Weekend Wrap Up: Kernels Clinch, Pub Crawl, MLB Blackouts

A lot of stuff has happened over the past few days.

Kernels are Playoff bound

First, the Cedar Rapids Kernels clinched a Midwest League playoff spot.

Whether they did this Saturday or Sunday is a bit hazy, but what’s certain is that the Kernels will be playing baseball beyond the scheduled end of the regular season on Labor Day. This makes the Kernels a perfect 2 for 2 qualifying for playoff work since affiliating with the Minnesota Twins.

Going strictly by “magic number,” the Kernels qualified for the playoffs on Sunday, when Peoria fell to Clinton. However, as Jim Ecker at MetroSportsReport.com pointed out, tie-breaking criteria favored the Kernels over Peoria, so in fact Cedar Rapids apears to have wrapped up their postseason spot late Saturday night.

Most likely, the Kernels will open the playoffs with a best of three series against Burlington. They would host Burlington on September 3 and then travel to Burlington for games 2 and 3 (if necessary) on September 4 and 5, respectively.

Unfortunately, I was not in attendance when the Kernels clinched, regardless of whether you consider that to have occurred Saturday or Sunday.

“Touch ‘em All”

Instead, I joined 100 or so Twins fans taking part in the second “Touch ‘em All Pub Crawl” sponsored by Twins Daily/Gleeman & the Geek.

The “Crawl” involved stopping at several establishments along the Twin Cities’ light rail line and ending with attendance at the Twins game Saturday night. It officially started at the Barrio Tequila Bar in St. Paul at noon, but since I was staying out in the southern ‘burbs and wanted to eat breakfast downtown at Hell’s Kitchen before getting started, I’d already spent at least 90 minutes on the rail before ever getting to the start of the official event over in St. Paul.

It was a great time, offering opportunities to renew friendships from prior TwinsDaily events and to meet even more fellow Twins fans for the first time. I’m always surprised how many people at these things have read the stuff I contributed to Knuckleballs and to TwinsDaily.

It was a great time with great people, all of whom just happen to be fans of a pretty poor baseball team. Despite that, the only real negative comment I heard was from Star Tribune Twins beat writer, Phil Miller, who thought the Kernels camo jersey I was wearing was ugly.

Hey, you can’t please everyone, right? And I enjoyed talking to Miller, once we moved away from fashion-related topics.

It really was a good time and I appreciate the TwinsDaily guys and Aaron Gleeman going to the effort to put it together. I always enjoy the events they organize.

Blackout News

Finally, some of you that have been reading Knuckleballs for a while may recall one (or more) of my rants concerning MLB’s TV blackout rules. Those rules result in Iowa residents being unable to watch games involving six diferent teams, the Twins, Brewers, Cubs, White Sox, Cardinals and Royals, online via MLB.tv.

Late last week, the Star Tribune posted a story quoting MLB’s head of online business, Bob Bowman,  as saying that baseball is nearing a solution that will allow people to watch their hometown teams online, if they are also subscribers to cable and/or satellite services.

That’s great for people in Minneapolis that want to watch the Twins on their mobile devices.

I’m guessing it’s still not good news for Iowans.

As crazy as it sounds, what seems most likely to happen is that MLB will broker a deal to allow people who already have access to Twins games via their local cable company to also have access online. Meanwhile, those of us in areas where FSN is not even an option via cable will continue to be blacked out.

I do understand the theory. We are supposed to individually get so up in arms over this that we all march on our local Mediacom office and demand that they pay FSN whatever they want for fees to get the regional sports channel added to our Eastern Iowa cable options.

That hasn’t happened yet, it’s not happening now and it won’t happen… ever.

However, given that MLB and the teams let the regional sports networks set whatever they want as the “home market” geographic footprint (because, after all, those rights fees are pretty much the major thing propping up MLB teams’ revenues), it’s pretty clear that any relief from the bizarre and antiquated blackout rules for places like Iowa, Las Vegas and North Carolina, which several teams claim as part of their “home market,” isn’t likely happening either.

Instead, what I expect is that we’ll see MLB, under their new Commissioner, Rob Manfred, address the online issue for fans who could already watch their favorite teams on TV. Then, they’ll claim they’ve “solved” this problem and ignore the fact that they’ve solved nothing for the fans in areas like Iowa.

