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

 

 

A Bigger View of the Kernels’ Action

How desperate am I for good baseball news?

Suffice to say I’m really excited to see the Cedar Rapids Kernels new video board go up!

The old video board was installed when the current stadium was opened over a decade ago… here’s a picture from last summer:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And here’s the new board!

KernelsNewBoard3

The new video board replaces not only the space that the old video board took up, but also one column of advertisements to the right of the old board, as well as the old electronic “line score” section of the scoreboard. Of course, it also takes up the space at the bottom of the old line score section where the “pitch speed” was found. Sure hope they find a spot for that somewhere!

Now… I can’t wait until there’s actually some baseball highlights being shown on that board!

– JC

Surviving TwinsFest

It has taken me a little longer than expected to put up a post here about my trip up to Minneapolis for TwinsFest. That’s because it took me a little longer than anticipated just to get home from TwinsFest.

The plan was simple:

  • Drive up to Minneapolis Saturday morning
  • Go to TwinsFest Saturday afternoon
  • Go to Hubert’s Saturday night for the TwinsDaily-hosted social event
  • Sleep a few hours at my hotel
  • Go to brunch with my Knuckleballs “family” Sunday morning
  • Drive home Sunday afternoon

Easy.

Yes, I got a later start than I expected Saturday morning, due, to some degree, to staying at the local sports bar with my family alonger than I’d planned Friday night, but I made it to my Eagan hotel by 1:00-ish. It was about that time that I realized I hadn’t brought my camera with me, which is kind of a big deal for me (some of you may have noticed I enjoy taking pictures when I travel). I got to the hotel early enough that they didn’t have a room ready for me to check in to. They were more than happy to take my credit card information, of course, so all I would have to do would be pick up my door card when I got back from downtown that night.

TwinsFest2013

TwinsFest 2013, with a glimpse of Puckett’s Pond writer Paul Pleiss (in the Koskie jersey)

After taking the Light Rail from the Mall of America to the Metrodome, I wandered around the place for a bit. I ran in to several familiar faces, caught up with a few friends and listened in to some of the interviews taking place on the 1500ESPN stage.

Before long, I made my way to the “Down on the Farm” area and chatted a while with the folks at the CR Kernels’ booth, including General Manager Doug Nelson.

I didn’t do the autograph thing this year, but I did enjoy seeing some of my own boyhood heroes signing. Rollie Fingers, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Jim Perry and Fergie Jenkins were at one station on the main floor of the Dome and seeing them all together made me smile.

As TwinsFest was getting set to close down for the evening, just before 6:00 pm, I wandered across the street to Hubert’s for the little social event planned there by the good people at Twins Daily. I wasn’t sure how many people to expect to see, but the guys were promising free beer, so I really didn’t need much additional incentive to show up. My plan was to stick around long enough to talk with a few people I don’t get to see often, then part at an hour appropriate for someone of my advanced years. It was a reasonable plan.

I’m not sure how many people the Twins Daily guys were expecting, but it seemed like a great turnout to me. People came and went, but I’m almost positive at least 100 different people showed up. It’s a considerable understatement to say I had a great time. I got to spend time talking to a few people I have met before at other blogger gatherings and a lot of people I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting before. We talked Twins, we talked Kernels, we talked about writing. We watched the Timberwolves blow a lead and lose.

Time really just flew by and the next thing I knew, it was after 11:00 and I was finally getting around to eating… at a totally different place, where a number of us had moved to as things wound down at Hubert’s.

Fast-forward a couple of hours and I finally made it back to my hotel where, it turns out, they lock the doors to the lobby at 11:00 pm. Of course, you can let yourself in with your room key… and they assume all guests would actually HAVE a room key. It took a little longer than expected, but I did eventually get checked in to a room for what was left of the night.

By 10:00 am Sunday, I was sitting down for brunch at Chammp’s in St. Paul with fellow Knuckleballers KL and Babs (and her hubby, Andrew).  I can’t say I was 100% on my game, at that point, but I’ve been much worse.

It was just starting to spit a little something when we left the restaurant, though I wasn’t sure whether it was rain, sleet or snow. Before I got out of the Twin Cities area, heading south, things were a much worse. By the time I reached Albert Lea, I’d pretty much seen it all: Freezing rain. Some ice. A bit of snow. Cars and trucks in ditches. Cars and trucks actually leaving the road and driving in to ditches. In short, I saw enough to know I didn’t want to join them, so I pulled in to my old home town and found a hotel room.

