Kernels’ Gibbons Immune to the Dog Days of Summer

We’ve reached the end of the Dog Days of Summer, that period that stretches from 20 days before Sirius (the Dog Star) is precisely in conjunction with the sun until 20 days after those bodies are in alignment.

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)

Those 40 or so days are typically the most cruelly hot of the summer and, coincidentally or not, the days when young professional baseball players often hit the proverbial “wall” during their first full season of pro ball. Players that are accustomed to playing anywhere from 40 to 70 games in a summer, find themselves having already eclipsed that mark by mid-June, with another 70 yet to play on the schedule.

It’s when bats become heavier in a hitter’s hands and pitchers often lose velocity or some sharpness to their breaking ball due to a “tired arm.”

DogDays

The Dog Days of Summer

Then again, the Dog Days of Summer really is a Northern Hemisphere phenomenon, so Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher Sam Gibbons, who hails from Geelong, Victoria, in Australia, may well be immune to the Dog Day effects.

After a shaky start to his season, the 21-year-old Aussie didn’t really begin to hit his stride until the second week of July.

As Gibbons toed the rubber in Kane County on July 12 to begin his seventh start after joining the Kernels at the end of May, he shouldered an unimpressive 5.34 ERA after giving up 21 runs (19 of them earned) in his first six starts for Cedar Rapids.

The righthander gave up one run in the fourth inning of what would become a no-decision start against the Cougars that night and, from there, ran his scoreless inning streak up to 28 consecutive innings before giving up a pair of runs (one earned) in an 8-2 win over Bowling Green on Saturday night before a near-capacity home crowd.

Included in that stretch was a nine inning complete game shutout on the road at Kane County on August 1. It has been the only complete game shutout twirled by a Kernels pitcher this season and only the Kernels’ second complete game this year. (Mat Batts lost a 1-0 decision despite throwing a complete seven-inning game in the nightcap of a doubleheader at Peoria in May.)

Finishing the complete game meant Gibbons threw a few more pitches than normal.

“Last year, we were generally around the 80-90 (pitches) mark,” Gibbons explained, “but very rarely would we go over 85. Throwing 110 pitches (in the complete game), I was feeling it the last inning, but there’s no way I was going to give in.”

After that extended outing, Gibbons knew he was destined for a shorter night in his next start on Saturday.

“I think I was on some sort of pitch count (Saturday), but I was cruising through the middle three through six innings pretty well and then got two outs in the seventh. Then things got a bit sticky. But, you know, things happen. It’s OK and we ended up winning, so that’s the main thing.”

How has Gibbons gotten stronger as the summer heat has been at its most oppressive?

“You know, I wish I could bottle it and pass it around to other guys,” said Kernels pitching coach Henry Bonilla.

For his part, Gibbons said he does feel like he’s getting stronger, but doesn’t think his workload this season has been all that unusually heavy.

“The thing is, I pitch in the ABL (Australian Baseball League) every year, so I have at least 30 innings before I get to spring training on my belt,” Gibbons explained.” So I’m pretty used to having a fairly deep workload.”

We may not know what to credit for Gibbons’ improvement through the past several weeks, but he knew exactly who to blame for the scoreless streak coming to an end on Saturday.

“I spoke to my mom (after the game) and I told her it was all her fault for making me aware of it,” Gibbons related, with a smile.

Blaming mom? Wow. That’s harsh.

“I had to blame someone,” a laughing Gibbons reasoned.

Typically, Gibbons likes to take a bit of time off in the fall after the season winds up, but things didn’t work out that way for him this past offseason.

“My plan last year was to play after Christmas and the New Year,” he recounted. “Then I was asked to play on the under-23 Australian Team. so I went in November last year. That kind of interrupted things but any chance you get to play for your country is a great opportunity, so I definitely wanted to do that.”

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)

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

Perhaps taking the extra off-season work into account, the parent Minnesota Twins held Gibbons back in Extended Spring Training when the Kernels came north to start the season, then promoted him to Cedar Rapids on May 28. He made his Kernels debut May 31. His first four starts after arriving were not pretty. surrendering 16 runs in 20 innings of work covering that initial stretch.

“Obviously, I had a bit of a shaky start, but things are coming good now,” Gibbons understated.

“I think after the first month, I was struggling with fastball command a bit, and not being able to throw off-speed pitches in fastball counts, where I have been now. I’ve been attacking guys, but attacking with my off-speed pitches, which is something I’ve never been able to do, really.

“So, having command and just having faith that if I make a bad pitch, that I’m going to come back and make a better pitch to get weak contact or a swing and a miss. I feel that fastball command, knowing I can throw a fastball wherever I want and when I want is something that is pretty big and that will progress you through the ranks.”

Bonilla, his pitching coach, agrees.

“He just came up and he’s been a strike thrower,” the coach observed. “He’s always been a strike thrower, he’s going to throw it over and I think that’s to his credit and also to his detriment. He didn’t really locate. He just said basically, ‘somebody’s going to hit a ball at a guy. If I throw a strike, I’ll be ok.’

“It worked for a while with some of the younger hitters that don’t really drive the ball, but some of these guys are prospects, they can hit the ball, or some of them are grown men. Some are 24- 25 year old men that can hit the ball far. He’s learned that the hard way.

“The first couple outings he got kind of hit around. To his credit, he’s allowed himself to change. He’s going to the corners a little bit more, he’s attacking down in the zone, being more aggressive by not throwing so many strikes. He’s throwing ‘quality misses,’ is what we call it.”

According to Bonilla, a lot of Gibbons improvement has come from his mentality, as much as any improvement he’s shown with his mechanics or pitch selection.

“He’s trusting it,” Bonilla said. “I think one of the biggest things for him is his confidence. He’s out there confident that he can make pitches. He does it and he does it with a purpose with all of his pitches.”

The coach also conceded that sometimes a little early failure greases the skids a bit for quicker improvement.

“It’s hard to go away from success on the field,” he explained. “If a (hitter) is hitting .300 and we’re telling him, ‘hey, it’s not going to work when you get to the big leagues,’ he’s going to be like, ‘well, I’m hitting .300.’ If a (pitcher) is getting outs here, he’s like, ‘what do you mean it’s not going to work?’