Maybe I’m wrong and there will indeed be a solution for the rest of us. But, given the selection of a Commissioner who got the gig basically by promising to be “Bud Light,” I’m not expecting anything remotely close to real solutions to any of MLB’s biggest challenges.

I’d be really happy to be proven wrong, of course.

Finally, a few pictures from Saturday’s “Touch ‘em All Pub Crawl.”

The meeting spot, Barrio Tequila Bar, St. Paul

The meeting spot, Barrio Tequila Bar, St. Paul

Campus Pizza, which will be on my list for a return if/when I journey up for Hawkeyes/Gophers in the future. Friendly service, good thin crust pizza.

Campus Pizza, which will be on my list for a return if/when I journey up for Hawkeyes/Gophers in the future. Friendly service, good thin crust pizza.

BarZia in downtown Minneapolis. Met a number of the hard working moderators of TwinsDaily's forum section. I'm not sure what possesses these people to put in the work being moderators, but I'm sure glad they do it.

BarZia in downtown Minneapolis. Met a number of the hard working moderators of TwinsDaily’s forum section. I’m not sure what possesses these people to put in the work being moderators, but I’m sure glad they do it.

Mason's, near Target Field, was the last stop. Gotta be honest, I wasn't impressed with Mason's this time. TD has used Mason's as a meeting place in prior events and I've always liked it. But this time, some of us got the sense from their people like we were imposing. They closed off two of their seating areas to us, requiring most in our group to stand. Not a big deal, perhaps, but I can tell you it cost them some food orders, not to mention general goodwill, among some of the people I was hanging with.

Mason’s, near Target Field, was the last stop. Gotta be honest, I wasn’t impressed with Mason’s this time. TD has used Mason’s as a meeting place in prior events and I’ve always liked it. But this time, some of us got the sense from their people like we were imposing. They closed off two of their seating areas to us, requiring most in our group to stand. Not a big deal, perhaps, but I can tell you it cost them some food orders, not to mention general goodwill, among some of the people I was hanging with.

The view from our Home Run Porch seats at Target Field were better than what this picture might indicate. First time I've watched a game from these left field seats and it really is not a bad place to watch a game from.

The view from our Home Run Porch seats at Target Field were better than what this picture might indicate. First time I’ve watched a game from these left field seats and it really is not a bad place to watch a game from.

ASG Weekend Reflections

The big All-Star bash in Minneapolis is behind us now and by most accounts, it was somewhere between very successful and close to perfect.

I saw the Futures Game/Celebrity Softball Game in person on Sunday and watched the Home Run Derby and ASG on the tube. My conclusion is that, while I wouldn’t say it was all perfectly staged and performed, the Twin Cities and those from MLB and the Twins who were involved all did themselves proud.

It was the kind of event that could make us feel proud to call ourselves Twins fans (and there haven’t been many events like that over the past few years).

A list of the things I didn’t like would be short. Too much Jeter (but we knew there would be) and too little Gwynn (none at all, really). I also really didn’t like the special caps for the ASG. That just seems like an over-the-top money grab by MLB to sell more stuff. I’d rather see the players in some version of their regular uniforms, including the cap.

The rain delay at the HR Derby on Monday sucked. But the rainbow over the Plaza almost made the rain delay worthwhile in itself. I’m sure there were a few people moaning about the lack of a roof, but I think most of us stopped listening to those idiots years ago.

The new HR Derby format didn’t exactly work the way people thought (or hoped) it would. Oh well, try something different next time.

I had some family with me this trip and that meant visits to the Mall of America on Friday night and Saturday.

I know a lot of people roll their eyes at going to MOA, but I’ve never been too averse to it. Walking around the Mall brings back some memories of visits there when our kids were young and it was a bit of an adventure.

I tire quicker these days, of course, but I’ve never had trouble finding an open bar stool for a rest and I rested at the Sky Deck Grille and Kokomos for quite a bit of my time at MOA.

