’d hit for as long as I could throw balls to him.”
Jim recalled it wasn’t until Pat was in fifth or sixth grade that his son discovered, while looking through an old scrapbook, that his dad had played football for Nebraska. “He saw that and he said, ‘We should go to Nebraska sometime.’ I said, ‘sure.'”
“Sometime” turned out to be when Pat was a freshman in high school.
“He had a Nebraska schedule up and he said, ‘I want to go to watch Nebraska and Texas A&M,” the father recalled. “In whatever year that was, they were ranked 4th and 5th in the country, respectively and I said, ‘alright, we’ll go.’”
That baseball game made an impression on Pat.
“There was like nine or ten thousand people there. The game went like 16 innings long and not a fan left. Pretty cool. So from then on, I just felt like, ‘I really want to go to Nebraska.’ It ended up working out.”
It was the only basball game the Huskers and Aggies got in that weekend as rain washed out the scheduled Saturday and Sunday contests.
“We ended up leaving early on Sunday and I think we got as far as Omaha and he said, ‘I know where I want to go to college, dad. I’m going to go to Nebraska.’ I said, ‘oh, okay.’ You know it was so early yet, but you know, let the kid dream. Why not?”
Why not, indeed. Kelly ended up living his dream as a Cornhusker, earning 2nd team All-Big Ten honors his freshman year and was 1st team All-Big Ten in both his sophomore and junior seasons.
Not bad, considering he nearly never had the opportunity to attend his chosen school.
“It’s kind of funny though. Nebraska was one of my last recruiting letters,” Pat recollected. “I was just waiting for it, waiting for it. I’d always come home from school – I didn’t play football then, so my falls were open – so I’d come home early. I remember coming home and there were two letters, North Carolina and Nebraska, and I didn’t give a crap about the other one. I was pretty excited about that.”
“He called me at work and said, ‘dad, I got it!’ ‘You got what?’ ‘I got the letter.’ ‘OK, let me guess,’” Jim added.
“I had an amazing time at Nebraska,” Pat said. “Coach (Darin) Erstad is an unbelievable guy and a great coach and did a lot for me. Yeah, I love Nebraska. I can’t wait to go back there in the offseason and go to football games and hang out there.”
According to Pat, It wasn’t easy to leave a year early and begin his professional career. He knew it was time to move on, but it was a difficult decision to make.
“Yeah for me it was,” he recalled. “just because I loved Nebraska so much. It’s hard to leave those guys and the coaching staff.
“At the end of the day, every kid’s goal is to be a big leaguer. You just had to look at that and obviously I had no doubt if I go back to Nebraska, it would have been a great year and we probably would have had a great team, I mean they had a good team this year. But at the end of the day, you want to be a big leaguer and you want to get that going.”
For Pat, getting that going meant being signed by the Minnesota Twins as their 12th round selection in the 2014 draft and heading to Elizabethton, Tennessee, last summer to begin his professional career.
Nobody will confuse the environments for playing ball in Elizabethton with those in Lincoln, but Kelly didn’t mind the change.
“It was definitely a little bit of an eye-opener going down to E’town,” Pat said of his first impressions of the community where the Twins’ short-season Appalachian League affiliate is located. “I didn’t really have any expectations, to be honest. I just kind of went in with an open mind. It was fun, we made the playoffs and had a good season. Getting paid to play baseball, that’s a pretty good deal.”
This season, Kelly has been on the Kernels roster since Opening Day, making this his first year of enduring a full 140-game minor league schedule. Some players feel like they hit a wall, physically and/or mentally, at about this point in their first full season.
“Yeah it’s kind of funny. Around the all-star break, you get half way and you’re like, ‘alright, we’re doing that again. Same thing over,’” Kelly said. “But no, I haven’t really seemed to hit that wall yet. I’m still enjoying every day with the guys and just can’t really complain. Getting paid to play baseball.
“I think just the base adjustment from college to now is, here it’s every day, you play every day. In college, you didn’t play every day. You had class, you had other stuff. But now, every single day, this is your job. I think that’s just the biggest adjustment.
“Even if you’re not in the lineup, you have a full day. You’re at the park from 1:30 to 10 or 11 at night. You’re still doing your work. You’re in the cage, you’re doing stuff. You’re still drained at the end of the day and then the next day, you do it again. I think that’s just the biggest adjustment for me, just getting mentally ready every day to go to work and get better.”
With that mentality, it’s no wonder Kelly uses Florida Georgia Line’s “Every Night” as his walk-up song.
After Kelly hit .242 in 39 games, all at second base, for Elizabethton a season ago, he’s been running closer to .220 over the season for the Kernels. He played second base through most of the season, but has been spending more time at third base since TJ White’s promotion to Fort Myers.