Not only did I find a hotel room, but the hotel had a nice little sports bar/restaurant attached to it! The waitress/bartender was kind enough to find the Iowa-Purdue basketball game on one of their TVs for me while I enjoyed an excellent quesadilla and a beer or two before heading back to my room for the night.

When I looked out the window of my hotel room early Monday morning, I couldn’t see my car. In fact, I couldn’t see anyone’s car. Fog had pretty much engulfed us. Not being all that interested in getting on a slick interstate with no visibility, I had breakfast and spent a couple hours working in my room before checking out.

By then, you could see maybe 200 yards in front of you on the interstate, so it wasn’t too bad. I had to make two more stops of an hour or two each to deal with work-related phone calls, but finally rolled in to my garage around 4:00 pm… almost exactly 24 hours after I SHOULD have been home.

While things didn’t exactly go as planned, it was definitely worth the trip just to have a chance to see so many friends Saturday and Sunday.

We don’t all agree on everything Twins-related. In fact, some of us rarely agree on anything Twins-related. But we all have a mutual interest in the Twins. In fact, for most of us, it’s probably more accurately called a mutual passion for the Twins.

I don’t know how the upcoming Twins season will turn out, but it’s great to know we’ll all share the experience together.

I’ll wrap up with a handful of additional photos I did manage to take with my phone-camera.

– JC

Rollie Fingers, Mudcat Grant, Jim Perry and Fergie Jenkins

Rollie Fingers, Mudcat Grant, Jim Perry and Fergie Jenkins

Twins prospects Aaron Hicks and Kyle Gibson at the autograph station, with Twins Clubhouse manager Wayne "Big Fella" Hattaway peeking in from behind the curtain

Twins prospects Aaron Hicks and Kyle Gibson at the autograph station, with Twins Clubhouse manager Wayne “Big Fella” Hattaway peeking in from behind the curtain

Twins prospects BJ Hermsen, Pedro Hernandez and Trevor May at the autograph table

Twins prospects BJ Hermsen, Pedro Hernandez and Trevor May at the autograph table

Radio broadcaster Cory Provus interviews Twins execs Terry Ryan, Jim Pohlad and Dave St. Peter

Radio broadcaster Cory Provus interviews Twins execs Terry Ryan, Jim Pohlad and Dave St. Peter

The gathering at Hubert's, hosted by Twins Daily

The gathering at Hubert’s, hosted by Twins Daily

Kernels Hot Stove & Twins Caravan!

What a great night for baseball fans in Eastern Iowa!

In celebration of the new affiliation agreement between the Twins and the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the organizations combined to put on a terrific event Thursday night.

Every winter, the Kernels put on a Hot Stove banquet with proceeds going to their own charitable foundation. The event combines dinner, a silent auction and induction of the new Cedar Rapids Baseball Hall of Fame members. Tonight’s event, however, also included a local stop by the Twins Caravan.

The combination brought out a record crowed for the Hot Stove event. The banquet sold out and standing room only tickets were sold at a discount to give even more Twins fans an opportunity to attend the Caravan.

Media members (including this humble blogger) were invited to come in starting at 4:30 to interview some of the participants. I had a chance to visit a bit with Twins pitching prospect, BJ Hermsen. He will be heading to the Twin Cities next week where he’ll receive his Twins Minor League Pitcher of the Year award and then attend TwinsFest. Not long after, he’ll be on the road to Fort Myers for his first Major League Spring Training.

I asked whether Hermsen has any sense of where he’ll start the 2013 season (he doesn’t) and talked a bit about the offseason training work he’s been doing. He was asked by another person if he was going to be speaking during the Caravan portion of the program and he indicated he didn’t think so (he was wrong… emcee Dick Bremer had a number of questions for Hermsen during the program).

Ron Gardenhire and Terry Steinbach also were made available for interviews with the media, as was new Kernels manager Jake Mauer. Naturally, the local media had questions for Gardy that alluded to the new Cedar Rapids affiliation and he was appropriately complimentary in his responses.

Gardenhire did bring up the fact that his managerial debut was with Kenosha in the Midwest League in 1988 and that his team had their “butts beaten” by Cedar Rapids in the playoffs to end that season.