“So it’s hard for them to get themselves out of immediate success and look at four years down the future. To their credit, the ones that do are the ones that kind of take their lumps early, but you can see them kind of turn it around and stay with it and go good. And he’s one of those guys that’s been doing that. So he’s done a great job, I’m very happy with him.”

Gibbons was signed by the Twins as a 17-year-old in July, 2011, but continued to play in his home country for a while and didn’t make his first appearance for a Twins affiliate in the States until the following year.

“Our school (in Australia) works a bit differently, so I was actually halfway through my senior year of high school, so it was a bit different to how things are out here. It was a big thing for my mom to make sure that I finished high school.”

There’s that “blame mom” thing again. How dare she do something like wanting him to finish high school before moving thousands of miles away to play baseball for a living?

“I look back on it and I wanted to get over here as soon as possible,” Gibbons recalled, “but it was a slight decision, finishing high school at least.”

In the end, mom won out – as moms are prone to doing.

“So, I made sure I did that (finish high school) and then came over the following (extended spring training). The Twins don’t tend to like to bring Aussies over here for spring training their first year,” he explained. “Trying to wet their feet a bit, I guess, by just coming to extended and seeing how things work and then their second year, bring them over for spring training.”

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)

Gibbons played two years for the Twins Gulf Coast League team in Fort Myers, then moved up to Elizabethton for the 2014 short season, where he teamed with many of the same guys he’s sharing the Kernels clubhouse with this season. That’s not an insignificant factor in his recent success, according to the pitcher.

“I feel that the (catchers) we have on our team, they really take notice of what pitches you have and what works well for the situation. Having (Brett) Doe, Navi (Brian Navarreto) and (Alex) Real behind there, it’s pretty good,” Gibbons offered. “All three of the catchers on this team now were in E-town last year and the majority of our pitching group is the same from last year, so everyone has a good idea of what we throw and when you want to throw it.”

All three Kernels catchers have been successful at controlling the opponents’ running games. Navarreto, for example, has thrown out over half of the runners attempting to steal off of him. That’s a factor Gibbons appreciates.

“Having Navi behind the plate the last couple of outings has been exceptional. We’ve played together for three years now, so he’s known me pretty well. I’m pretty lucky to have him behind there pitch calling and his defensive work is immaculate.”

Gibbons doesn’t appear to be exactly a high-maintenance pitcher for his catchers to have to deal with. If you find him sitting alone for a couple of hours before each start, he’s probably watching a movie or listening to music, not focused on envisioning every pitch that’s about to come out of his hand.

“No, no, not at all,” he admitted.” I don’t really do that until I’m out on the mound going, ‘ok, let’s go and see how this goes.’”

As the season winds down, Gibbons stands to play a critical role in the postseason for the Kernels. He’s thrown just over 64 innings since joining Cedar Rapids, so there shouldn’t be any concerns about the front office limiting his work just when the team needs him the most in the playoffs.

When his year in Cedar Rapids wraps up, Gibbons will be headed back “down under” for the off-season. For him, that means beach time.

“Back home, I live about 15 minutes from the beach,” he said. “I’m always going down there with buddies or just hanging out and kicking back. I play club ball sometimes or I practice and train with my brother. (Club ball) is like a mens’ league sort of thing that I just go down and I have some fun with my brother and my buddies that I grew up playing with.”

He’s going to take a bit more time off this year before starting the real training for his 2016 season.

“Definitely take off a fair chunk of the offseason and come back in mid-January at some point, I guess,” Gibbons said of his plans. “Play a bit of ABL and get a couple of starts before spring training.

“I have to be in contact with (Twins farm director Brad Steil). Henry (Bonilla) and I will sit down before the season finishes and see where the innings are at and see what they want – a pitch count or innings limit sort of restriction.”

Those limits will then be communicated to Gibbons’ ABL coaching staff.

“They’re happy to have me pitch whatever that is,” he added.

It’s good that the ABL coaches are so easy to work with. At least that’s one less thing Gibbons should have to blame his mom for.

– JC

Responsibility

I suppose this is what we asked for, Twins fans. Our team is playing “meaningful games” in August. Technically, they even continue to possess the second American League wild card spot (for a few more hours anyway).

Entering the season, if someone had told us that our Twins would be right in the thick of the hunt for even a wild card postseason spot, I think most of us would have smiled and said, “thank you.”

TRyan2014dSome of us have had some elevated hopes for 2016 and even more would have projected 2017 as a reasonable goal to see the Twins contending for the postseason. But 2015? No, not really. There were just too many question marks and, frankly, calling some areas of the Twins Opening Day roster “question marks” would have been being generous.

So, given this unexpected bonus of meaningful play in August, why don’t I feel like celebrating?

To begin with, it’s not like the Twins’ hold on that final wild card spot is exactly something you’d call a death grip. OK, bad wording. Maybe that’s exactly what you would call it, as in, “they are about to lose that grip and see their season die.”

The Twins enter Monday with a one game lead over Baltimore and Toronto, a three game lead over Tampa and Texas, and a 3.5 game lead over Detroit and Chicago. That’s a lot of competition and it doesn’t even include the Angels, who currently hold the first wild card spot, just one game ahead of Minnesota.

Certainly, the front offices of some of those teams have already decided not to even try to compete for a spot in the league’s one-game, win or go home, wild card play-in game. Detroit and Tampa appear to be selling off parts. I’m not sure what the White Sox front office is doing, other than apparently trying to overcome the shock of discovering they’re actually not mathematically eliminated from the postseason yet.

Then again, as a Twins fan, I probably shouldn’t be too critical of another organization’s inertia in the face of unexpected contention for the postseason.

After all, while Chicago has only recently pulled themselves in to the hunt by winning a whole bunch of games in a row, the folks running the Twins have had an entire season to get acclimated to the fact that their guys actually have a shot at doing more than just playing meaningful games this late. And yet, the Twins front office gave no indication at the trading deadline that they had noticed.

That’s not really true, of course. Twins General Manager Terry Ryan did give such indications. He indicated to the media on more than one occasion last week that he intended be active in the trade market in an effort to improve his ballclub.

Then he did nothing.

And no, don’t even try to claim with a straight face that adding Kevin Jepsen, the relief pitcher they acquired from the Rays for two minor league pitchers, constitutes making a serious bid to improve the Twins.

