Kernels Hitting a Stride

Heading into their four-game series with Midwest League Western Division leaders Kane County on Thursday, the Cedar Rapids Kernels were one game under .500, trailed the Cougars by two games in the standings and were tied for second place in their division.

After trouncing Kane County 11-2 in the series finale on Sunday to earn a split of the four-game series, Cedar Rapids was one game over .500 (at 9-8), trail the Cougars by two games in the standings and are tied for second place in their division.

That sounds more mediocre than it was, in reality.

Kane County, the MWL affiliate of the Diamondbacks, have some game and the rest of the division will be challenged to keep up with the Cougars if they continue playing at early-season levels, so getting that split was hard work.

Still, it could have been better.

The Kernels had a 3-2 lead heading to the ninth inning on Thursday, but gave up three runs to the Cougars in the ninth and fell 5-3. On Saturday, The teams were tied 3-3 headed to the final stanza, where Kane County scored the winning run.

In fact, in five of their eight losses this season, Cedar Rapids has surrendered the winning run in their opponent’s final inning at the plate.

All those close losses don’t have manager Tommy Watkins concerned, however.

“The good thing is, after all those games, we responded afterwards,” Watkins said on Saturday. “We’ve lost a couple of games in the ninth inning, but it happens. We’ve got a young team. We’re going to take some bumps and bruises, but I think things have been pretty good to start the season.”

In fact, Watkins said his team has pretty much performed at expected levels.

“I didn’t have any concerns with either side of the ball. Pitching or hitting. Like I said at the beginning of the season, this is a fun team to watch up and down the lineup – pitching, defense, offense, running the bases. We’ve got some guys that can steal some bases. I really enjoy having these guys here.”

One player that’s certainly been as much fun to watch as any position player in the league has been Jermaine Palacios.

“Palacios has been swinging a hot bat and giving us a real boost at the leadoff spot,” Watkins said, of his shortstop. “He’s being aggressive to balls in a zone.”

Indeed he is.

The 20-year-old native of Venezuela is hitting .406 through Sunday and he hasn’t been just slapping the ball, either. Palacios has three doubles, two triples and added his first home run of the season in Sunday’s win over the Cougars.

He’s leading the MWL in batting average and his 1.012 OPS is ninth best in the league, but not good enough to lead his own team.

That honor goes to Mitchell Kranson. His six doubles, one triple and two dingers have propelled him to a 1.045 OPS.

By and large, the pitching staff has been solid, as well. There have been a couple of games where, as one Kernels pitcher told me, “none of us could miss a barrel.” But those instances have been rare.

Cedar Rapids continues their current homestand with a three game series against the Burlington Bees (Angels) before traveling to Peoria (Cardinals) for four games with the Chiefs beginning Thursday.

I’ll wrap up with a couple dozen pictures from the games on Saturday and Sunday at Veterans Memorial Stadium, as well as the traditional Sunday post-game autograph session.

(All photos by SD Buhr)

Kernels manager Tommy Watkins hitting infield practice
Hitting coach Brian Dinkelman tossing batting practice
Domenick Carlini warms up under the watchful eyes of Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez
Lewin Diaz (48) and Ariel Montesino (21)
Domenick Carlini
Andrew Vasquez
Mitchell Kranson playing first base on Saturday
Mitchell Kranson took his turn behind the plate on Sunday
Aaron Whitefield coming in low, and safely, to 3B
Andrew Vasquez, Max Cordy and Colton Davis (L to R)
Ben Rortvedt
Ariel Montesino (21) takes a toss from Jermaine Palacios (4) to turn a double play on Sunday
Aaron Whitefield
Lewin Diaz signing an autograph on Sunday.
Jermaine Palacios got this ball out of the park on Sunday.
Clark Beeker
Shane Carrier
Christian Cavaness signing an autograph after Sunday’s game.
Lewin Diaz
Hector Lujan
Clark Beeker with a pick-off move to first baseman Lewin Diaz
Jermaine Palacios
Mitchell Kranson beats a throw into 3B
Brandon Lopez
Jaylin Davis scoring as Kane County catcher can’t handle a throw from the outfield.
Caleb Hamilton launching a home run on Sunday
Christian Caveness
Travis Blankenhorn (7) and Aaron Whitefield signing autographs.
Jaylin Davis