The Hall of Fame induction was sandwiched between dinner and the formal part of the Caravan program. The CR Hall inducted former players Trevor Hoffman and Casey Kotchman, along with longtime Kernels groundskeeper Jim Curran and Pat Harmon, one of the people credited with bringing minor league ball back to Cedar Rapids in the 1940s. But the highlight, for me, of the ceremony was the induction of former Cedar Rapids manager Alex Monchak.

Alex Monchak

Alex Monchak

I’m sure most of you have no idea who Monchak is, but this man epitomizes the career baseball man. He had a cup of coffee with the Phillies, but his career was interrupted by World War II. While he never returned to the Big Leagues as a player, that didn’t stop him from spending the rest of his life teaching others to play the game the right way.

He was inducted in to the CR HoF specifically for managing the 1958 Cedar Rapids Braves to the Three-I League championship, but after leaving our little town, he spent about a decade as a scout and almost 20 years as a coach on manager Chuck Tanner’s staffs with the White Sox, A’s, Pirates and Braves. In fact, he was a coach on the Pirates’ Championship team that also included pitcher Bert Blyleven.

Hoffman and Kotchman had other commitments that kept them from attending the event, but Monchak, who will be 96 years old in March, was in attendance to accept his award and address the crowd.

Dick Bremer did a professional job of emceeing the Caravan program. It’s no small task, I’m sure, to do that job in a way that comes across as fresh to every crowd, despite the fact that they’ve been essentially going through the process multiple times per day for about a week. Bremer did sports for the local CBS affiliate in Cedar Rapids before moving on to Minnesota, so he was able to blend in some anecdotes from his days here.

Everyone on the dais did a good job of fielding the questions Bremer has no-doubt asked them several times over the past week, as well as a number from the crowd. Obviously, Gardy got the lion’s share of the questions from fans and he handled them with his typical combination of optimism and humor.

Of course, there are causes for concern from Twins fans after the past two seasons, but this event was all about generating interest and enthusiasm among the fan bases of the Twins and Kernels, as well as celebrating the upcoming inaugural season of this relationship. Based on the attendance and enthusiastic support from the crowd, it was an overwhelming success at doing just that.

I’ll wrap up this post with a few pictures from the evening. – JC

The CR Marriott Ballroom set up and ready for a big crowd

The CR Marriott Ballroom set up and ready for a big crowd

Ron Gardenhire with what passes as the media hoard in Cedar Rapids (including a voice recorder held by a local blogger who shall remain nameless)

Ron Gardenhire with what passes as the media hoard in Cedar Rapids (including a voice recorder held by a local blogger who shall remain nameless)

New Twins bench coach Terry Steinbach

New Twins bench coach Terry Steinbach prepares for a TV interview

Kernels Manager Jake Mauer has a chat with Gardy before the event gets started

Kernels Manager Jake Mauer has a chat with Gardy before the event gets started

The Twins Caravan dias in Cedar Rapids was shared by (from L to R): Twins Director of Minor League Operations Brad Steil, Manager Ron Gardenhire, Infielder Brian Dozier, Broadcaster Dick Bremer, Bench Coach Terry Steinbach, Kernels Manager Jake Mauer, Minor League Pitcher of the Year B.J. Hermsen

The Twins Caravan dais in Cedar Rapids was shared by (from L to R): Manager Ron Gardenhire, Twins Director of Minor League Operations Brad Steil, Infielder Brian Dozier, Broadcaster Dick Bremer, Bench Coach Terry Steinbach, Kernels Manager Jake Mauer, Minor League Pitcher of the Year B.J. Hermsen

The autograph line: TC Bear, Jake Mauer, Ron Gardenhire, Brian Dozier, Terry Steinbach, N.J. Hermsen

The autograph line: TC Bear, Jake Mauer, Ron Gardenhire, Brian Dozier, Terry Steinbach, B.J. Hermsen

Snappers Playoff Win – Photos

If Wednesday night’s Beloit Snappers/Clinton LumberKings game does indeed mark the final time I see a baseball game in person this year, it was a heckuva game to end the season on!

I don’t want to bury the lead, so let’s start by saying the Snappers came out on top in game one of their 3-game playoff series with Clinton, by a score of 8-6. But the score doesn’t begin to tell the story.

Clinton scored twice in the bottom of the first inning, but Beloit got one back in the top of the 2nd. Clinton 2B Dillon Hazlett got that run back for Clinton in the bottom of the 2nd with a solo HR. It wouldn’t be his only dinger.