Kelly’s also been faring better at the plate more recently, hitting .258 in his last ten games and carrying a four-game hitting streak into Thursday night’s contest with Clinton.
That stretch includes Kelly getting three hits, including a pair of doubles, in eight at-bats with his personal cheering section in the Cedar Rapids crowd last weekend.
This offseason, Kelly will return to Lincoln where he’ll live and work out with Cedar Rapids native (and 2014 Kernel) Chad Christensen, who is also a former Husker ballplayer.
“We lived together last offseason and we’re going to live together this offseason,” Kelly explained. “We do everything together and work out there.”
Lincoln is also much closer than Red Wing to his girlfriend’s home in Kansas City, but that’s probably just a coincidence.
No matter how far away from his home and family in Red Wing Kelly’s professional baseball career may take him, however, he’ll always carry something of his home with him.
Yes, the love of his family, certainly, but also the oil he uses to break in his gloves.
“I oil them with oil from Red Wing Shoes in Red Wing. I always use their boot oil for my gloves and it seems to work really well.”
In each of the past several seasons, the Cedar Rapids Kernels have held an “Autism Awareness Night” at the Veterans Memorial Stadium, with the Kernels wearing special jerseys that are auctioned off to benefit The East Central Iowa Autism Society.
The Society’s web site reports that the rate of autism is currently 1 in 88. However, as the site goes on to point out, “To most Americans, 1 in 88 is a number. To the families of a child with autism, our 1 in 88 has a face and a name.”
For one Kernels player, that face is his younger brother’s and that name is Max.
Cedar Rapids outfielder Zack Larson doesn’t need to wear a special jersey to remain aware of autism. In the unlikely event that Larson would require such a reminder, he needs only to look at his own right arm and the tattoo there consisting of the puzzle piece logo, widely used to promote autism awareness, along with his brother’s name.
Larson’s a native of the Bradenton, Florida, area, but moved to Virginia with his family when he was just five years old.
“I lived there for four years,” Larson recalled, “then, my little brother was born in Virginia and was diagnosed with autism. So we moved back down to Florida where we found a school for him to go to. That’s where we’ve been since.”
Max and the rest of Larson’s family follow Zack and the Kernels as closely as possible from Florida.
“They bought that (MiLB.tv) package so they watch the games on TV that are there to watch and they listen to every game with Morgan (Kernels radio broadcaster Morgan Hawk). My mom came (to Cedar Rapids) in May, so it was good to see her.”
If, as you’d expect, Max looks up to his big brother the ballplayer, it’s equally apparent that Zack admires Max, as well.
“He has pretty severe autism,” Larson explained. “He doesn’t talk very well but he knows words. He’s really brilliant on the computer. He knows how to work every electronic thing you can think of. My dad won’t know how to turn on something and Max will go in there and turn it on right away. My dad’s like, ‘what the heck?’ He’s a genius when it comes to electronics and computers and stuff.
“Not many people totally understand what it’s all about. It was eye-opening for me when I first started to understand what my brother was diagnosed with. I was still young. It made me a better person, it made my family better people and it’s a blessing to have my brother.”
Larson was signed out of high school in 2012 after being drafted by the Twins in the 20th round. Like virtually all high school players that are drafted, he had to choose between starting his professional career immediately or going to college first and trying to improve his future draft status. It really wasn’t a difficult decision for Larson, however.
“I signed with a junior college, but ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a professional baseball player and the Twins gave me the opportunity,” Larson recalled. “I didn’t want to pass on it. I could have gone to college and got hurt and could have never gotten another chance to play professional baseball.”
Larson said he did discuss options with his family, but, in the end, “it was always my childhood dream to play pro ball, so I did it.”
Had Larson gone to a four year college instead, he’d have been a draftable junior in this year’s draft. That’s not something he gives any thought to, however.
“I don’t play any ‘what if’ games. I just did what I wanted to do. I just followed my dream and I haven’t looked back since.”
Is he happy with how that dream has turned out, so far?
“Yeah, absolutely. It’s awesome.”
Larson played 41 games with the Kernels a year ago, but missed much of the season with a hamstring injury.
The result of missing so much time with an injury was being assigned, again, to Cedar Rapids this spring as he works to resume his rise up the Twins’ organizational ladder.
“My goal was just to have good quality at-bats, not to give any at-bats away,” Larson said, of his plans for 2015. “Just get on base however I can. I never really set any number goals or any of that. I wanted to get to the playoffs the first half and we did.”
Larson got off to a slow start in April, hitting just .211 for the month, but he and Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins have been working together and that work is starting to show results.