Kernels Home Opener in Photos

The Cedar Rapids Kernels jumped to an early 6-1 lead in their home opener against the Beloit Snappers on Saturday evening, but by the end of the night, only the bean counters in Cedar Rapids could call the night a success.

Thanks to a large walk-up, certainly helped by 76 degree temperatures, the Kernels set a franchise record for attendance at a home opener, but the Snappers played spoiler by rallying three runs in the visitors’ half of the ninth inning to top the Kernels 7-6.

Kernels starter Sean Poppen worked seven solid innings, surrendering three runs (only two of the earned run variety), while striking out seven Snappers without a walk.

The offense was led by DH Travis Blankenhorn who doubled and added a three-run home run.

Shane Carrier also homered while Jaylin Davis and Caleb Hamilton added triples.

Davis may have contributed the defensive play of the game, gunning down Beloit’s Nate Mondou at the plate,

In fact, let’s start our photo set with a series of shots showing catcher Ben Rortvedt’s tag of Mondou.

(All photos by SD Buhr)

All of that in the first inning before the Kernels even came to the plate!

Now, let’s back up to pregame activities.

Volunteers with the American flag prior to the game.
Kernels manager Tommy Watkins meets with the umpires and Snappers manager.
A record Home Opener crowd of 3,508 watches leadoff hitter Aaron Whitefield step into the batters box.
Starting pitcher Sean Poppen

Now let’s look through the Kernels’ staring lineup.

CF Aaron Whitefield
SS Ariel Montesino
DH Travis Blankenhorn
1B Lewin Diaz
RF Jaylin Davis
C Ben Rortvedt
LF Shane Carrier (watching his 2nd inning home run sail toward the wall)
Caleb Hamilton
2B Brandon Lopez


Are You Ready For Some Baseball?

Yes, it has been a while since I posted anything, so I’ll be surprised if anyone still remembers we have this blog, but I’m back home after a couple of weeks in Florida and it’s almost time for the baseball season to begin. So, let’s fire up the blog again and see whether we, as Twins fans, have enough this season to even be worth talking about.

We are not off to a great start.

First of all, the new Twins front office did virtually nothing in their first offseason on the job to improve the team. I was asked during a brief radio interview on KMRY in Cedar Rapids this week what I felt about the Twins’ fortunes in 2017 after spending time at their spring training site in March. I’ll say the same thing here that I said in response during that interview.

The Twins did nothing to improve their team in the offseason, so any improvement will have to come from further development of their existing young roster, guys like Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, et al.

The good news is that there is every reason to believe that Buck, Max and friends like Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario should indeed mature and see their games improve.

The bad news is that none of those guys can pitch. (Well, Buxton probably COULD, but it ain’t happening.)

This morning, many of the final roster moves were announced and we found out that the Twins will start the season with 13 pitchers and without the player that perhaps had the best spring training of anyone in camp, Byung ho Park, who was sent down and will apparently start his season in Rochester.

That leaves the Twins with just three bench bats and none of them are guys you would want to see come to the plate even as a pinch hitter.

The bottom line, it seems to me, is that the new front office is scared to death of their pitching staff. I understand that because I think most of us have been afraid of this pitching staff for a long time. But they had all offseason to address their obvious pitching needs and did virtually nothing to improve it.

So, to tell us they sent Park down because they felt they ended up needing more pitchers is really an indictment on their poor work in obtaining pitching during the offseason. Fans should not let them off the hook easily if this all blows up.