Beloit scored again in the top of the 3rd to make the score 3-2 Clinton, but the LumberKings tallied another run in the 4th to go back up by 2 runs again. The Snappers closed to within 1 with an Eddie Rosario RBI double. However, when Miguel Sano flied to CF, Rosario tried to advance to third base, but was called out for having left 2nd too soon. Again the LumberKings immediately got that run back in the bottom of the 5th to reclaim a 2-run margin, 5-3.

Rosario struck again with runners on 2nd and 3rd in the 7th with a single to LF. Clinton left fielder Guillermo Pimentel bobbled the ball, allowing the tying run to score, but Rosario was thrown out at 2B by the cut-off man. Still, the game stood tied at 5 runs each.

Kennys Vargas started out the 8th with a double to the LCF wall. JD Williams pinch ran for Vargas and eventually scored on Stephen Wickens RBI single up the middle through a drawn in infield. But in the bottom of the 8th, Hazlett struck again with his second solo HR of the night and the game was tied yet again, 6-6.

In the 9th, the Snappers parlayed an AJ Petterson lead-off single, a Nate Roberts sacrifice bunt, a Clinton error, a couple of wild pitches and an infield grounder in to two more runs. Mason Melotakis gave up a lead-off double in the bottom of the ninth and nearly threw a comeback grounder over the head of Miguel Sano, who had shifted over to play 1B after Vargas’ departure. But Melotakis settled down to get the final out on a fly ball to RF to secure the 8-6 win.

They head home now for game 2 Thursday night and, if necessary, game 3 on Friday.

I was a little disappointed in the size of the crowd at Clinton, but I can’t say enough about how friendly everyone I talked to was. I started the game sitting with a family from Beloit, including a young lady who, it turns out, is one of the Snappers’ batgirls at their home games. Later in the game, I moved out to a picnic area down the left field line and the Clinton fans down there pretty much adopted me for two innings, despite my Twins gear clearly making my allegiances clear.

Clinton’s ballpark is another one of the older stadiums in the Midwest League, but Clinton has at least made obvious attempts to upgrade their facilities. I REALLY enjoyed the old school organ music between and during innings. I didn’t realize how much I missed that kind of thing until I heard it in Clinton!

Let’s wrap with a few pictures and wish the Snappers the best of luck the rest of the playoffs!

– JC

Outside Ashford University Field in Clinton

Pitching coach Gary Lucas looks on as starting pitcher Jason Wheeler warms up with catcher Matt Koch

Teams are introduced before the playoff game starts

Manager Nelson Prada and runner Kennys Vargas at 3B

Runner Drew Leachman, who had 3 hits on the night, held on by Clinton SS Bryan Brito

Jason Wheeler pitching with Miguel Sano at 3B

Kennys Vargas at 1B and AJ Petterson at 2B

View from the left field picnic area of Ashford University Field in Clinton

 

A Long Weekend With the Snappers & Kernels

It seemed to me like the first game of this Snappers/Kernels series on Saturday night was a long one… and it was. The game took three hours and twenty minutes to play and since the Snappers pretty much dominated the entire game, on their way to a 13-2 rout of their hosts, there really wasn’t enough excitement to make the game feel like it was moving along.

Fortunately, I was in the “all you can eat and drink” picnic area, so I managed to stay well fed and well lubricated.

UPDATE: I also had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Horrorpants and his brother-in-law, who were down from the Twin Cities to check out the Snappers. You should go check out his Twins Daily blog post and his pictures from the night by clicking here.

Nate Roberts went 3-6 on Saturday night and three different Snappers (JD Williams, Tyler Grimes and Drew Leachman) hit home runs. Amazingly, Beloit scored 13 runs while their number 3 and 4 hitters, Eddie Rosario and Kennys Vargas, combined to go 0 for 10 on the night. Cole Johnson gave up 2 runs in his 5 innings of work. Corey Williams threw 3 shutout innings and DJ Baxendale finished off the night with a scoreless inning, as well.

Twins uber-prospect Miguel Sano was not in the lineup Saturday night, but he seemed healthy during pregame workouts, so there seemed little cause for concern. Sure enough, Sano returned to his spot at third base for the game Sunday afternoon.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Sano and Eddie Rosario in the field during the series to gauge how much they’ve progressed defensively. Through the first two games, however, Rosario hasn’t taken the field. He DH’d  on Saturday night and was not in the lineup Sunday.

