The Cedar Rapids Kernels hit the frozen ground running this season, jumping off to a 6-0 record before finally suffering their first loss of the year on Friday night against Clinton.
Don’t say the start surprised their manager, Toby Gardenhire, though. With a lineup as full of highly regarded prospects as this Kernels roster is, he’s not going to be too surprised with short term success.
“I don’t know if I’d call it surprised,” Gardenhire said on Friday before that night’s frigid game. “We’ve got a lot of guys that are doing some really good things right now. Any time you can run off a stretch like we’ve done here, it means there are a lot of people doing their job and doing a really good job of it.
“That’s the nice thing about our lineup,” he continued. “We have a whole bunch of guys that are really exciting. Whether they’re going to do it on a given night, that’s the question, but we’ve had a lot of guys step up and do some pretty impressive things, so it’s been fun.”
Still, even if the early success isn’t surprising, this is not exactly how the Cedar Rapids Kernels’ season was supposed to start out.
You simply don’t expect four of your first 11 games (including three of your first five home dates) to be postponed due to cold and snow.
Cold or not, you can’t argue with success.
Cedar Rapids opened the 2018 campaign April 5 with a 2-0 shutout of the Quad Cities River Bandits in Davenport, then had the next night’s game postponed.
They topped Quad Cities again, 4-3, in Cedar Rapids’ home opener on April 7. Then had another postponement the next day.
They did get an entire four-game series played in Peoria during the middle of the week and it’s a good thing they did, too! The Kernels swept all four games from the Chiefs.
They won the first game of the series 3-1, which means they had outscored their opponents 9-4 through the first three games they played. It wasn’t exactly a demonstration of the kind of offensive fire power that fans were expecting to see from a lineup that included two first round draft choices and often saw “slot picks” (players drafted in the first 10 rounds of the amateur draft) at all nine spots in the batting order.
That all changed as the weather crawled up to more normal levels over the final three games of the series in Peoria. The Kernels scored 8, 12 and 9 runs, respectively, in those games while posting their perfect 6-0 record through Thursday.
In three of those four games against the Chiefs, Cedar Rapids had to mount comebacks after falling behind Peoria. That fact wasn’t lost on their manager, either.
“That’s our lineup,” the manager said. “You don’t expect that, but I would say, at this point, right now, we don’t really ever feel like we’re out of it with the group of guys that we’ve got going.
“Now that changes, it fluctuates throughout the season. There’s days when you’re going to be down and think, ‘uh oh, we’re never going to come back in this one,’ but with the way the guys are playing right now and swinging, their confidence level is very high right now and that helps out a ton, too. With these guys’ confidence level right now, being down doesn’t scare them.”
Alex Kirilloff, the first round pick of the Twins in 2016, had a two-home run game in the series and 2017 first overall pick Royce Lewis notched his first home run of the season during the Peoria series, as well.
For our purposes, we’ll just try to pretend Friday night’s 2-0 loss to Clinton didn’t happen. I’m sure the Kernels hitters would like to, anyway, after managing just a pair of singles and one walk against the Lumberkings on a frigid night in Cedar Rapids. (Games 2 and 3 of the scheduled weekend series were postponed due to cold and snow).
That one forgettable game aside, it’s been a pretty impressive opening act for this group of Minnesota Twins prospects.
On a team with a pair of first round picks, it might come as a surprise that outfielder Mark Contreras has led the team’s offense, so far. The Twins’ 9th round pick out of UC-Riverside is off to a hot start in the five games he’s played, with a .444 batting average and a 1.029 OPS. And that’s after an 0-3 night against Clinton on Friday.
Catcher (and 2016 2nd round pick) Ben Rortvedt also went 0-3 against the Lumberkings, but Rortvedt is still hitting .400 and has a healthy .979 OPS.
Obviously, this early in the season, these are all small sample sizes and it would be unwise to put much (or any, really) stock in stat lines that accumulate over just a handful of games, most of which took place in very unpleasant weather conditions.
Still, that 6-1 record is looking pretty good, so far.
As encouraging as the way his young lineup is playing under challenging conditions, Gardenhire is just as happy with what he’s seeing from his pitching corps.