Sunday, the family got in some pool time at the hotel before we hopped on the light rail to Target Field for the Futures Game. It was my 11-month old grandson’s first venture in to a swimming pool and his first time at a Big League ballpark. So that was cool.

grandson Jack

grandson Jack in the hotel pool

We pretty much took over the first row of Section C in the Legends Club for the Sunday activities. Getting through a full Futures Game, a half hour or more “intermission” and a six-inning softball game with various interviews slowing things down between innings was a bit much for me, so I have no idea how an 11-month old endured it, but he did.

My grandson's first trip to Target Field. Kind of gave "Futures Game" a different meaning to me.

My grandson’s first trip to Target Field. Kind of gave “Futures Game” a different meaning to me.

I enjoyed watching Kennys Vargas and Alex Meyer and I was really excited to see Jose Berrios start for the World team.

When the Twins announced their affiliation with the Cedar Rapids Kernels starting in 2013, I started looking forward to being able to see guys I’d been watching in Kernels uniforms play in Target Field.

Berrios was the first of the 2013 crop of Kernels I got to see there and it just has me even more anxious to see the arrival of a few of his Kernels teammates with the Twins in coming years.

All three of the Twins prospects did just fine in the game. Nobody “starred,” but that’s OK. Let’s not forget, these three guys aren’t the organization’s top 3 prospects, but they held their own (or better).

The future is bright for the Twins, if I can just manage to live long enough to see it.

Jose Berrios, former CR Kernel, future Minnesota Twin

Jose Berrios, former CR Kernel, future Minnesota Twin

The cramped rail-ride back to Bloomington was probably the worst part of the day, but at least I could collapse at the hotel when it was over.

Monday morning, we packed up and headed back to Cedar Rapids, getting there well before the HR Derby’s scheduled start. Of course, it turned out the actual start was delayed about an hour by rain anyway.

The ovations for Justin Morneau and Brian Dozier were terrific and I thought the crowd did a nice job of showing appreciation for all the participants.

I felt a bit bad for Yasiel Puig. I’m not sure if he just was too amped up or what. And did nobody tell him he should enlist his favorite BP pitcher to throw to him? Odd. Anyway, I suspect he’ll do better in a future Derby.

If I’m being completely honest, I was just really glad it wasn’t Morneau or Dozier that got shutout.

I watched the first couple innings of the All-Star Game itself at my favorite local bar. They had music playing, so I was spared the need to mute the TV. Of course, that meant I missed what most seem to think was a pretty good National Anthem (though FOX totally blew off the Canadian Anthem, which I thought was tacky on their part).

Looked like a great flyover, too. I love those.

I guess I have to give my thoughts on the Jeter-fest.

I’d like to get a real good case of Jeter-hate up, but I just can’t.

Yes, I hate the Yankees and that’s largely because of Yankee fans, so it’s usually pretty easy for me to really dislike individual Yankee players. But I reserve most of my dislike for the mercenaries who grab the Yankee dough after spending their best years elsewhere.

Jeter didn’t do that. And, at least at the ballpark, from what I can tell, he’s conducted himself in a pretty honorable manner through the years. I can appreciate that, even in a Yankee.

Is he over-rated? Oh yeah, definitely. But playing for the Yankees isn’t always easy, as others have found out, so maybe a guy who plays there and plays very well for 20 years should get a little credit for that.

That said, I would agree that his career warranted an ASG send off closer to the one Chipper Jones got. It just wasn’t realistic to expect that would happen.

So, I thought he, MLB, the Twins and the Target Field crowd did about the best job that could have been expected of balancing proper appreciation with he inevitable ESPN/FOX overkill of the situation.

I admit, too, that I was pleasantly surprised that Mike Trout got the ASG MVP award, rather than Jeter. Again, some bias there at seeing another former Kernels player out-do the “face of baseball.”

By the way, that whole “face of baseball” thing is a crock. First, there IS no face of baseball. This isn’t the NBA and we don’t need hyped up media megastars to survive.

Trout is the best player in the game and he’s only 22 years old (for about another month), but the media will never allow him to reach the hype level of Jeter – because he’s not a Yankee. It’s really that simple.

There will be no more “face of baseball” hype until the next time there’s a Yankee with the pedigree to allow Yankee fans, MLB and ESPN to bang the drum loud enough to proclaim him as such.

Hopefully, that will take a REALLY long time. Like forever.

It was good to see Pat Neshek participating. You can’t help but feel just how important this unimportant game was to him after all he’s been through.