Pioneer-Press Twins beat reporter Mike Berardino asked Ryan last week if the GM felt a responsibility to the current players to improve the roster. His reply:

“That’s correct,” Ryan said. “That would be very accurate. I know that. There’s nobody that’s more sensitive to that than me. I know they’ve done a hell of a job of getting to this point and we’re in a good position. Now it’s my responsibility to help the cause.”

Then Ryan went out and added Kevin Jepsen and – nothing else.

As a result, the Twins open a four-game series with one of the teams who is nipping at their heels in the wild card standings, the Blue Jays, without the benefit of any significant help from their front office.

Meanwhile, those Blue Jays have added Troy Tulowitzki, David Price and Ben Revere in the past few days. That’s a top of the rotation starting pitcher, a good-hitting veteran shortstop and a centerfielder who improves their club’s defense (and, therefore, their pitching as a whole).

Maybe this was never going to be the year the Twins made a postseason run. It certainly wouldn’t help their cause that Ervin Santana won’t be available to them in the postseason, even if they found themselves there as a team.

But Ryan was right. This collection of ballplayers has worked hard, exceeding everyone’s expectations, and he owed them a better result last week.

I’m not suggesting he should have traded away a bunch of top prospects for rental players. You don’t mortgage your entire future on a slim chance at the brass ring in 2015. But you don’t pay lip service and then try to convince the guys in your clubhouse that adding a middle inning reliever is all you could come up with to give them a boost while their nearest competitors are making serious improvements.

Making no deal at all – just saying right out loud that you don’t think this year’s club is built to not only get a wild card, but contend in the postseason once they get there – and explaining that you are not willing to give up any of your above average prospects at all in this environment would have been courageous. Likewise, making Toronto-sized mega deals that would have cost you some serious prospects would have been courageous.

Taking either road would have required some real stones, because either approach would have been controversial and would have met with loud criticism from the fan base. Yet either approach would have at least been defensible.

Dipping your toes in the water and giving up a couple of decent, but very young, pitching prospects for a middle reliever, but doing absolutely nothing else, is neither courageous nor defensible, in my opinion.

Of course, we know that the end of the non-waiver trade deadline in July does not necessarily constitute the end of all trade opportunities. Terry Ryan can still improve this year’s Twins roster in August via waiver trades. If he does, I’ll be among the first to applaud.

But waiting too long to provide that help is a real concern and making deals later this month certainly won’t help the Twins this week in Toronto.

Ryan is sending Paul Molitor in to Toronto this week to fend off one of his club’s closest challengers and Molitor’s club is seriously outmanned. The reason is as simple as it was preventable. Molitor’s club was not given the kind of boost that the Blue Jays got from their GM last week and that was, by his own admission, Terry Ryan’s responsibility.

– JC

Pat Kelly’s Baseball Career is a Family Affair

Pat Kelly

Pat Kelly (Photo: SD Buhr)

The first, last and most important job any minor league baseball player has is to work hard at improving his skills to move on up the organizational ladder to the next level. That said, when Cedar Rapids Kernels infielder Pat Kelly gets his next promotion, it may be bittersweet news for Pat and, more specifically, his family members that have been making frequent trips from Red Wing, Minnesota, to Cedar Rapids to watch Pat and the Kernels.

That could become a much more difficult trip to make as Kelly’s career carries him from Cedar Rapids to other stops on the Minnesota Twins affiliate list in Florida, Tennessee and New York.

According to Kelly’s father, Jim, who works in the Goodhue County (MN) Sheriff’s Office, the Kelly clan has made the trip to Cedar Rapids, “about every other weekend.”

“My schedule, I’m off every other weekend, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and this particular year, the Kernels have been home when I’ve been off pretty much,” the elder Kelly added. “When I first looked at it, I miscalculated and I thought, ‘I’ve got to work every weekend they’re home.’ But it turned out to be the opposite, so it worked out real good”

“There’s like 25 of them here,” Pat Kelly said Saturday. “My dad’s one of ten (siblings) so I have a lot of uncles. They’re all in Red Wing pretty much. I have an aunt up in Cottage Grove, Minnesota (about 35 miles from Red Wing), and that’s about the farthest they go.

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

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

“They love coming down and coming to some games. They did that every Easter at Nebraska (where Pat played college baseball for the Cornhuskers). We’d get about 50-60 family members, they’d all make the trip down to Lincoln for Easter. It’s quite the crew.”

The “crew” during the most recent Kernels weekend homestand included not only family, but Cornhusker Head Athletic Trainer, Jerry Weber, whose career at Nebraska has spanned the Kelly generations. He was there when Jim was on campus as a Husker football player, as well as during Pat’s baseball career there.

Despite his dad’s connection to “Big Red,” it was no sure thing that Pat would follow in his father’s footsteps to Lincoln. And there was no chance he’d follow those footsteps to the football field at Nebraska, or anywhere else.

“I grew up loving baseball, basketball and football, all three, (but) baseball was always my favorite growing up. I played football, it was probably my third favorite.

He said he wasn’t just playing football growing up out of some kind of obligation to his dad, either.

“No, I liked it, I really did.”

By his junior year of high school, however, football was left behind.

“In tenth grade I was playing like eight quarters of football every Friday night. I was playing tenth grade games and then the varsity needed players so I would go play cornerback, running back, quarterback, like every Friday night. Then come my junior year, it was just like, it’s going to be too much.

“I was doing a lot of baseball in the fall. So I gave up football. I didn’t even start my junior year. I just started doing a lot more baseball in the fall. I played basketball, I love basketball. But baseball’s always been my favorite.”

That focus on baseball began early, according to his father.

“All baseball,” Jim confirmed. “He never really gave me a break. We work 12 hour shifts (at the Sheriff’s Office). I go to work at six in the morning and get home at six at night and he would be sitting on the steps with a bucket of balls, his bat and his glove and I would get in the driveway, ‘Let’s go dad.’ So we’d just go down the street to a park and he’d hit for as long as I could throw balls to him.”

Jim recalled it wasn’t until Pat was in fifth or sixth grade that his son discovered, while looking through an old scrapbook, that his dad had played football for Nebraska. “He saw that and he said, ‘We should go to Nebraska sometime.’ I said, ‘sure.'”

“Sometime” turned out to be when Pat was a freshman in high school.

“He had a Nebraska schedule up and he said, ‘I want to go to watch Nebraska and Texas A&M,” the father recalled. “In whatever year that was, they were ranked 4th and 5th in the country, respectively and I said, ‘alright, we’ll go.’”