“Our starting pitching has been good,” Gardehire observed. “They’ve been able to get us into the fourth or fifth inning just about every game.”
That may not seem like much and, later in the season when temperatures warm up and arms are healthy and loose, the bar will be set at a much different level. But this is April and many of these games have had game time temperatures around 40 degrees. Maybe lower.
“In the beginning of the season,” the manager explained, “(getting 4-5 innings) is all you’re hoping for. Get us 75 to 80 pitches and get us into the fifth. Past the fifth is great. And they’ve been doing that just about every game and keeping it close while they do it.”
Bryan Sammons, the only Kernels starting pitcher to take the mound for two starts so far, has a 0.96 ERA in those two starts, spanning 9 1/3 innings, and a WHIP of just 1.07.
But four or five innings is only half the game and the Kernels have been holding opponents in check after that, as well, as Gardenhire pointed out about his relief arms.
“Our bullpen has been great. They’ve just done a really good job. Guys are starting to get comfortable. This early in the season, you expect a lot more of the yips and guys being pretty nervous going out there. And we haven’t had a ton of that. We’ve had some guys go out there and be a little bit nervous, but for the most part, guys have stepped up and done really well.”
Three members of the bullpen, Jared Finkel, Calvin Faucher and Derek Molina, have yet to surrender an earned run. Finkel has made three appearances and Faucher a pair of them. Molina threw two scoreless innings of relief Friday night after joining the team as a replacement for Ryan Mason, who had been so effective in his three appearances that he earned a promotion to Class High-A Fort Myers.
All told, ten of the fourteen pitchers who have made at least one appearance for the Kernels so far have early-season ERAs of 2.25 or lower.
Of course, it’s early and nobody will claim ERA means everything (or even much) when it comes to judging a pitcher’s effectiveness, but up and down the stat list, several Kernels are striking out a batter or more per inning and walking less than half of the number of batters they are striking out.
It’s an encouraging start.
The Kernels have a scheduled off day on Monday, following the two unscheduled days off on the weekend. Then they head to Beloit for a three-game series against the Snappers, where temperatures are projected to run anywhere from a low of 25 to a high of 45 over those three days. Oh, and there’s a fair chance of snow on Wednesday. Of course there is.
All of these postponements are going to wreak havoc on an already hectic schedule for the Kernels in May, too.
They start out the month of May with series against Eastern Division clubs and will go on the road to Dayton and then Bowling Green. Their only scheduled day off in the entire month is Sunday, May 13. But since that’s the day after their series finale in Bowling Green the night of the 12th, how do you think that day is going to be spent?
If you guessed a very long bus ride throughout the night and into the morning, you’d be correct.
Then from May 14 through June 3, the Kernels will play 24 games in 21 days.
Their make up game with Quad Cities will be on May 16. This will be a “split double header,” with the first game being the regularly scheduled noon game and the nightcap starting at 6:35. Both games will be 7-inning games, just as traditional double header games are in the Midwest League.
Memorial Day weekend could be the real gauntlet for the ballclub, though.
That’s the next time that Clinton is scheduled to return to Cedar Rapids and both of this weekend’s games will be made up as part of traditional double headers over the Holiday weekend. One on Saturday, May 26, starting at 5:05, and the other on Sunday, May 27, beginning at 2:05.
I know it’s probably not going to be necessary, but I’m thinking I’m going to loosen up the throwing arm earlier that week. You just have to figure Gardenhire and his pitching coaches are going to be looking around for anyone who can throw the ball 60 feet by the time that Sunday evening rolls around.
That’s next month’s concern, of course, so we’ll worry about that when the time comes.
The next home series in Cedar Rapids kicks off this coming Friday night, April 20, and it’s a special one.
Royce Lewis is the first “number one overall” draft pick to suit up for the club and the Kernels are celebrating with a “Royce Lewis Bobblehead” promotion.
While the Kernels have done bobblehead promotions honoring past players with some level of frequency, this is the first time they’ve honored a current Kernels player in that manner.
Only the first 1.000 fans through the gates will get a bobblehead, though, so if you want one, you probably should plan to get in line early.