“I’m working with Tommy just on staying through the ball, working down to the ball instead of lifting the ball,” Larson explained. “I’ve been getting under it and lifting it. I’ve just been working with Tommy every day in the cage and starting to improve.”
Larson has been particularly effective at driving in runs for the Kernels, hitting .347 with runners in scoring position and leading his team with 39 Runs Batted In headed in to the July 4 weekend.
Watkins said he likes what he’s seeing from his pupil.
“He’s got a pretty good swing,” Watkins observed. “We’re just working with him on using the whole field, trying to drive some balls to the gap. Right now, just trying to get him to stay on top of the ball and use the middle to the opposite way. To pull the ball, let that happen on its own.
“He’s a student of the game and he’s a guy that I look to lead our club, being here last year. He’s more of a quiet guy and he’ll lead more by example than anything, but I look for him to be a leader on this team. Great guy with runners in scoring position. He hunts out those RBIs and that’s a good thing.”
Larson and his teammates put together a 41-29 record in the first half of their Midwest League season, good enough to lock up a playoff spot by finishing second in the Western Division, but they know they have more work to do.
“We had a pretty good first half, but we think we can do better,” Larson said. “We had a meeting with Jake (manager Jake Mauer) and he said that if we had averaged four runs per game, we could have won 50 games in the first half. So, we were like, ‘what the heck, we can score four runs.’
“We don’t want to take the second half lightly, we want to show the teams that we’re playing some ball and we’re ready for the playoffs, that we can push it all the way into the playoffs and make a run.”
When you ask ballplayers about their outside interests, it’s not unusual for them to express an interest in hunting. In that regard, Kernels’ pitcher Randy LeBlanc fits in with the crowd.
It’s when you ask what he hunts that LeBlanc begins to vary from the norm.
He’ll tell you he spent most of his offseason fishing and duck hunting, with a little deer hunting thrown in. Although, “my dad does more deer hunting than I do,” he says.
After a pause though, he adds the kicker.
“I’ve been gator hunting a few times. A couple of years ago, my cousin got a tag and we got one that was ten feet.“
LeBlanc hails from Covington, Louisiana, though while his offseason activities might be right in line with his Cajun heritage, you’d barely know it to speak to him.
“I’ve had people tell me up here that I don’t have any kind of accent,” he said. “People down south tell me I have an accent. It’s different than an Alabama accent. I’m definitely Cajun. My dad grew up in Cajun-land.”
You can take the boy out of Cajun-land, but it’s not so easy, apparently, to take the Cajun-land out of the boy.
In all the years the Minnesota Twins have been conducting spring training in Florida, they’ve certainly dealt with a wide variety of minor disciplinary issues with their ballplayers. Boys will be boys, after all.
But this spring, LeBlanc and fellow Louisiana native (and former Kernels pitcher) Ryan Eades may have been among the first Twins farmhands to get talked to about messing with the local alligators.
“Me and Ryan got in some trouble messing with some of the ones in Florida during spring training,” LeBlanc admitted with a small smile. “We had a meeting about it.”
“Everybody’s so scared of them,” he added, in a way that made it sound like he couldn’t quite grasp why that would be the case.
You can hardly blame the Twins, though, for discouraging LeBlanc from “messing with” alligators.
Despite being relegated to the often anonymous role of middle relief pitcher, LeBlanc is opening eyes this summer with the Kernels. He took a string of 26 consecutive scoreless innings of relief work in to the tenth inning of Friday night’s game against the Quad Cities River Bandits, a team high for the season that he shared with one of the Kernels’ closers, Trevor Hildenberger.
That string might have extended to 27 games, but for a line drive in to the outfield that was a single misplayed in to a triple. The result was LeBlanc’s first loss of the season, as Cedar Rapids fell to Quad Cities 4-3 in ten innings.
As rare as the loss was for LeBlanc, almost as rare was the fact that LeBlanc worked just one inning in the game.
The 6’ 4” right hander has made 19 appearances this season for Cedar Rapids and all but two of them have involved more than one inning of mound work. His 42 and 1/3 innings leads all non-starters for the Kernels.
The Twins drafted LeBlanc out of Tulane University in New Orleans with their tenth round pick in the 2014 draft.
Those who follow the Twins minor league organization closely know that they’ve had a pattern of drafting hard throwing college relievers with the intention of trying to turn them in to starting pitchers.
The Twins have seemingly done just the opposite with LeBlanc, who was almost exclusively a starting pitcher during his college career at Tulane, but has been used only in relief roles since signing with the Twins.
“I made a couple of relief appearances (in college), but other than that, I started my entire life,” he said. “I’d never done any relief, not consistent relief. Last year (at rookie level Elizabethton) was definitely the first time I’ve done that. But I was fine doing it, comfortable doing it. Whatever the Twins feel is my best role is what I want to do.”