I’ll say this about Sano, however. He made several plays in the field on Sunday that I don’t believe he would have been capable of making when I saw him here in Cedar Rapids back in April. He may never be another Brooks Robinson at third base, but he has improved this season. If he works hard and continues to improve every season, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of him sticking at the hot corner by the time he’s playing ball at Target Field.

Sano was certainly an offensive star of the game on Sunday. He had four hits in six at-bats, including two doubles and his 27th home run. Vargas and Stephen Wickens both homered in the game, as well.

The game itself was one of the better games I’ve seen in person this season… and I arrived too late to see the first highlight of the afternoon. I was late getting to the ballpark and arrived during the top of the second inning. Moments before I arrived, Vargas got the Snappers on the board with a solo home run that cleared the top of the Kernels’ video board in right center field. I haven’t seen that done in the 11 years the Kernels have been playing in this version of Veterans Memorial Stadium.

The Snappers put up three runs off of Kernels starter Cam Bedrosian and continued to nick a string of relief pitchers. Snappers pitcher Jason Wheeler gave up four runs in his six innings of work before Mason Melotakis came on to throw 1.2 hitless innings. Melotakis was consistently hitting 94 mph according to the scoreboard speed sign. That sign has a reputation for being a bit over 1 mph slower than scouts’ speedguns. Zach Jones came on to relieve Melotakis and three a couple mph harder. Unfortunately for the Snappers, he lacked Melotakis’ control and ended up giving up three runs and sending the game in to extra innings.

Taylor Rogers went 2.1 innings without giving up a run to the Kernels as neither team could push a run across the plate in the 10th, 11th or 12th inning. In the 13th, Wickens lifted a fly ball to the outfield with Nate Roberts on third base. That’s when things got interesting. The throw was on target and beat Roberts to the plate, where Kernels catcher Zach Wright was blocking Roberts’ path… but the ball came out of Wright’s glove… but Roberts went over the top of Wright and never touched the plate… but it took a moment for Wright to get the ball back. Wright and Roberts did a little dance together as Wright attempted to tag Roberts and Roberts attempted to get a toe on the plate. In the end, umpire Dustin Klinghagen declared Roberts safe and the Snappers had the lead.

The weirdness that inning did not stop there. With JD Williams at 3B, the Kernels pitched around Sano, walking him to bring up Kennys Vargas. On a full count, Sano broke for 2B, Vargas struck out and Wright threw to second, attempting to throw Sano out. Williams broke for home, the throw to 2B was cut off and thrown home, nailing Williams at the plate, for one of the more peculiar “strike em out, throw em out” double play I’ve ever seen.

In the 13th inning Tim Atherton  walked Wright to start the inning and then threw two wild pitches, moving Wright to 3B. One out later, Drew Martinez singled in the tying run and stole second base. From there, he scored on an Alex Yarbrough walk-off single, giving the Kernels the 9-8 win.

The game, which started a half hour late due to rain, took 4:19 to play.

Quite a game… quite a weekend. And there are two more games left in this series.

With that, I leave you with a few pictures from my weekend at the ballpark.

Some of the Snappers indulge a game of “pepper” prior to Saturday night’s game.

Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium from the left field picnic area

Pitcher Jason Wheeler and third baseman Miguel Sano

Kernels pitcher Cam Bedrosian, son of former MLB pitcher Steve Bedrosian

Jason Wheeler

Snappers first baseman Drew Leachman

On Sunday, Eddie Rosario got a day off, but did coach first base.

Snappers relief pitcher Mason Melotakis

JD Williams in left field

Shortstop Stephen Wickens flashes a sign to his middle infield partner

Zach Jones was hitting 96 mph

Leadoff hitter Nate Roberts

Catcher Jairo Rodriguez

Relief pitcher Taylor Rogers

Miguel Sano looks more comfortable at 3B to me.

Kennys Vargas went very, very deep in the 2nd inning.

The scoreboard tells the story at the end. Oh… and Vargas’ home run cleared the “Perfect Game Field” sign at the top of the scoreboard, which is set several feet behind the 390 ft wall.