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

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

That baseball game made an impression on Pat.

“There was like nine or ten thousand people there. The game went like 16 innings long and not a fan left. Pretty cool. So from then on, I just felt like, ‘I really want to go to Nebraska.’ It ended up working out.”

It was the only basball game the Huskers and Aggies got in that weekend as rain washed out the scheduled Saturday and Sunday contests.

“We ended up leaving early on Sunday and I think we got as far as Omaha and he said, ‘I know where I want to go to college, dad. I’m going to go to Nebraska.’ I said, ‘oh, okay.’ You know it was so early yet, but you know, let the kid dream. Why not?”

Why not, indeed. Kelly ended up living his dream as a Cornhusker, earning 2nd team All-Big Ten honors his freshman year and was 1st team All-Big Ten in both his sophomore and junior seasons.

Not bad, considering he nearly never had the opportunity to attend his chosen school.

“It’s kind of funny though. Nebraska was one of my last recruiting letters,” Pat recollected. “I was just waiting for it, waiting for it. I’d always come home from school – I didn’t play football then, so my falls were open – so I’d come home early. I remember coming home and there were two letters, North Carolina and Nebraska, and I didn’t give a crap about the other one. I was pretty excited about that.”

“He called me at work and said, ‘dad, I got it!’ ‘You got what?’ ‘I got the letter.’ ‘OK, let me guess,’” Jim added.

“I had an amazing time at Nebraska,” Pat said. “Coach (Darin) Erstad is an unbelievable guy and a great coach and did a lot for me. Yeah, I love Nebraska. I can’t wait to go back there in the offseason and go to football games and hang out there.”

According to Pat, It wasn’t easy to leave a year early and begin his professional career. He knew it was time to move on, but it was a difficult decision to make.

“Yeah for me it was,” he recalled. “just because I loved Nebraska so much. It’s hard to leave those guys and the coaching staff.

“At the end of the day, every kid’s goal is to be a big leaguer. You just had to look at that and obviously I had no doubt if I go back to Nebraska, it would have been a great year and we probably would have had a great team, I mean they had a good team this year. But at the end of the day, you want to be a big leaguer and you want to get that going.”

For Pat, getting that going meant being signed by the Minnesota Twins as their 12th round selection in the 2014 draft and heading to Elizabethton, Tennessee, last summer to begin his professional career.

Nobody will confuse the environments for playing ball in Elizabethton with those in Lincoln, but Kelly didn’t mind the change.

“It was definitely a little bit of an eye-opener going down to E’town,” Pat said of his first impressions of the community where the Twins’ short-season Appalachian League affiliate is located. “I didn’t really have any expectations, to be honest. I just kind of went in with an open mind. It was fun, we made the playoffs and had a good season. Getting paid to play baseball, that’s a pretty good deal.”

Pat Kelly (Photo: SD Buhr)

Pat Kelly (Photo: SD Buhr)

This season, Kelly has been on the Kernels roster since Opening Day, making this his first year of enduring a full 140-game minor league schedule. Some players feel like they hit a wall, physically and/or mentally, at about this point in their first full season.

“Yeah it’s kind of funny. Around the all-star break, you get half way and you’re like, ‘alright, we’re doing that again. Same thing over,’” Kelly said. “But no, I haven’t really seemed to hit that wall yet. I’m still enjoying every day with the guys and just can’t really complain. Getting paid to play baseball.

“I think just the base adjustment from college to now is, here it’s every day, you play every day. In college, you didn’t play every day. You had class, you had other stuff. But now, every single day, this is your job. I think that’s just the biggest adjustment.

“Even if you’re not in the lineup, you have a full day. You’re at the park from 1:30 to 10 or 11 at night. You’re still doing your work. You’re in the cage, you’re doing stuff. You’re still drained at the end of the day and then the next day, you do it again. I think that’s just the biggest adjustment for me, just getting mentally ready every day to go to work and get better.”

With that mentality, it’s no wonder Kelly uses Florida Georgia Line’s “Every Night” as his walk-up song.

After Kelly hit .242 in 39 games, all at second base, for Elizabethton a season ago, he’s been running closer to .220 over the season for the Kernels. He played second base through most of the season, but has been spending more time at third base since TJ White’s promotion to Fort Myers.

Kelly’s also been faring better at the plate more recently, hitting .258 in his last ten games and carrying a four-game hitting streak into Thursday night’s contest with Clinton.

That stretch includes Kelly getting three hits, including a pair of doubles, in eight at-bats with his personal cheering section in the Cedar Rapids crowd last weekend.

This offseason, Kelly will return to Lincoln where he’ll live and work out with Cedar Rapids native (and 2014 Kernel) Chad Christensen, who is also a former Husker ballplayer.

“We lived together last offseason and we’re going to live together this offseason,” Kelly explained. “We do everything together and work out there.”

Lincoln is also much closer than Red Wing to his girlfriend’s home in Kansas City, but that’s probably just a coincidence.

No matter how far away from his home and family in Red Wing Kelly’s professional baseball career may take him, however, he’ll always carry something of his home with him.

Yes, the love of his family, certainly, but also the oil he uses to break in his gloves.

“I oil them with oil from Red Wing Shoes in Red Wing. I always use their boot oil for my gloves and it seems to work really well.”

– JC

Randy LeBlanc: From Big Easy to Cedar Rapids

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.“

Randy LeBlanc during a clubhouse card game (Photoa: SD Buhr)

Randy LeBlanc during a clubhouse card game (Photoa: SD Buhr)

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.

Randy LeBlanc (15) in a pregame ritual game of flip with other Kernels pitchers (Photo: SD Buhr)

Randy LeBlanc (15) in a pregame ritual game of flip with other Kernels pitchers (Photo: SD Buhr)

“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.”

Randy LeBlanc

Randy LeBlanc

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.”

– JC

Excited About the Twins & Maybe That’s OK

Going in to this weekend’s series against the Milwaukee Brewers, our Minnesota Twins are 11 games over .500, sitting atop the American League Central Division (barely) with a 32-21 record.

Naturally, after the four year run of futility Twins fans have endured coming in to the current season, the main topic of conversation in the Twins community revolves around, “is this for real or are they going to crash and burn?”