Sure, there were more deserving pitchers that could have been selected (but not as many as some people think), but as long as you’re going to give the ASG manager some latitude on picks, you’re going to get some picks based on his emotions and if that’s going to happen, I’d rather see it happen to guys like Neshek than some others.

I did think he could have done without the bit of Twins front office-bashing he did to the media over the weekend, but he probably has good reason to feel the way he does. Heck, I really wish I could complain that letting Neshek go was the worst decision the Twins have made the last few years.

It’s too bad Neshek got saddled with the loss. His 3B (I don’t even remember who it was) sure didn’t do him any favors with his defense on Trout’s double down the left field line.

The game was at least interesting. Plenty of stars performed well under the spotlight. Some did not (I’m looking at you Robinson Cano).

All in all, as I said, it was an event Twins fans can be proud of.

I took a few pictures on Sunday, so I’ll share some of them here. – JC

Best thing about Budweiser beer

Best thing about Budweiser beer

Alex Meyer

Alex Meyer

Tony Oliva with the first pitch before Futures Game

Tony Oliva with the first pitch before Futures Game

Tony Oliva threw out the first pitch to Kennys Vargas

Tony Oliva threw out the first pitch to Kennys Vargas

Vargas FG

Kennys Vargas

The self serve beer machines seemed to really clog up the concourse. Not sure if it was the people using them or the people gawking at them.

The self serve beer machines seemed to really clog up the concourse. Not sure if it was the people using them or the people gawking at them.

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Rollie Fingers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Larry Fitzgerald

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mike Piazza and Ricky Henderson

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Zach Parise

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Adrian Peterson

 

Few Silver Linings for Kernels

June has not been kind to the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

As a team, they’ve lost a dozen games this month and won just six. The first half of the season mercifully drew to a close a week ago, but the Kernels started off their second half season by dropping three of four road games to the Midwest League’s Western Division champions, the Kane County Cougars.

Silver linings are a little difficult to come by for a team that most people expected to be led by their pitching when the season opened, only to find themselves with the 15th ranked team ERA (4.83) in the 16-team Midwest League.

There are a handful of bright spots as the Kernels begin the race for a postseason spot that would come with finishing as one of the top two teams in the MWL Western Division among the six teams that have not already qualified for postseason play.

The brightest of those bright spots might be catcher Mitch Garver. So far in June, Garver is batting .364, has an on-base percentage of .500 and an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of 1.045.

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

According to TwinsDaily.com’s Seth Stohs, heading in to this week’s series in Peoria, Garver is among the Twins minor league organizational leaders in batting average (2nd), on-base percentage (1st), slugging percentage (3rd), OPS (2nd) and home runs (tied for 4th with teammate Bryan Haar).

Cedar Rapids native Chad Christensen has also shown he can handle Class A work. He is hitting .323 in June and has a .963 OPS. He’s had eight extra-base hits in the month, including four home runs.

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

Christensen’s .299 batting average ties him for fourth among all Twins minor leaguers.

But Garver and Christensen can’t win games by themselves. Most of the rest of the Kernels’ batting order have seen their hitting numbers drop considerably in June.

The Kernels could get some offensive help as some of the hitters that have been idled by injuries begin to return.

That process has begun already as outfielder J.D. Williams was activated from the Disabled List on Tuesday.

Zach Larson, Logan Wade and Jeremias Pineda remain on the club’s DL for now. Larson, in particular, could provide an offensive boost if he can get healthy and return to a level of productivity he demonstrated in April when he hit .307 for the Kernels.

Unless you’re a fan who worships gaudy strikeout numbers for pitchers, there has been nothing to complain about in starting pitcher Kohl Stewart’s performance thus far.

Kohl Stewart

Kohl Stewart

Stewart’s 2.44 ERA on the season would be good enough for fourth best in the league if he had enough innings to qualify (he’s one inning short, which should be more than met in his next scheduled start on Wednesday).

Stewart has continued to lead the rotation with a 1.13 ERA in three June starts, with batters putting up just a .236 batting average against him this month.

To find anything else resembling “bright” among the Cedar Rapids pitching corps, it’s necessary to turn to the bullpen, which has had its own share of ups and downs through the first half of the season.