LeBlanc was drafted in the 16th round of the 2010 draft by the Florida Marlins after his senior year of high school, but chose to attend Tulane, rather than sign with the Marlins.
“They made me a pretty big offer. That was before the slotting stuff,” he recalled. “It was definitely a big decision to turn down the money and go to school, but I don’t regret that for the world. I enjoyed my four years of college. It was definitely a lot of fun. New Orleans is a great city. I love it.”
That’s easier for LeBlanc to say now than it might have been after his first season of college ball.
“I had Tommy John (elbow ligament surgery) my freshman year of college. I actually tore it in my third start. I ended up having surgery a week later and was out the rest of the year.
“Came back the next year and struggled a little bit, just didn’t have quite the same stuff. I say I struggled, but it definitely could have been worse, don’t get me wrong.
“Did a little better my junior year, went undrafted after that year. Had a couple of phone calls with some offers, but went back to school. I had a really good red-shirt junior year and got drafted by the Twins.”
So, after four years in Big Easy, LeBlanc found himself in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in April.
New Orleans and Cedar Rapids – pretty much the same thing, right? No, not so much.
“When I flew up to Minneapolis to sign last year, that was the farthest I had ever been north in my life,” a smiling LeBlanc recalled. “I would assume this (Cedar Rapids) is probably the second farthest.
“The games this year in Appleton, when it was snowing for two days, I’d never seen snow before. It was the first snow I’d ever seen. It’s been a trip. That was the coldest I’d ever pitched in, for sure. Man, it was cold. The wind was just howling the whole time. It was miserable.
“I do a lot of hunting and fishing in the offseason, so I’m used to being out in the cold, but not snow cold, not like that.”
The climate may not be familiar to LeBlanc, but if his performance this season is any indication, he’ll have no problem adjusting to pitching in Target Field someday.
LeBlanc has notched a 1.70 ERA in 42 and 1/3 innings over 19 appearances for the Kernels.
“I had a really good first month of April,” he recalled.”Then we started May and I kind of had a little rough stretch for about two weeks. Ever since then, I’ve had a little better command up and down in the zone and I think that’s the biggest thing.
“I’ve been throwing well. A couple times, I guess, during this little streak or whatever, I haven’t had my best stuff at all. Basically, I’ve just made pitches when I’ve had to, able to get out of jams, that’s the best way to describe it. I’m not out there just dominating everybody and striking everybody out. Just making pitches when I have to.”
LeBlanc is also quick to point out that he and his fellow Kernels pitchers have benefited this season from some pretty solid defensive efforts behind them.
“We’ve played a ton of defense. TJ (White) and Nick (Gordon) and the whole left side of the infield, that’s where the majority of my balls go, to that side. So they’ve done an incredible job and Pat (Kelly) has done a great job up the middle.
“We’ve had guys mixing all over the place at first base. Brett (Doe) has never played first base in his life and he finds himself over there and he’s doing a really good job. It definitely helps having good defense behind us.”
LeBlanc uses a three-pitch mix on the mound and, like a lot of young pitchers, he came in to the season with an agenda.
“Originally, coming up here, I was working on the breaking ball. It’s gotten much better. I’m throwing a slider, It’s kind of a slider or a slurve, I guess. I’ve gotten a lot of swings and misses with it.
“But, I mean, I’m a sinkerball guy. I throw sinkers down and in to most people. That’s probably my best pitch; that or my change up. My change up’s my out pitch. If I need a swing and a miss, I go to my change up. But most of my success is just getting ground balls.”
While LeBlanc isn’t unhappy with his middle relief role, he wouldn’t exactly be opposed to getting a shot at a rotation spot at some point, either.
His Kernels pitching coach, Henry Bonilla, is in LeBlanc’s corner on that issue, too.
“I’ve been pulling for it,” Bonilla said. “I’ve been putting that thought in their (the front office) heads that he can start, he wants to start.”
His success out of the pen may be working against the righty’s chances of changing roles, however. Sometimes you don’t mess with what’s going well.
“I just think he’s having so much success right now,” Bonilla added, “that you just kind of say, ‘just keep going.’”
LeBlanc says all the right things when he’s asked about his role now and in the future.
“I think that Henry has talked about it a little bit to some of the guys up above us making the decisions. But I’m not sure what they’re doing. I told them at the beginning of the year I’ll do whatever they want me to do that’s going to help me to move up. Whatever will get me to the big leagues, I want to do. Whatever, starting, closing, throwing relief, long relief, whatever it is. So whatever they feel comfortable with me doing, I’ll do.