Trevor May (photo: SD Buhr)

Trevor May (photo: SD Buhr)

Being more than ten games over the break-even point a couple of months in to the season is rarified air for the Twins this decade. In fact, it’s relatively rare for any team to work their way more than ten games above .500 by June 4 in any recent year.

When you look at the results for other teams that have managed to win ten more games than they’ve lost as of this date, you can find some cause for optimism – but you can also find a cautionary tale or two, as well.

A year ago, four teams found themselves on June 4 with records showing at least ten more wins than losses. Those teams were the Giants, Athletics, Brewers and Blue Jays.

That’s not exactly encouraging news for Twins fans. Two of those teams, the Giants and A’s, hung on to claim wild card spots. The other two failed to make the postseason at all.

In 2013, seven teams streaked out to early success in the first two months of the season. Boston, Texas, Oakland, Atlanta, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh all sat at least ten games over the .500 mark as of June 4.

Four of those teams would ultimately claim Division championship banners, three scraped in to a wild card spot and one, the Rangers, failed to make the postseason (and even they did play a “game 163”). That’s obviously a more encouraging precedent for Twins fans to focus on than the 2014 season.

Only the Dodgers had at least ten more wins than losses on June 4, 2012, and they fell short of postseason qualification.

In 2011, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cleveland were ten games over .500 on June 4. The Phillies won their division, the Cards were a wild card team and the Tribe were left on the outside looking in at playoff time.

In 2010, the Rays, Yankees and Padres all were at least ten games above the .500 mark on this date. Tampa Bay won their division, the Evil Empire claimed the wild card and the Padres were left out. In fairness, however, if today’s two-wild card format had been in effect in 2010, San Diego would have qualified for the second National League wild card spot.

(The Twins, in their final “good” season before the sucking years, were nine games over .500 on June 4, 2010.)

Add all of that up and you get a pretty interesting – and even – mix of results for teams that were, on this date, in a situation similar to where the Twins find themselves today.

Six of 18 teams won their division. Six of 18 claimed wild card spots. Six of 18 were left out in the cold.

Of the six teams who failed to make the postseason after their early-season success, two of them did go on to win at least 90 games. The 2010 Padres won 90 and, as mentioned, would have claimed a second wild card spot had the format been the same as what’s in place today. The 2013 Rangers won 91 games and lost a “play-in” game to the Rays.

The other four non-qualifiers ended up with 86 (2012 Dodgers), 83 (2014 Blue Jays), 82 (2014 Brewers) and 80 (2011 Indians) games.

We all want to believe in the Twins success. We look at the potential to add a front line pitcher to the rotation in Ervin Santana and see possibilities of additional help from young players on the verge of making their big league debuts. We hope to see some guys improve to counter what’s likely to be some regression to the mean among other players.

But, after four years of frustration, it’s hard for some of us to allow ourselves to become wholly emotionally invested in the Twins again, despite the surprisingly hot start.

That said, coming in to the season most of us would have been more than pleased with an 81-81 Twins record at the end of 2015. Considering that only one of 18 teams in the past five years that accomplished what the Twins have accomplished so far failed to finish with at least 81 wins, it’s hard for me not to start getting pretty excited.

Maybe – just maybe – that’s okay.

– JC

 

Kernels Passing Their Mid-terms

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.

Kernels manager Jake Mauer

Kernels manager Jake Mauer

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.

Nick Gordon

Nick Gordon

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.

Matt Batts

Mat Batts

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.

Trey Vavra

Trey Vavra

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.”

– JC

Michael Cederoth Embracing Change

A year ago, Cedar Rapids Kernels starting pitcher Michael Cederoth was neither a Minnesota Twins prospect, nor was he a starting pitcher. But times change.

Cederoth was wrapping up his college career at San Diego State in May of 2014, looking forward to entering the June amateur player draft and getting his professional career started. The 6’ 6” tall pitcher spent his junior season as the team’s closer and his 20 saves tied the Aztecs’ school record.

A year later, he’s a starting pitcher in the Kernels’ rotation with a 1-2 record, a 3,75 ERA and 24 strikeouts in the same number of innings pitched over five starts. On Saturday, he threw six innings, giving up just two runs, in the Kernels’ 5-2 win over Beloit in the first game of their doubleheader sweep over the Beloit Snappers.

Michael Cederoth

Michael Cederoth

Cederoth was the Twins’ 2014 third round draft pick last June and soon after found himself in the starting rotation for the Twins’ rookie-level team in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

At San Diego State, Cederoth pitched for the late Tony Gwynn, who lost his battle with cancer last year. His face lights up when asked about playing for the Hall of Famer.

“Wow. I mean, imagine playing for any HOF baseball player. It’s something that every kid wants to be when they grow up and to have that as a coach at the college level is a great opportunity. I was blessed with the fact that he gave me the opportunity to play underneath him and I’ll never forget all the memories I got with him and playing underneath him.”

What can a pitcher learn from a guy who made his fame and fortune swinging a bat, rather than throwing the ball? Plenty, according to Cederoth.

“We definitely picked his brain. You’ve got one of the best hitters in baseball ever to play the game. Of course you’re going to want to know what’s in the hitter’s mind, so it really helps having that as a pitcher. Because we know what we’re doing out there – we want to know what (hitters) are thinking and he’s the best guy to ask.”

Cederoth had a reputation with scouts as being a hard-thrower (occasionally hitting 100 mph on the radar gun) who could be a fast riser with the right organization. One national prospects writer even projected him to have the potential to reach the big leagues as a bullpen arm by the end of 2015.

Instead, Cederoth is spending 2015 in the class A Midwest League with the Kernels as the Twins attempt to make a starting pitcher out of him.

And that’s just fine with Cederoth.

“He wants to do it,” Kernels pitching coach Henry Bonilla said, of Cederoth. “He definitely wants to be a starter. I think he enjoys the nuances that go with it. He has to prepare every day for that one day that he gets his day (to pitch).”

When you ask Cederoth, he makes it clear he’s dedicated to whatever role the Twins see as the best fit for him within the organization.

“Growing up, I’ve always been however I’m needed, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.

“If they want me to be a starter, then I’m going to do my best to be a starter. If tomorrow they tell me they want me to be relief, then I’m going to do my best to be a reliever,” he added. “They’re giving me this opportunity so I’m going to show them, ‘OK, If you want me to be a starter, I’m going to try my best to be the best starter I can be.’”