Todd Van Steensel perhaps represents the best of the “ups” for the bullpen corps recently.

Todd Van Steensel

Todd Van Steensel

Van Steensel has put up a 1.67 ERA since joining the Kernels at the end of April. He has struck out 35 batters in 27 innings of work and opponents are hitting just .179 off the right hander.

Alex Muren has been among the team’s most consistent bullpen arms, assembling a 3.43 ERA on the year and a similar 3.48 ERA so far in June.

This month, hitters are batting just .171 against Muren. He’s thrown 10.1 innings in five June appearances. All four runs surrendered this month came in one forgettable appearance on June 15.

Alex Muren

Alex Muren

Brandon Bixler had two good months in April and May, but has been less consistent in June. He has a 3.13 ERA on the year and hitters have just a .201 batting average against him. He’s struck out 39 batters in 40.1 innings.

Jared Wilson’s year has been similar to Bixler’s. Since joining the Kernels in mid May, Wilson has put up a 2.49 ERA and a .197 BAA (batting average against), while striking out over one batter per inning pitched. He’s been somewhat inconsistent in June, with three outings where he was almost unhittable and three others where he gave up almost an earned run per inning.

The Kernels bullpen could be in for a boost, however.

On Tuesday, the Twins announced that they had signed Nick Burdi, their second round pick in the 2014 draft, and that Burdi will be joining Cedar Rapids on Friday.

Burdi, the closer for a University of Louisville squad that qualified for the College World Series, reportedly throws in the 96-98 mph range and is capable of regularly topping 100 mph with his fastball.

Expectations for the Kernels coming in to the season were modest, but a seventh place finish in the MWL Western Division first-half standings was a disappointment.

Garver and Christensen will need some of their teammates to step up their games and the Kernels rotation will need to start contributing more than three or four innings of solid pitching on a regular basis if the team expects to contend for a postseason berth in the second half of the year.

- JC

A Kernels Day in Photos

I’m traveling for work the first half of this week, so I won’t really have an opportunity to write a regular weekly update on the Cedar Rapids Kernels. Perhaps it’s just as well, though, because the Twins’ Midwest League affiliate did not have a real good week.

The Kernels dropped from the second spot in the MWL Western Division standings all the way to the cellar, as they endured an eight-game losing streak.

That losing streak ended Sunday in Burlington, however. Cedar Rapids topped the Bees 7-6. As a bonus, the win lifted the Kernels out of the MWL West basement.

Since I don’t have anything exciting to write about this week, I thought the least I could do is provide a few pictures of the game on Sunday. I had hoped to take more, but it turns out there are very few spots where you can take pictures at the Burlington ballpark that aren’t behind netting.

Some of the photos are a bit blurry. I hoped they just looked blurry on Sunday because I was having a few beers at the game, but no, they’re still a little blurry.

3B Bryan Haar and SP Ethan Mildren

3B Bryan Haar and SP Ethan Mildren

Manager Jake Mauer coaching 3B in the first inning. That's something he would not be doing by the 9th inning, however.

Manager Jake Mauer coaching 3B in the first inning. That’s something he would not be doing by the end of the game, however. Mauer was ejected in the 7th inning following a heated discussion with the umpires over a balk call.

Leadoff hitter JD Williams

Leadoff hitter JD Williams

Tanner Vavra pulling in to 2B with a double

Tanner Vavra pulling in to 2B with a double

Tanner Vavra chats with manager Jake Mauer. Vavra would ultimately be stranded at 3B.

Tanner Vavra chats with manager Jake Mauer. Vavra would ultimately be stranded at 3B.

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

Ivory Thomas

Ivory Thomas

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

Joel Licon

Joel Licon

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Bo Altobelli

Bo Altobelli

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

Ethan Mildren

Ethan Mildren

Tommy Watkins took over 3B coaching duties following Mauer's ejection.

Tommy Watkins took over 3B coaching duties following Mauer’s ejection. Two runs scored in the 9th inning with Watkins and his bubble gum in charge.

Tommy Watkins gets a close-up look as Chad Christensen tags up and scores on a sac fly for the Kernels' final run.

Tommy Watkins gets a close-up look as Chad Christensen tags up and scores on a sac fly for the Kernels’ final run.