“They might ask me to start here in three weeks, I have no idea. I’d be fine doing that, though, I’ve started my whole life.”
Many starting pitchers pick up a few miles per hour on their fastballs when they start working out of the bullpen, but LeBlanc said that’s not historically been the case with him.
“It’s actually the other way around,” he said. “I threw harder as a starter. I threw harder as the games went on in college.”
He has no explanation for why that might be the case.
“I have no idea. It was like that in high school and it was like that in college. I don’t know, that’s the weirdest thing.
“When I was getting drafted, (scouts) were like, ‘so if you threw in relief, you could throw a couple miles per hour harder,’ and I’m like, ‘yeah!’ I figured it would be around the same. Definitely not going to tell them, ‘no’.”
Whatever his role may be during the second half of the Kernels’ season, he’s been a major contributor to the Kernels’ success, so far, and his pitching coach recognizes that.
“He’s been doing everything we ask,” Bonilla said. “He’s been a big glue to the middle innings right now.”
The Midwest League’s Eastern Division All-Stars took two hours and forty-four minutes to top their Western Division counterparts 5-0 in Peoria Tuesday night, but any Cedar Rapids fans who made the trip hoping to watch the Kernels’ representatives had to be careful with the timing of any trips to the concession stand.
Pitchers Felix Jorge, Jared Wilson, Trevor Hildenberg and Cam Booser spent less than a combined 15 minutes on the mound while throwing a total of two and one-third innings for the West.
Jorge needed just ten pitches to retire all three hitters he faced in a perfect 3rd inning, striking out one.
Wilson started the 8th inning and was just as efficient, using just seven pitches to get through his assigned two outs, including a strikeout.
Hildenberger relieved Wilson and used just four pitches to finish the inning with a strikeout of his own.
Booser was assigned the first out of the 9th inning, entering with the West trailing 2-0. He walked one and gave up a pair of hits before getting an out on a bouncer back to him on the mound.
The four Kernels pitchers threw just 34 pitches between them, but All-Star games aren’t all about playing time.
Hildenberg and Jorge agreed afterward that the experience was well worth the trip.
“It was fun,” Hildenberger said, between bites of his postgame meal. “Getting to meet players you play against, talking to them about how their seasons are going. And to pitch in an All-Star game is an honor.”
Jorge, who’s role as a starting pitcher with the Kernels, calls for him to prepare to throw six or seven innings at a time, said he didn’t change his approach for the rare one-inning relief appearance.
“I was just trying to do the same,” he said.
West hitters managed just three hits off Eastern Division pitching on the night and perhaps could have used the bat of injured Kernels first baseman Trey Vavra, who made the trip to Peoria after being elected to start the game before going on the Kernels’ Disabled List with an ankle injury.
Vavra was happy to get the opportunity to participate in the All-Star festivities, but there was no chance he’d be able to play in the game.
“I’m glad that the Twins gave me the opportunity to come here and hang out with everybody,” Vavra said before the game. “It’s great that they allowed me to do that.
“My rehab’s come a long ways. I’m not going to be able to play in the game tonight. It’s unfortunate, but it’s kind of how it worked out.”
Despite the progress with his rehabilitation, Vavra isn’t sure yet when he’ll be back in the Kernels’ lineup. He’s also not certain whether he’ll complete his rehab in Cedar Rapids or whether he’ll make a trip to the Twins’ facility in Fort Myers.
“It’s kind of up to (the Twins) at this point. We’ve been doing some rehab for a long time. I’m progressing. I wouldn’t anticipate anything in the next week, but maybe the week after that.
“I might go down there (to Fort Myers). I’ve heard both. Going down there to get some extended batting practice, but I’ve also heard that I’m staying up here and doing all that stuff up here, so I’ll just keep my head down and keep working.”
With the All-Star break now in the rear-view mirror, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Twins didn’t make some roster adjustments and that could include promoting any of the four pitchers the Kernels sent to Peoria for the All-Star Game.
Vavra, as well, played well enough while he was healthy to warrant consideration for a promotion, but it’s likely the organization would want to see him get more time in with the Kernels when he’s ready to resume his season.
Hildenberger, however, indicated that they haven’t heard anything yet from the Twins about any possible promotions.
On Wednesday, the Twins and Kernels announced that pitcher Brandon Bixler has been activated from the Disabled List and lefty starting pitcher Luke Westphal has joined the Kernels’ active roster from Fort Myers. Bixler made 41 appearances for the Kernels in 2014, notching a 2.68 ERA out of the Cedar Rapids bullpen. Westphal has put up a 3.82 ERA in five starts and 11 relief appearances for the Miracle this season.