It’s not like the starting pitcher role is totally foreign to Cederoth, after all.

Cederoth was a successful starting pitcher his first two years at San Diego State and converted to the bullpen for his final year on the Aztecs’ staff.

The Twins have made a practice, in recent years, of drafting strong-armed college relievers and giving them experience in a starting rotation, at least at the lower minor league levels.

Bonilla admitted that helping a pitcher make that transition isn’t always easy.

“It’s a problem if the kid doesn’t want to do it,” he said. “It’s a little harder when you try to make a guy a starter and he wants to be a 1-2 innings blowout kind of guy.”

Bonilla also provided some insight in to the organization’s thinking when they consider whether to try to turn a successful college reliever in to a professional starter.

“A lot of times you’ll see a guy and you’ll go, ‘ok, at worst, he’s going to be a reliever. Let’s see what we’ve got.’”

Bonilla thinks Cederoth definitely has the potential to make it as a starter because he not only has the high-velocity fastball in his arsenal, but is developing other quality pitches, as well.

“He’s got a mix (of pitches) to him. He can spin the ball. He’s got both the curveball and slider and with that velo, can he maintain it?”

And if, later, it turns out Cederoth returns to the bullpen, the effort has not been in vain, according to the pitching coach.

Michael Cederoth

Michael Cederoth

“The good thing about it, as a reliever he’ll get 1-2 innings of experience at a time. Here he’s getting 6 innings, 7 innings, 100 pitches at a time. It gets him out of his element. A lot of these guys, they’re comfortable doing one thing. When they’re uncomfortable, you see their true colors. So you’ll see him starting something new and he really has to adjust, you can see his mental capacity and what he really is.

“He (Cederoth) is doing a really good job of transferring to the starting position. It’s hard.”

For his part, Cederoth isn’t interested in even discussing any potential Plan B the organization might have.

“I really didn’t think about that,” he said. “I can’t think about that. They didn’t tell me that. Honestly, they told me they want me to be a starter and I’m really trying to be the best starter I can be. I’ve been working a lot and trying to hone my mechanics and my delivery.”

Having served in both roles in college, Cederoth is more prepared to make the switch than other college relievers who have seldom started a game above the high school level. He comes in to the process already aware of adjustments he has needed to make.

“A lot of it is routine, that’s really the similarity,” he explained. “But the difference is, what are the routines? So that is really what I had to transition with. I knew how to do a routine, I knew how to get in to a routine, but now it’s the routine as a starter.

“As a reliever, every day could be your day. So every day is kind of the same thing. As a starter, you have a routine. Every day is different, but it’s the same thing every week. The game you’re starting you throw 6 innings. The next day, what’s that day? And then the following day after that?

“As a reliever, you might have to pitch that day so you do everything you can to get ready to pitch that day. Did you pitch that day? Well you have to do the same thing the next day. If you pitched that day, well, you might have to pitch the next day. So, it’s the same thing every day. That’s really the physical part.”

There are differences in the mental approach, as well, according to Cederoth.

“As a reliever, your job is to come in there and get three, six, maybe nine outs. At most nine outs, hopefully. Because you want to throw the next day,” he explained.

“As a starter, you want to flip the lineup at least twice. It’s really a chess game. You’ve really got to plan out how you’re going to pitch. What did you give the guy his first at bat? What did he show you when you threw this pitch? You’ve got to keep that in the back of your head.

“It’s not just a bulldog mentality of go after him bang – bang – bang. You have to plan out what kind of game you’re going to go in to and what kind of hitters they have, unless you’re just gifted with the fact that you can just do the same thing over and over again and get guys out. If you’re on your game, then great, then you can do that. When you’re not always on your ‘A’ game, you’ve got to deal with what the day gives you.”

Tall pitchers, like Cederoth, often are challenged to develop consistent, repeatable deliveries and that’s something he’s working on with Bonilla this season. He’s also working to improve his secondary pitches.

“Curveball and change up right now. My curveball has come a long way,” Cederoth said, of the pitches he’s specifically working to integrate in to his game plans. “You’re facing guys twice. You go fastball – slider to one guy. Maybe the next time you face him, you throw a curveball at him. Completely change their whole game plan.”

Striking out batters has never been an issue for Cederoth and through five starts for the Kernels, he has averaged more than a strike out per inning. Ultimately, however, the ability to develop several effective pitches will likely determine whether Cederoth – or any starting pitcher – will have success in a big league rotation. He’s well aware of that.

Michael Cederoth

Michael Cederoth

“There’s some guys that can survive on just three pitches,” he said, adding, “I believe that I can get four good pitches. My change up is something that I’m really trying to get. If I can get that down, I can have more success getting early outs and dropping my pitch count. That’s been my problem, the pitch count. So getting that quick out, just getting a guy to roll over, is something I’m really trying to work on. Right now, it’s not totally ready, but it will be soon.”

Cederoth is also working on his mechanics with his pitching coach and he’s clearly pleased to be getting another opportunity to work with Bonilla, who had the same role for the Twins’ rookie level team at Elizabethton a year ago.

“Don’t get me wrong, I had amazing pitching coaches in college, but when I came to Elizabethton last year, I worked with Henry Bonilla. We had a great relationship in rookie ball.

“My problem has always been my balance in my drive leg. There’s so much going on in my wind up that it’s not always consistent. My body is leaning a different way every time instead of always going toward home. I’ve always had to try to adjust in mid pitch and that’s why I’ve been so inconsistent. So what we’ve focused on (is) the plant leg getting right and make sure everything is going towards home.

“So, yes, mechanically, I’m becoming a little more sound and I’m happy about it.”

– JC

Now Leading Off for the Kernels: Tanner English

You might not guess it just to look at him, as he patrols centerfield for the Cedar Rapids Kernels, but there’s a good chance that Tanner English is among the most athletic ballplayers on the roster.

Tanner English

Tanner English

Sure, he measures just 5’ 10” tall and is listed at just 160 pounds, but don’t let his size fool you. English has athletic skills.

For example, how many of his team mates do you think could do a standing back-flip in the middle of the field?

More to the point, how many do you think have actually DONE a standing back-flip in the middle of the field?

Now that he’s trying to earn a living playing ball, you might not see English repeating the feat, but, as this video proves, he has certainly demonstrated he’s capable of it.

