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 Expect a Fun Season

There were differing opinions concerning who won the dance contest held in the Kernels’ clubhouse prior to “Meet the Kernels Night” in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, but the players and coaches who were brought in to talk to the media were in agreement on one thing. They all expect the 2017 Kernels season to be fun.

Kernels players meeting fans on “Meet the Kernels Night” in Cedar Rapids. (photo: SD Buhr)

In fact, almost all of the players and coaches who endured media interrogation before moving on to the stadium concourse to meet the fans who showed up for the event used the word “fun” in at least one of their responses to media questions.

That shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who has spent time with the Kernels’ new manager, Tommy Watkins. If you see Watkins at a ballpark without a smile on his face, snap a picture quick. It would be a rarity.

Early during the media session, Watkins was asked what sort of mood he likes to see in his team’s clubhouse.

“Probably like a somber mood,” Watkins deadpanned.

“No, a lot of energy,” he continued, after the laughter in the room faded. “We just had fun down in the clubhouse before we came up, so it was a lot of fun. Get the guys moving around a little bit. Everybody danced a little. I think we like to bring a lot of energy and like to have fun. Play the game the right way.”

His coaches, Brian Dinkelman and J.P. Martinez, claimed Tommy won the dance contest and Tommy claimed the two coaches had been the winners. Later, pitcher Sean Poppen would claim that he’d been the true winner.

Whether or not there was an actual winner of that contest, there was no question that Watkins, his coaches and his players all are looking forward to having a fun season – and winning some baseball games along the way.

“I’m excited about all of these guys,” Watkins said of the players making up the first roster of his minor league managing career.

“They were fun to watch in spring training. Good group of guys, they all got along well. Up and down the lineup I think you’ll see a lot of energy, you’ll see a lot of guys play the game hard. I think they’ll be fun to watch this year. Same thing from the pitching side. We’ve got guys who can throw it over. We’ve got guys that throw hard, got some off-speed stuff. From both sides of the ball, these guys will be fun to watch.”

Hitting coach Brian Dinkelman, Manager Tommy Watkins and Pitching coach JP Martinez (photo: SD Buhr)

While last year’s opening day roster was composed largely of returning players from the 2015 Kernels roster, only eight of this year’s group wore a Cedar Rapids jersey at some point last year. Most of the group, including many of the returning players, played together at Elizabethton in the Appalachian League, during a season that did not see the sort of success on the field that E-town fans have come to expect.

Pitching coach J.P. Martinez said he things this group is hungry for success, as a result.

“I think in Cedar Rapids, in particular, we’ve set the bar pretty high,” Martinez said, recounting the success the Kernels have had, including making the playoffs in each of the four seasons since the inception of the affiliation agreement with the Twins.

“I think (these players) are eager to prove that they belong at this level, maybe partly because they didn’t really have the success they wanted last year, but they’re a really, really talented group. A really close-knit group and so we’re hoping that we can kind of steer them in the right direction. They are the future of the franchise.”

Brian Dinkelman, the hitting coach, also thinks there’s a lot of potential in this group of Kernels.

“Yeah, we’ve got some guys that can definitely swing the bat,” he said of the hitters he’ll be working with. “We’ve got a lot of young guys. We’ve got (Lewin) Diaz and (Jermaine) Palacios and (Ben) Rortvedt – guys that are still in their teens. But we’ve got some guys who can swing the bat and do some damage, so looking forward to the season. A lot of guys to work with. Hope we can develop them and move on to the next level.

Ben Rortvedt, Sean Poppen and Travis Blankenhorn (photo: SD Buhr)

One of the guys the hitting coach mentioned, Rortvedt, is among the players who will be getting their first taste of full-season professional experience this season in Cedar Rapids.

“Wonderful. A bit of an upgrade with the stadium from Elizabethton and the Florida GCL,” the Wisconsin native responded, when asked for his initial impressions.”I played here growing up a couple of times and it was fantastic. I mean, it wasn’t full bleachers, but I’ve seen pictures of you guys filling up the stadium, so I’m really excited.

“I played with a bunch of the guys last year and we’ve bonded pretty well, so it’s going to be a fun season.”

There’s that word, “fun” again, along with another common theme of the day, team chemistry.

Pitcher Sean Poppen and infielder/DH Travis Blankenhorn expressed similar expectations.

“(Tommy) is great. I think he’s really going to develop team chemistry and that’s pretty important,” Poppen said, of his manager.

“We had Tommy in instructs (fall instructional league) and spring training,” Blankenhorn added. “He just keeps the game fun. It’s fun to play for him. He keeps it fun for all of us. It makes baseball a lot better when you’re having fun.”

“Absolutely,” Rortvedt agreed. “I didn’t know Tommy going into instructs and he came in already cracking jokes at me, so he’s definitely going to keep us loose in the dugout.”

Fun and chemistry are important, but Poppen doesn’t think that’s all Watkins brings to his team.

“He’s a good coach. I’ve had some experiences with him that were very helpful and I feel like he’s going to help me – and help the team – get better.”

“I think we have a good team this year,” Blankenhorn concluded. “I think we have a bunch of pitchers that are going to throw strikes and go out there and put some zeros on the board. I think we have some good sticks in our lineup that are going to put the ball in play and puts some runs up and hopefully we can win some games.”

Having fun and winning games. Sounds like a pretty good combination.