Now that I have that rant out of the way, let me just pass on some observations I had down in Fort Myers.

As always, I spent a fair amount of time on the minor league side of the complex watching past and future Cedar Rapids Kernels work out.

My sense, as I shared Tuesday on the MN Sports Weekly podcast, as well as the KMRY interview, is that the Kernels will have a better offensive lineup this season than they had a year ago and it appears that at least half of the team’s pitching rotation that finished the 2016 season will be returning to start 2017.

Lewin Diaz and Shane Carrier should add pop to the middle of the order and, for now anyway, it appears that Travis Blankenhorn and Jaylin Davis will return to start the new season in CR. That group could produce some runs if other guys can get on base with regularity.

It doesn’t look like slugger Amourys Minier will break camp with the Kernels at this point, but he should help out when he arrives later in the season, as could other bats such as Trey Cabbage and Wander Javier.

Jermaine Palacios will return and be among a large group of middle infielders worthy of getting opportunities in Cedar Rapids during the season.

Let’s wrap up with a few pictures from my time in Fort Myers.

Fort Myers Beach – yes there is something other than baseball to do on a mid 80s March day in Florida.
IF Aaron Whitefield and C Ben Rortvedt
Tyler Beardsley should be returning to Cedar Rapids
Ariel Montesino makes a bare handed play as Wander Javier looks on.
Byron Buxton goes deep in the first inning against the Orioles.
Jorge Polanco gets congratulated after a grand slam home run.


Kernels & Jake Mauer Focus on “Task at Hand”

With less than 40 games left in their 2017 campaign, the Cedar Rapids Kernels need a strong finish to clinch a Midwest League playoff spot, something they’ve accomplished every season since affiliating with the Minnesota Twins in 2013.

Kernels manager Jake Mauer and Manuel Guzman (SD Buhr)
Kernels manager Jake Mauer and infielder Manuel Guzman (Photo: SD Buhr)

The Peoria Chiefs and Clinton Lumberkings finished one and two in the Division’s first half standings, automatically qualifying them for the postseason. Their Division rivals with the two best records in the second half will join the Chiefs and Lumberkings in the playoffs.

If the season ended today (Monday), Clinton would have the best second half record in the West, while Cedar Rapids and Quad Cities (currently second and third in the Division) would fill out the Western half of the postseason bracket. However, Burlington and Wisconsin sit one game or less behind Quad Cities, so the race is likely to be tight over the final weeks of the season.

Jake Mauer has been at the helm of the Kernels from the beginning of the club’s affiliation with the Twins. His 292-226 record with the Kernels makes him Cedar Rapids’ winningest manager in the modern era (1949-present) and places him third all-time. He’ll catch up to Ollie Marquardt in the second spot with his next win, but Mauer’s going to have to stick around a very, very long time to top Belden Hill’s 831 wins.

While winning takes a back seat to player development in modern minor league baseball, the local fans definitely like to follow a winner and Mauer has given the locals plenty of success, beginning with a squad that was loaded with top prospects in the inaugural season of the Twins/Kernels relationship. That team made winning look easy – at least a lot easier than it has looked in the two-and-a-half seasons since.

2016 has, perhaps, been the most challenging of Mauer’s four years of wearing number 12 for the Kernels. This year’s group is short on players you would find among “top prospect” lists published by the likes of Baseball America, or any other group in the business of tracking minor leaguers’ paths to the big leagues.

Nonetheless, in an interview late last week, Mauer was unwilling to say that the lack of blue chippers on his team makes this season his most challenging.

“Each year is different,” Mauer said. “If you have a lot of high-end (prospects), you’re expected to win and if you don’t have a lot of high-end guys, you’ve got to find ways to win. It’s all part of development, it’s all part of the process.

“The second year (2014), I thought we had a lot of challenges, they were comparing the ’13 team to the ’14 team and that wasn’t fair to that ’14 team.”