Yes, you may have noticed that the back-flip wasn’t the only oddity in that video, from his time with the Harwich Mariners of the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2013. English also was the pitcher who recorded the final out of that game.

Neither pitching nor back-flips have been part of the 22-year-old’s repertoire since he signed with the Twins after being drafted in the 11th round last summer following a three year career at the University of South Carolina.

“No, the team we were playing that night in the Cape, that was their last game and we were going in to the playoffs,” English explained, while laughing. “Our bullpen was kind of spent and we had about a two-hour rain delay that night, so our coach was looking for people who could pitch. Me and another outfielder said, ‘hey, sign us up. We’ll do it.’ I just got up there for fun and threw some strikes.”

And the back-flip?

Again, the laugh, before the explanation from English.

“We were kind of messing around the whole game, playing rain-delay games and stuff. Then a whole bunch of the guys on the team bet me I wouldn’t do it (the back-flip). So I showed them that I would. I proved them wrong.”

English isn’t looking to make a name for himself as a pitcher – or a gymnast – at this point. Instead, he’s continuing to build his reputation on being a reliable center fielder who gets on base regularly and knows how to move along the basepaths once he does.

Tanner English (2) with a successful stolen base

Tanner English (2) with a successful stolen base

In fact, English is tied for the most stolen bases for the Kernels this season with seven swiped bases. He’s likely to pull in to the lead, too, since the player he’s tied with is Zach Granite, who was promoted to class high-A Fort Myers last week.

As for his skills in the field, English’s outfield defense has already landed him on ESPN’s “Top 10 Plays of the Day,” for the diving catch captured in this video:

“That was probably my number one goal, going to college,” he recalled. “’Man, I just want to get on ESPN’s Top 10 one time.’ I had a couple of opportunities to do that, so that was pretty cool.”

For some young players, playing in front of a few thousand people on a night that Cedar Rapids’ Veterans Memorial Stadium is packed is a new experience, but that’s nothing unusual for English.

South Carolina’s baseball program has been a big-time Division I program for years and English got to experience the thrill of playing in the finals of the 2012 College World Series with the Gamecocks as a freshman.

“That was probably one of the coolest experiences of my life,” English recalled, despite the fact that his club lost to Arizona in the finals. “Shoot, 30,000-plus fans at the game, everyone was going nuts. I know that every kid that plays college baseball, that’s their dream is to get there and I’m one of the rare few that can say that got to play there and play for a championship.”

With the promotion Granite to Fort Myers, English is likely to be the primary leadoff hitter for the Kernels. It’s a role he feels he’s ready for.

“I’ll hit wherever they want me to hit,” English said. But he’s aware his role is changing following Granite’s promotion and he’s working with Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins to be prepared to be the club’s table-setter at the top of the lineup.

“Really just trying to shorten things up, because I have a tendency to get a little bit long and try to hit the ball a lot further than I should, obviously, now as the leadoff hitter. That’s one of the big things I’ve been working on with Tommy and Jake (Mauer).”

Tanner English

Tanner English

Watkins believes English can handle the spot at the top of the Kernels’ batting order.

“Yeah, I think so. I’m a big fan of his. He’s got tools,” Watkins said, of English, over the weekend. “We’re trying to get him to trust himself – believe in his abilities. He can play baseball.”

“I think  there is a difference when you lead off,” Watkins added, “but just talking to Tanner about slowing things down a little bit and not using his body as much. He’s been doing a good job with that. Hopefully, he just keeps getting better – keep progressing on cutting the body down and using his hands a lot more.”

English acknowledged that he and his fellow position players are going to need to step up their games if the Kernels are going to be successful. Early in the season, the club’s pitching has largely been carrying the bulk of the load on the field, while the offense has been sporadic.

English is confident the hitting will come around.

“We probably need to stop missing our pitch, as a team. We have great hitters on the team, but I don’t think we’re hitting to our fullest potential right now. We just need to get to a point where everyone’s in that groove and feeling comfortable and getting to where we can barrel everything up.

“I know that baseball is hard, but just kind of do a better job in certain situations.”

If he and the Kernels can do that, the Kernels’ chances of competing for a third straight Midwest League Championship will improve significantly, but don’t expect to see English doing any celebratory back-flips on the field.

Then again, don’t bet him that he won’t do it.

– JC

May the Fourth be With You…

May-The-4th-Be-With-You-Star-Wars-Day-2011-2012-yoda-fluro-lightsaber-banner-May-The-Fourth-Be-With-you-2013Ok, I KNOW I am not the only geek in these environs.. you know how I know? Because the Twins are running a pretty fantastic promo for those people who are able to join them in their battle against the dark.. er.. A’s.

hughesthe4thTonight they are handing out a “Hughes the Force” (‘use the force’, if you needed assistance) bobble head highlighting tonight’s starting pitcher, Phil Hughes, of course. Instead of their ‘first 10K people’ usual procedure, they set it up with special seating and a special ticket you had to purchase to be a recipient, and yeah, those tickets are all sold out so it must be a popular idea!

They are also inviting fans to come in their favorite Star Wars paraphernalia. BUT if your meme of choice is “Han shot first” please be aware they will not allow blasters in the park. Safety first. *snort*

Honestly, I think it all sounds like a BLAST. 😉 And for that matter, the bobblehead is actually pretty cool too. Game time is 7:10 pm!

Kernels Pitching is Hot Out of the Gate

It may not be what casual baseball fans want to see, but in most cases and at most levels of professional baseball, the teams with the best pitching win the most games. Sometimes, it really is that simple.

(L-R) Zack Larson, Stephen Gonsalves, Zach Granite and CK Irby sign autographs on the field after a Kernels game on April 26

(L-R) Zack Larson, Stephen Gonsalves, Zach Granite and CK Irby sign autographs on the field after a Kernels game on April 26

It arguably has been exactly that simple for the Cedar Rapids Kernels over the course of the first three weeks of their season.

The Kernels are 11-7 on the year and sitting in a second place tie behind the Quad Cities River Bandits in the Midwest League’s Western Division standings. They open their first series with the Bandits on Tuesday in Davenport.

Cedar Rapids’ offense has been, at best, a bit streaky. They sit at or near the middle of the MWL pack in most hitting categories, though they have managed to score the fourth-most runs in the league.

But, through the weekend’s games, Kernels pitchers lead the MWL in team ERA (2.27), strikeouts (187) and WHIP (1.09).