I also had a few conversations this weekend with various, “sources close to the Kernels,” as they say in the trade, about the upcoming discussions between the Kernels and various potential MLB affiliates. But we’ll talk about all of that in another post, another time. :)

– JC

A Road Trip to Beloit

I drove up to Beloit over the weekend to catch a couple of baseball games between the Twins’ Class A affiliate, the Snappers, and the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. The Rattlers and Snappers finished first and second, respectively, in the first-half standings of the Midwest League’s Western Division, so I anticipated that they would play some decent baseball. They did.

If you want to read a lot about the games themselves, I’m going to refer you to the daily reports being posted by Seth Stohs over at Twins Daily. Seth and Travis Aune were in Beloit the past few days, as well, and I got to spend some time with them. I also met Jeremy Nygaard and his brother Jed on Saturday. I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk a little baseball with the group and appreciated their willingness to let an old man like me tag along with them for a day and a half.

For my part, I’m going to simply post a whole bunch of pictures I took and let it go at that. Except for this one thing… I’ve mentioned from time to time rumors that the Twins and my own local MWL team, the Cedar Rapids Kernels, might consider entering in to a Player Development Contract starting next year. That’s all they are, at this point, just rumors. Neither party is allowed to discuss the possibility or make any comment on the topic until September. As I think I’ve also posted before, I think the odds are about 50-50. I’m aware that some others think the odds are a bit greater.

Of course, in Beloit there is some concern. They don’t want to lose the Twins. I don’t blame them. They were abandoned by the Brewers a few years ago and nobody likes being told, “we don’t want to be your MLB affiliate anymore.”

The Beloit staff don’t deserve to go through that. They are hard working people who put on a good show at Pohlman Field. The word you hear is that they don’t draw well in Beloit. I suppose that may be true, but I saw a good crowd on Saturday night and an even much better crowd on Sunday. Fireworks Saturday night and a Prince Fielder “BobbleArm” promotion Sunday probably helped, but all minor league teams rely on promotions to draw crowds. It was fun to see the hard work of the Snapper staff rewarded by appreciative crowds.

The problem is the stadium, not the Snappers operation or the fans themselves. Pohlman Field is beyond outdated. I’ve heard it said that it’s the “worst” facility among the 16 teams in the MWL. I’ve only been to three of them, so I can’t speak to how accurate that is. I know it’s tough to come up with funds to build new ballparks or even remodel old ones to bring them up to acceptable standards. I don’t know if Beloit will ever solve that problem. I hope they do.

But professional baseball is a business. A dozen years ago, Cedar Rapids faced losing its team if it didn’t replace their old stadium. The same choice has faced a number of other MWL communities over the past 20 years. Some, like CR, built new ballparks. Some, like Davenport, remodeled old ones. Others determined that they simply could not raise the funds to do so and gave up their franchises to other communities that were able to provide appropriate facilities. I felt bad for some of those cities and I don’t wish to see that kind of thing happen to Beloit. Whether the Twins stay there or elect to move their affiliation elsewhere, I hope Beloit can find a way to survive and eventually thrive as a member of the league.

So here are the pictures. Several of them, actually. I was going to just post a few but then I decided there’s no reason to hold back. We don’t pay for blog space by the inch around here.

– JC

This building serves as both the entrance to the ballpark as well as home to the team’s administrative offices

Don’t tell the people lined up long before gates opened Sunday that the Snappers can’t draw a crowd

Here’s what the crowd was hoping for. The first 500 fans got Prince Fielder “Bobblearm” figures

The Sunday crowd at Pohlman Field

The concourse area inside the gate, but outside the stadium itself. Yes, it did rain hard on Saturday, but the staff got the field ready well before scheduled game time.

The players walk through the concourse behind the stands to get from their locker rooms to the dugouts, giving fans lots of opportunities for autographs

Young fans exchange high fives with Snappers players as they walk from their outfield pregame stretching to their dugout

Saturday’s starting pitcher Jason Wheeler gave up 2 runs in the first inning, then went on to strike out 10 hitters in eight innings of work.

Manager Nelson Prada and Hitting Coach Tommy Watkins

David Hurlbut went six innings Sunday, giving up just one run on two hits, while striking out five Rattlers

Drew Leachman had supporters from Alabama on hand Saturday night. Made my little drive seem pretty insignificant

Catcher Jairo Rodriguez had warm duty on Sunday afternoon

1B Kennys Vargas’ solo HR accounted for the only Snapper run on Saturday night.

Eddie Rosario seems to be more comfortable at 2B than when I saw him in CR early in the season.

Sunday, it was Miguel Sano’s turn to “go yard”