The Kernels will begin the second half of the season on Thursday night against Quad Cities. The River Bandits were the champions of the league’s Western Division in the first half of the season.
P.S. This is where you watch the game from when you’re late with your request for media credentials for the MWL All-Star Game. On the other hand, the weather was terrific and I would have missed this ballpark sunset if I’d been in the pressbox!
Brett Doe didn’t make the trip north to Cedar Rapids out of spring training with his friends and teammates when they broke camp to start the 2015 season, a fact that was, “pretty disheartening,” Doe said in an interview over the past weekend.
“When I first heard it, it was pretty tough,” Doe admitted. “I played with most of these guys down in E’town and they’re definitely the guys that I wanted to spend the year playing with.”
Doe didn’t allow himself to dwell long on that disheartened feeling though.
“A few hours kind of down on myself a little bit, doubting myself,” he said. “But then I thought, ‘what good is being negative?’ Negativity only slows you down, holds you back.”
Doe said he also got a bit of tough love from his buddies back home.
“I talked to a lot of friends and they were saying, ‘hey, we don’t want to hear you complain, we’re going to our jobs right now and we’d give anything to be where you are right now.’ So kind of taking that attitude kind of helped me once I got here because it’s something I can’t take for granted.
“Being down there (in extended spring training) and knowing how anxious I was to get here and knowing that nothing is guaranteed. Even if I’m playing well and hitting well, it’s still a long season to go.”
Even going back in to spring training, Doe recognized that a guy selected as late as he was in the draft can’t afford to relax in the effort department.
“I was a 38th rounder during spring training. I would wake up and think, ‘I hope today is not the day they send me home. I don’t want to go back home.’ So I’d work hard every single day and, as cliché as that sounds, I’d work hard and have to go back and get in bed so tired after the day was over. Still, every day I’ve got to realize that nothing is guaranteed.”
A couple of weeks in to the season, Doe got the call to join the Kernels when Jorge Fernandez went on the Disabled List with a concussion.
Since then, Doe has hit .318 and has stepped in to make a critical contribution to the Kernels’ offense during their successful drive to clinch at least a second-place finish in the Midwest League’s Western Division first-half standings and the guaranteed postseason berth that comes with it.
“It’s been huge, to be honest with you,” Kernels manager Jake Mauer said of Doe’s contribution.
“He just hadn’t gotten much of an opportunity early,” Mauer added. “Now he’s getting a chance and with his swing, how short it is and compact, it works, there’s no doubt about it. It’s just a matter of him getting an opportunity, really. He’s making the most of it.”
He didn’t exactly hit the ground running upon arrival in Cedar Rapids, though.
“When I first got here, I started off a little slow. Not playing that much and when I got in, I got up there with the attitude that I’ve got to prove that I belong here. I think that if I’d have squared up some of those balls I swung at, they’d have gone about 500 feet,” Doe recalled, laughing.
Mauer and Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins had some conversations with Doe about that approach.
“That’s not the type of player I am,” he acknowledged. “It’s putting the ball in play, trying to find barrels and move guys and score guys. That’s the type of player I am and they helped remind me of that and that’s helped me out a lot.”
Doe was primarily an infielder during his junior college and college career, but the Twins are making a catcher out of him.
The reason for the position change to squatting behind the plate was simple, according to Doe. Pro scouts spelled things out clearly to him during the scouting process.
“I went to junior college and looked to get drafted out of there,” Doe explained. “I was just a shortstop, and I’d show up places and run my 60-yard dashes and scouts would kind of hold their breath and kind of, ‘ohhh, not what we want.’ That had held me back.”
According to Doe, the scouts told him, “The only chance you may have is if you catch because you don’t have to run.”
“That was kind of what held me back from playing infield,” Doe added. “Struggled swinging the bat a few years in college. ‘Can’t run well, streaky hitter, so we want you to catch a little bit.’”
It took a bit of truth-stretching for Doe to get his first opportunity to get behind the plate during his junior year at Baylor, though.
“A couple of our catchers went down with injuries so I kind of mentioned it, ‘yeah I caught in junior college,’ which wasn’t entirely truthful,” Doe rather sheepishly admitted. “But I wanted to stay in the lineup. So I went back there and they said, ‘OK you’re catching this weekend.’
“That started it. That was my junior year. I caught about 15-20 games there. Then senior year, I went back to shortstop once our other catchers got healthy. I didn’t start doing it full time until last year at E’town.”
While his future in professional baseball is likely going to be determined by how well he wears the “tools of ignorance,” as we called catchers’ gear in my day, the Kernels currently have four catchers on their roster. That means that Doe’s defensive versatility allows his manager to keep his hot bat in the lineup and he’s been playing a lot of first base for the Kernels recently.