When you see team numbers like those, obviously it’s not just one or two guys carrying the load.

The Kernels are consistently getting quality work out of their starting rotation and their bullpen has been locking things down in the late innings.

Manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Henry Bonilla have primarily used six pitchers in their rotation, so far. Stephen Gonsalves, Mat Batts, Felix Jorge, Michael Cederoth, John Curtiss and Jared Wilson have accounted for all but two of Cedar Rapids’ starts this year.

Zack Tillery has one spot start and Twins pitcher Ricky Nolasco started Sunday’s game on a rehabilitation assignment.

Michael Theofanopoulos

Michael Theofanopoulos

Gonsalves, Batts and Jorge each have ERAs at 1.50 or better, with Gonsalves leading the team at 0.90.

The success of Gonsalves and Batts is impressive, but not entirely unexpected. The two pitchers combined to make 13 starts for the Kernels last season and both were being counted on from the season’s onset to make strong contributions again in 2015.

Jorge’s success was far from a sure thing, however, at least in the minds of fans who only saw his work on the mound for Cedar Rapids early last year. In 2014, he put up a 2-5 record in 12 appearances (including eight starts) and amassed a 9.00 ERA before being sent back to Extended Spring Training by the Twins.

Jorge turned his year around with a solid season at rookie-level Elizabethton, but nobody was quite certain what to expect from the 21-year-old righthander during his second shot in the Midwest League.

“This was the Jorge we thought we were getting last year,” Mauer said recently. “It’s a lot of things. Here it was freezing cold, he probably didn’t get comfortable right away.

“He’s got a different look to him (this year). He’s way more confident. He’s worked really hard with Henry as far as his timing, when his hands break. he seems to be way more in rhythm than he was last year. If you can be way more in rhythm, you’re going to throw a lot more strikes.”

Bonilla, who was also Jorge’s pitching coach in Elizabethton last year, is happy to see the improved version of the pitcher this season.

“It’s good to see him get some good games under him early, especially with the cold,” Bonilla said over the weekend, of Jorge. “I think the cold kind of had him a little bit last year. But he’s kind of taken responsibility for that and he’s gone forward.

“Ultimately, at the end of the year, you can hopefully start seeing his (velocity) get back to where it was when he was a young kid and his delivery get down in the zone a little bit. His breaking balls are coming along pretty good.”

Bonilla thinks Jorge was primarily throwing an 88-89 mph fastball a year ago, which is not what the Twins were expecting when they gave the then-17-year-old Domincan a $250,000 signing bonus in early 2011.

“That’s not really what he is. I think he’s kind of getting back to it. We’re doing some stuff mechanically. Hopefully, by the end of the season, we’re talking more plan and location, instead of delivery, with him.”

Of course, the downside for Kernels fans to having pitchers get off to hot starts is that the fans may not get many more opportunities to watch those players in Cedar Rapids. They are all just a phone call away from a promotion to the class high-A Fort Myers Miracle.

Batts, at 23 years old, might be a guy the Twins want to push up a level as soon as he appears ready and, between the end of last season and his start to the current campaign, the Twins could be getting close to wanting to see what he can do against more mature hitters.

It may be likely that the parent club would want to see Jorge demonstrate more extended success in the Midwest League, given his false start at this level a year ago.

Gonsalves doesn’t turn 21 until July, but his manager feels the Twins’ fourth round pick in 2013 has already shown just about enough to move up a level.

“He’s getting close,” Mauer said recently, when asked if he thought Gonsalves might be ready for a promotion. “I’d like to see a little more shape on his breaking ball, but he’s dominated the teams that he’s thrown against. If he gets a breaking ball, he’s going to be really dangerous. Really, really dangerous.”

Gonsalves’ velocity on his fastball has ticked upward this season but his manager doesn’t think he’s topped out yet.

“I think it’s going to even get better. As he keeps maturing, I think he’s going to be a 94-95 (mph) guy. I really do. When he gets his ‘man-muscles,’ as they say. I think he’s really going to bring it.

“He’s thrown some better this year. Some breaking balls have had some shape, compared to last year. He gets bigger and stronger, that ball will have even more shape. He’s got a good change up. But I think he’s going to run it up there pretty good.”

The bullpen could be ripe for plucking by the Miracle, as well, if the need arises.

It’s a bullpen that even their manager had expressed some nervousness about at the onset of the season.

“We didn’t know who was going to step up,” Mauer recalled over the weekend, ”and they’ve been outstanding. Really, really good.”

The nine pitchers who have made relief appearances for the Kernels have put up a combined 1.92 ERA out of the pen.

Relievers Cameron Booser (1.13), Trevor Hildenberger (1.00) and Michael Theofanopoulos (1.74) are each sporting sub-2.00 ERAs for the Kernels.

Zack Tillery

Zack Tillery

This crew has brought some heat in April.

The only full-time reliever who hasn’t averaged a strikeout per inning is newcomer Miles Nordgren, who has made just two appearances since joining the Kernels as the replacement for Curtiss, who went on the disabled list with a concussion. And, while Nordgren hasn’t been a strikeout machine in those two appearances, he also hasn’t given up a run.

In that regard, he joins Tillery and Wilson, neither of which have surrendered an earned run in their relief appearances.

Bonilla is glad to see his staff get off to a good start, before the hitters start to catch up to them.

“They’re taking advantage of the cold and that’s a good thing,” the pitching coach explained, “because once it gets warm, the bats get hot, too. Those guys want to swing the lumber. It’s good numbers-wise. It’s a confidence boost a little bit.”

But Bonilla believes the hot start for his pitching corps is important for reasons that go beyond the obvious results on the field. He believes that early success also aids individual development.

“There’s some things each guy is working on – his own individual plan and the goals we have for him,” he explained. “It’s good to get off to a fast start because it builds confidence in the season and they’re more open to do things that maybe they werent – that they’re reluctant to do when they’re struggling.

“When you’re struggling, you want to get back to what you’re comfortable with. So we can maybe add a few things like maybe sink the ball a little bit more to certain guys – working on breaking balls. They’re a lot more open, when you’re having success, to do things. When you’re struggling, you’re just grinding away.”

If the Kernels can keep most of this pitching staff intact and the bats in the lineup can heat up as the weather warms up, Cedar Rapids could be a serious Midwest League contender in 2015.

– JC