Winning is obviously a lot easier when you’ve got a lot of those high draft choices and big money international free agents. Several of them, including first round draft choice Byron Buxton and six-figure bonus international signee Max Kepler (both now playing the outfield for the Twins) spent much of their 2013 seasons in Cedar Rapids uniforms.

“You get blessed with years like ’13 where you have seven of them, eight of them. They’re all panning out at different speeds,” reflected Mauer. “You know, some of the clubs I had at Fort Myers I don’t think we had one. So it just depends on what you have.”

When you’ve got a team of projected stars, a manager in Mauer’s position will generally stick with a pretty consistent lineup. “Obviously, guys that are higher end guys as a player,” he said, “you’ve got to find out what they can and can’t do, that’s the nature of the beast.”

Not so this season.

“I wonder how many different lineups we’ve used,” Mauer pondered. “It’s probably been fifty or sixty of them, would be my guess.

“Clubs like this, some of these guys that aren’t necessarily Baseball America guys get an opportunity to kind of put themselves on the map. As you can see, there’s no way to get buried on our bench here. Everybody plays.

“Pitching’s a little bit different,” he conceded. “They earn (consistent playing time) a little bit more. They’re all going to get an opportunity, it’s just a matter of what they’re going to do with it.

“It’s all getting these guys to understand themselves, first, in order for us to do anything – in order for them to have any impact down the road. This is the league where we start to shake out the guys that aren’t as mentally tough as others. Find out who can play every day, find out who can do what it takes. So, they’re going to get tested, they’re going to get innings, they’re going to get at-bats, get all that stuff. Then we’ll kind of look back in September at how everything unfolded.”

(L-R) Cedar Rapids Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez, manager Jake Mauer and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman (behind screen) )Photo: SD Buhr)
(L-R) Cedar Rapids Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez, manager Jake Mauer and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman (behind screen) (Photo: SD Buhr)

Throughout most of the first half of the season, it looked like the Kernels would easily clinch an early playoff spot by finishing in one of the top two spots in the Western Division’s first-half race, but they faltered badly during the final couple of weeks before the midpoint and ended up in third place.

“You hate to say it,” Mauer commented on his squad’s late first half implosion, “but we scored the same amount of runs, but we lost two guys in the back end of the bullpen and lost probably the best starter in the league.

“We weren’t necessarily blowing the doors off of anybody in the first half. It takes you a while to figure out who can step up and take those roles.”

Mauer is starting to see some guys stepping up.

Last week, the Kernels went on one a six-game road trip over into the MWL Eastern Division territory and came away with a perfect 6-0 record against Lake County and Fort Wayne.

“We swung the bats really well,” he said of their Eastern sweep. “We rode (Luis) Arraez, (Zander) Wiel and (Jaylin) Davis, really. Other guys chipped in here and there, but those guys had a monster week. You’re scoring 6, 7, 8 runs a night, it gives you a pretty good chance to win.

“(Wiel) can carry a team, which he did the last week. Jaylin Davis is probably in the same boat, he can carry a team. Arraez has been pretty consistent, but we kind of go where those three guys go. When the three of them are having a pretty good week, we’ve got a pretty good chance. If they’re not, it will be more difficult for us.”

Finding pitchers to fill the holes left following promotions has been more challenging for Mauer and pitching coach J.P. Martinez. “Pitching is still kind of up in the air who we’ve got,” the manager said.

“It’s so different,” Mauer said, of the Kernels’ bullpen situation. “We’re not as pitching-deep as we were last year. If we had a lead going into the fifth inning, we pretty much knew we were going to win last year. That’s not the case this year. You’ve got some guys that need to step up and take control. I’d say (Anthony) McIver has, to a point. We’ve got to find out about (Tom) Hackimer. But we still have several guys you don’t quite know what you’re going to get in given situations. We’ve got to find out.”

Mauer’s clearly also looking for some improvement among his starting rotation.