 

Meeting the 2014 Kernels

It was “Meet the Kernels Night” at Veterans Mermorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids Tuesday night, giving local fans and media a first look at the 2014 version of the Twins’ Class A Midwest League affiliate and giving the Kernels players their first look at chilly Iowa April temperatures.

After the media portion of the event, players and coaches mingled with fans on the concourse to chat and sign autographs. Then, they shed their parkas for a brief workout.

The cold temperatures meant a pretty small turnout from the public and that’s unfortunate, but understandable. The more unfortunate fact is that the weather forecast for Opening Night on Thursday (and Friday, for that matter) makes the proposition of actually getting baseball played a little dicey.

A year ago, it seemed like the weather was forcing doubleheaders every week for the first couple of months across the Midwest League and I wouldn’t be surprised if we start the season with a twin-bill (or two) over the weekend, as well.

Manager Jake Mauer, along with hitting coach Tommy Watkins and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga met with media for a few minutes, as did four members of the new Kernels roster: Kohl Stewart, Aaron Slegers, Mitch Garver and Chad Christensen. They all arrived in the media room wearing their newly-issued Cedar Rapids Kernels parkas.

Nothing says “play ball” like new team parkas and portable gas heaters in the dugout!

The field staff and players that met with the media had some interesting things to say and I’ll try to write a follow up story with quotes later this week, but for now you just get a little sense of flavor of the evening from a few pictures.

Left to Right: pitching coach Ivan Arteaga, hitting coach Tommy Watkins, manager Jake Mauer

Left to Right: pitching coach Ivan Arteaga, hitting coach Tommy Watkins, manager Jake Mauer

2013 1st round draft pick Kohl Stewart

Kohl Stewart

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

Jake Mauer

Jake Mauer

Kernels prepare for introductions

Kernels prepare for introductions

Kernels introduced

Kernels introduced

“Twins Weekend” in Cedar Rapids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OlivaAutograph

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

Twins organist Sue Nelson

Twins organist Sue Nelson

TC Bear entertained fans and posed for pictures

TC Bear entertained fans and posed for pictures

OlivaMedia

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

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

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

Tony Oliva speaking to fans at the Breakfast event Saturday

Tony Oliva speaking to fans at the Breakfast event Saturday

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

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

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

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

Kernels: Life After Buck and a Mike Pelfrey Appearance

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

Almost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

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

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

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

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

JD Williams

JD Williams

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

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

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

Travis Harrison leads off third base

Travis Harrison leads off third base

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- JC

Kernels Video: Buxton Walkoff Grand Slam

This is becoming almost commonplace.

Thursday night, Twins prospect Byron Buxton came to the plate with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, the bases loaded, and his Kernels team trailing the Burlington Bees 6-3.

Again, pardon the photography. I had to take this video from the second row of the Kernels pressbox, behind the Mediacom “MC22″ broadcasters who were televising the game. The bonus, I guess, is that you can hear their call of what happens next.

Please note, unlike when Travis Harrison launched a walkoff grand slam a couple of weeks ago, the Kernels bench did not chase Buxton around the basepaths, but waited for him to reach home plate before mobbing him. It’s nice to know that particular lesson has been learned!

After the game, Buxton got the traditional shaving cream to the face during a television interview.

You might expect that a superstar-in-the-making like Buxton would rush straight from the TV interview to the clubhouse to join his team mates in their celebration. But not Buxton. He signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans for several minutes before making his way up the tunnel to the clubhouse.

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Kernels Opening Series a Success

The Cedar Rapids Kernels won three of four games over the Beloit Snappers in their first series of the 2013 season and there was no shortage of drama in the process.

The Kernels won their season opener 8-6, then recovered from a 2-1 ninth inning deficit to claim a walk-off 3-2 win in game 2 of the series. The Snappers managed to hold their 2-1 lead to completion in claiming the third game of the series. In the finale, three Kernels pitchers combined to throw a no-hitter at the visiting Snappers.

Outfielder Byron Buxton gave the locals a good look at what all the fuss is about as he hit .563 for the series, including plenty of power.

The game stories are widely available on the web, but this morning, I thought I’d share a few (OK, much more than a few) of the pictures I took over the course of the past week, since the Kernels arrived in Cedar Rapids.