That’s fine with Doe, because it’s all about getting playing time. “Seeing my name in the lineup every day is really, really nice.
“The background of being in the infield has helped me. I’m taking some ground balls at other positions in case some guys need breaks in the long season.
“I’m more comfortable doing that than catching most of the time. Catching is still new to me. Now I’ve just got to figure out when I can get my catching work in and still be fresh and ready for games.”
Mauer thinks that Doe is handling his defensive responsibilities well, regardless of the position.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked,” said the manager. “He’s doing fine at first, a position he hasn’t played a lot.
“He was an infielder who’s catching, so he’s probably a little bit more familiar with going back out in the infield. He’s done a nice job when he’s caught for us. It’s just another way to get him in the lineup. (Alex) Real has been swinging the bat real well, too, so we’re trying to get both of them in there.”
Asked about his goals for the year, Doe emphasized team goals.
“Of course, the big goal is to make the playoffs,” he said. “I don’t really have any specific individual goals besides showing up every day and knowing that I did my best that day and just trying to help my team win.”
Three days after speaking those words, Doe and the Kernels locked in their playoff spot by clinching at least second place in their division for the first half of the season, so he and his teammates can check that goal off the list.
One of the things the Minnesota Twins and Cedar Rapids Kernels organizations have in common is an emphasis on community service and that commonality was on display Saturday morning on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids.
After playing a night game on Friday night, Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins and several Kernels players were back at the ballpark by 8:30 the next morning to conduct a Youth Baseball Camp for well over a hundred boys and girls.
There was a signup sheet in the Kernels’ clubhouse with nine lines on it for volunteers to sign up to work the camp. Every line was filled and a couple additional players wrote their names in between the lines, giving Watkins a group of 11 ballplayers pitching in for the two-hour long camp, topped off with an autograph session.
Wandering around the field, it was really hard to tell who was having more fun, the kids or the players. Suffice to say there were a lot of smiles among the young players and the not-as-young.players.
With kids as young as five years old, there was a bit of a “herding kittens” aspect to some of the groups, but each of the six stations that the campers rotated between worked on specific aspects of the game of baseball.
In the indoor batting cage, pitcher Cameron Booser and first baseman/ outfielder Trey Vavra gave kids a chance to hit in the cage.
Out on the field, Catcher Brett Doe and pitcher John Curtiss worked with kids on coming off the mound to field bunts and throw toward first base.
Down in the Kernels’ bullpen, Michael Theofanopoulos and Jared Wilson were working with pitching fundamentals.
Out in right field, pitcher Zach Tillery was giving lessons on proper throwing technique.
In center field, infielder TJ White and pitcher Trevor Hildenberger were teaching kids how to go back on fly balls hit over their heads.
And over in left field, pitcher Randy LeBlanc and infielder Blake Schmit were teaching technique for fielding ground balls and making a throw.
While the kids were learning the game from Kernels players, some of the Kernels staff gave parents an opportunity to take a tour of the stadium, from the suite and pressbox level down through the clubhouse and batting cage level.
Many of those parents took the time afterward to thank Kernels staff and players for giving their kids this opportunity.
Kernels General Manager Scott Wilson was also appreciative of the time put in by Watkins and the players.
“You’ve got to think about, these guys played last night and get out of bed and be here by 8:30 to do this camp,” WIlson pointed out. “Then they’re probably going to go in the locker room, take a nap on the couch and then at 2:00 get back up and report for baseball and then do their jobs.”
The Kernels have a long tradition of community outreach and the camps are just one example. They also sponsor a summer reading program that involves Kernels players going out in to the elementary schools to read to kids and encourage them to read on their own over the summer.
The Youth Camp has long been a popular program
“I would say we’ve probably been doing this camp for about ten or twelve years,” Wilson said. “It’s gone through a lot of changes. We used to do a two-day camp that was four hours at a time – much more kind of intense. But with 137 participants that we had today, that’s hard to try to keep focus and attention spans.
“The way that Tommy runs it now, I love it, because everybody rotates to little different things.”
Nobody is going to become a big league ballplayer just by attending the Kernel’s two-hour camp, of course. But that’s not really the point.
The Kernels want to provide an enjoyable and affordable opportunity for some of the youngest fans in the local area to share a field with real professional ballplayers. Each camper also gets a Kernels cap and a voucher for a free ticket to a Kernels game, in addition to getting autographs from the players once the camp wraps up at the end of the morning.
“Although you might think that they’re not getting a lot of individual instruction, it’s an affordable $15 camp,” Wilson pointed out. “You’re getting a ball cap, you’re getting a ticket and they get to spend some time with some guys and see the drills that they do on a daily basis.