“(Cody) Stashak’s probably our number one (starting pitcher). (Lachlan) Wells has been good. Those two guys have been pretty good. If we can just get some of these (other) guys to take that next step, it would make the process better.”

Kernels pitcher Lachlan Wells strikes out Reds first round draft choice (2nd overall) Nick Senzel. (Photo SD Buhr)
Kernels pitcher Lachlan Wells strikes out Reds first round draft choice (2nd overall) Nick Senzel July 25. Catching is Rainis Silva. (Photo SD Buhr)

The season’s second half is shaping up to be at least a four-team dogfight with the Kernels, Burlington Bees, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and Quad Cities River Bandits playing leapfrog with one another in the standings on virtually a daily basis as they jockey for one of the coveted second-half playoff spots.

“That’s our division,” said Mauer. “There really isn’t a team that’s head and shoulders above anybody. Anybody can beat anybody on a given night and I think you’re going to see that kind of as we go through. Things change, obviously, as these draftee guys (from the 2016 draft) starting to come and some of these first full season guys that tend to hit a wall a little bit.”

Mauer’s working with a pair of coaches, in his fourth season with the Kernels, that he hasn’t been teamed with before. Martinez and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman are in their first seasons by Mauer’s side after coaching with the Twins’ Gulf Coast League team, where games are played on back fields at the organization’s spring training complex in front of few, if any, fans.

But the manager says things are going, “good,” on that count.

“(Martinez and Dinkelman) have been real good. Their first ‘real baseball’ compared to that ‘complex ball’ that’s a lot different. They’ve done a good job. For them, their first year, this is unusual to have so many different guys coming through.”

Forty-nine players have already worn a Kernels jersey in 2016. It’s not unusual for fewer players than that to suit up for Cedar Rapids in an entire season.

“What’s nice is that these guys know most of the kids that have come up,” Mauer added. “They’ve had them, they know what makes them tick, the things to do with them, what they need to work on.”

High roster turnover, few top prospects, new assistant coaches. Those things, on their own, might make a manager’s job challenging, but last week the Twins added a little something extra to the load that Mauer and his staff have to carry. Long-time General Manager Terry Ryan was fired by the Twins ownership.

“It’s unfortunate,” Mauer said of Ryan’s dismissal. “Obviously, he’s a great baseball man. He’s all I’ve ever known as a GM, other than Bill Smith, but Terry wasn’t far away (during Smith’s tenure as GM). I think it came as a shock, the timing of it, to everybody. He’s done so much for us and for our organization and whoever comes in after him is going to have big shoes to fill.”

As a result, Mauer and his coaches now are essentially lame ducks, uncertain whether the new GM will choose to retain them going forward. How’s that for adding a little anxiety to the manager’s life?

But, as Mauer observed, the anxiety goes well beyond just he and his coaches.

“It could be for scouts, all the way down to the athletic training guys and strength guys. You don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know who is the next guy, if they have somebody in mind, if they don’t. So, we’ll see. I’m sure they’ve got a game plan up there for what they’re going to do.

“But, if you’re confident in what you’re doing and you do a good job, you can’t control that,” Mauer concluded. “This is just like we tell the players, if they look at what’s going on ahead of them or who’s doing what behind them, they can’t control that. Same with us, (we can’t) worry about who’s coming in and fret about it, and not do the task at hand. We’ve got to do the task at hand first of all and see what shakes out.”

The “task at hand” for the manager and his charges is to finish the final six weeks of the season strong. How does Mauer see the remainder of the season shaping up?

“We’ll see. I wish I could answer that, honestly. I have no idea. We look like a million bucks for three or four days, then we have a tough time for three or four days. It’s just kind of how it is. We talk extensively about, we need leaders to step up and to lead and to be our guys so you kind of know what you’re going to get day in and day out.

“They’ll keep playing hard and they’ll keep competing and we’ll just see how it ends up.”