Kernels coaches meet the media" Tommy Watkins (hitting coach), Jake Mauer (manager), Gary Lucas (pitching coach)

Kernels coaches meet the media: Tommy Watkins (hitting coach), Jake Mauer (manager), Gary Lucas (pitching coach)

The Kernels are introduced to local fans on Meet the Kernels night

The Kernels are introduced to local fans on Meet the Kernels night

Kernels players enjoying the introductions

Kernels players enjoying the introductions

Hudson Boyd

Hudson Boyd

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Tyler Grimes

Tyler Grimes

Travis Harrison

Travis Harrison

Romy Jimenez

Romy Jimenez

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Tyler Duffey

Tyler Duffey

Tyler Duffey

Tyler Duffey

Niko Goodrum

Niko Goodrum

Travis Harrison

Travis Harrison

Manager Jake Mauer and 3B Travis Harrison working together pregame

Manager Jake Mauer and 3B Travis Harrison working together pregame

Dalton Hicks

Dalton Hicks

Dalton Hicks

Dalton Hicks

Kernels pitchers getting in pregame bullpen sessions

Kernels pitchers getting in pregame bullpen sessions

Pitching coach Gary Lucas works with Josue Montanez

Pitching coach Gary Lucas works with Josue Montanez

Manager Jake Mauer and Dalton Hicks

Manager Jake Mauer and Dalton Hicks

Josmil Pimentel

Candido Pimentel

Candido Pimentel

Candido Pimentel

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Jairo Rodriguez

Jairo Rodriguez

Jairo Rodriguez

Jairo Rodriguez

Adam Walker

Adam Walker

Adam Walker

Adam Walker

JD WIlliams (diving away from a near HBP)

JD WIlliams (diving away from a near HBP)

JCD Williams

JD Williams

Kernels Celebrate a No-Hitter

Kernels Celebrate a No-Hitter

Kernels sign postgame autographs

Kernels sign postgame autographs

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See ya next week!

See ya next week!

If you didn’t see your favorite Kernels in these pictures, not to worry… we’ll be posting a lot more pictures over the course of the season.

- JC

Kernels Arrive, Baseball Imminent!

We’ve moved one important step closer to having baseball in Cedar Rapids… the players have arrived!

The 2013 Kernels roster arrived at Eastern Iowa Airport shortly before noon Tuesday. It’s pretty safe to say the weather was just a bit cooler than it was when they took off from Fort Myers.

Manager Jake Mauer said the trip went well, though he did mention that there was a long line at the security check in Fort Myers and a couple of the players got to the departure gate without a lot of extra time to spare. All things considered, though, when you’re trying to get a couple dozen guys shepherded on to an airplane, a couple of close calls isn’t the worst thing that could happen.

The team was being taken to dinner in the Amana Colonies, near Cedar Rapids, Tuesday evening and fans will have their first opportunity to meet the new Kernels Wednesday evening at the club’s “Meet the Kernels” event. Weather permitting, the team will get in a public workout on the field afterward.

Thursday night, the official Opening Day game will see the Kernels hosting the Beloit Snappers at 6:35. For a number of the Kernels, who wore Beloit uniforms last season when the Snappers were the Twins’ Midwest League affiliate, it’s likely to feel just a little peculiar wearing a Kernels uniform and facing a squad of Oakland Athletics prospects in Beloit uniforms.

I’ll leave you with a few pictures of the Kernels’ arrival, as well as a peek “behind the scenes” at the players’ new home for the summer, Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids.

Kernels Arrival 2

Players claiming their bags at the airport

Loading the bags on the bus

Loading the bags on the bus

Players entrance to the ballpark

Players entrance to the ballpark

Sign above the Players Entrance features former Twins who have played for Cedar Rapids:

Sign above the Players Entrance features several former Twins who have played for Cedar Rapids over the years: John Roseboro, Alexi Casilla, Chili Davis, and Phil Roof

The Kernels clubhouse

The Kernels clubhouse

Kernels Weightroom

The Kernels Weight Room

Indoor Batting Cage

There's a waiting room for players' families where they can watch the game on the TV and wait for the players to get dressed after games

There’s a waiting room for players’ families where they can watch the game on the TV and wait for the players to get dressed after games