As Wilson went on to explain, it’s very possible that some of the young ballplayers have already had a chance to meet a few of these players.
“All of these (players) have been involved, too, in our schools program for us. These kids probably saw them at the reading program and now they get to shake their hand, get an autograph and play catch in their world with them, even if it’s just throwing the ball to them one time.”
The Cedar Rapids Kernels passed the midpoint of the first half of their 2015 season over the past weekend, making it an appropriate time to get manager Jake Mauer’s assessment of how their season is progressing.
There’s not a lot for the manager to complain loudly about, with his team vying for the second best record in the entire Midwest League. Then again, his guys have consistently remained several games behind Western Division leading Quad Cities in the standings, so there’s certainly room for improvement, too.
If the Kernels can maintain distance between themselves and the other Western Division challengers behind them, they’ll lock in a postseason spot as the Division’s first half runner-up, even if they can’t overtake Quad Cities by mid June.
In a conversation last weekend, Mauer quickly identified the primary reason for the Kernels’ success so far.
“Starting pitching has been good, for the most part,” Mauer said. “The bullpen’s been really good, for the most part and the defense has been good.”
It’s not a coincidence that those two aspects have led to wins on the scoreboard.
“It goes hand in hand,” Mauer explained. “The pitchers throw strikes and the boys get a chance to catch it. If (pitchers) don’t throw strikes and we’re standing for a while, when they do hit it, sometimes we’re not ready for it. It’s not an excuse but that’s what happens.
“Defense has been good, for the most part. We’re making the plays that we should and I think that’s the reason we’re pitching so well.”
Kernels shortstop Nick Gordon, the Twins’ first round draft pick a year ago, seconded his manager’s opinion on the value of the team’s defense this season.
“Pitchers like to throw strikes when they know they’ve got good defense behind them,” Gordon said on Saturday.
There’s one aspect of the pitching game that has surprised Mauer and it’s a component that defense has nothing to do with. More than half of the pitchers who have toed the rubber for the Kernels have averaged at least a strikeout for every inning pitched, led by reliever Cam Booser’s 1.75 strikeouts per inning.
“We’ve struck out a lot more guys than anticipated, which is probably a little bit of a surprise,” Mauer admitted. “We thought we’d have a couple of guys that would be able to strike guys out. Booser, obviously, and (Zach) Tillery, some of the guys that have some pretty good stuff. But for the most part, the pitching’s been what’s kept us going.”
He wouldn’t be a manager of young players if he couldn’t find room for improvement, of course.
“Still way too many walks,” Mauer said, concerning a few members of his staff. “We’re not taking that step forward, which is a little disappointing.”
Coincidence or not, since Mauer said those words, the Twins have sent several new pitchers to join the Kernels.
At least one case, of course, had nothing to do with a pitcher walking too many batters. Opening Day starting pitcher Mat Batts was rewarded for his strong work this spring with a promotion this week to Class high-A Fort Myers.
Pitching alone doesn’t win games, however. You need to score some runs, too, and the Kernels have outscored all but three teams in the Midwest League this year.
“The middle of our lineup is really starting to produce, which is huge,” Mauer observed, in regards to his lineup. “We’re starting to see some of the offensive guys hopefully get their legs underneath them and start going. We need some more contributions, especially from the bottom half of the order. I’d like to get our top half going again, but the middle’s been pretty good as of late.”
The “middle of the lineup” that Mauer referred to includes first baseman/outfielder Trey Vavra, who leads the Kernels in all three of the “Triple Crown” offensive categories, batting average (.353), home runs (6) and Runs Batted In (25), as well as almost every other offensive category that involves the use of his bat.
The Kernels haven’t faced any of the league’s Eastern Division teams yet, while seemingly matching up with the last two teams in the Western Division standings, Beloit and Wisconsin, at least every other week. Both of those clubs have younger rosters than many of their MWL competitors, including the Kernels.
That may have something to do with their early success, the manager will admit, but he’s not stepping up to volunteer to give back any of the wins against those teams, either.
“We’ve feasted on some of the pitchers we’ve needed to feast on, there’s no doubt about it,” Mauer observed. “We’re supposed to do that.”
But the manager doesn’t feel his guys have been bad against the better pitching they’ve faced, either.
“What we’re looking for is just a little more consistent approach at the plate.”
Gordon summed up the approach that he and his teammates are taking as they enter the final weeks of the season’s first-half.
“Our goal is to win so we’re out to compete and give our best,” the shortstop offered. “As for me, it’s been a learning experience for me to come out here and play against great competition every single night. You’ve got to make adjustments, you’ve got to learn. I feel as a team, we’re doing a pretty good job of that.”