It took until the final day of the first half of the Midwest League season, but the Cedar Rapids Kernels claimed a playoff berth on Sunday with a 16-3 rout of the Clinton Lumber Kings.
With the win, Cedar Rapids locked up second place in the MWL West Division standings. Division champions and runners-up in both the first and second halves of the league’s season qualify for the post-season.
This will be the fifth consecutive post-season appearance for the Kernels, a record for a Cedar Rapids professional franchise that has a history well over 100 years old.
Also of significance, the Kernels have now qualified for the post-season in each of the five years that the club has been the Class A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins.
Manager Tommy Watkins’ team had to rally their way into the playoff spot after entering Saturday night’s game in third place.
The key play of that weekend rally came in the eighth inning Saturday night.
Travis Blankenhorn reached on an error and moved to second on a ground ball. That’s when things got interesting.
Blankenhorn tagged at second base and advanced to third on a line drive to right field, barely beating the throw to avoid committing a prime baseball sin of making the third out of an inning at the third sack.
It turned out to be a risk well worth taking.
Two walks later, Brandon Lopez stepped to the plate and, on a 1-2 count, with the Clinton third baseman playing well off the line, giving Blankenhorn opportunities to get a walking lead off the bag, this happened:
Watkins had noticed that Clinton sidearm pitcher Jack Anderson’s delivery was very deliberate and, combined with the large lead Blankenhorn was able to get, presented an opportunity to make something good happen.
Blankenhorn executed the straight steal perfectly and an inning later, the Kernels had the win that kept their playoff hopes alive.
Less than an hour later, Quad Cities fell to Beloit in extra innings and the Kernels were left needing a win on Sunday or a QC loss to nail down their playoff spot.
The Kernels would need to earn a win off of a MWL All-Star pitcher to avoid needing to rely on another QC loss. Lefty Danny Garcia will represent the Lumber Kings in Tuesday night’s MWL All-Star game, but he couldn’t record a single out in the first inning against the Kernels.
Cedar Rapids came out swinging on Sunday and hung a nine-spot on Clinton in the first inning on their way to their 16-3 triumph.
On a side note, Clinton manager Pat Shine has been relieved of his duties as manager of the Lumber Kings by their parent club, the Mariners.
The Kernels earned post-season spots the previous four years under manager Jake Mauer (who continued his personal run of managing playoff teams when his Chattanooga Lookouts club won their division’s Southern League first half title) and Watkins was pleased after the game Sunday to have his club continue that legacy.
“I had big shoes to fill with Jake Mauer leaving,” Watkins said.
The manager was also effusive in his praise for his players on Sunday. “It’s a great group of guys and just for them to come out and play like that in the first inning, it set the tone .I think a lot of it started with the game (Saturday) night.”
The Kernels are off for the MWL All-Star break until Thursday when the open the second half of the season at Quad Cities.
The half-way point is also when parent clubs traditionally make a number of roster moves, so the team that takes the field in the second half could be quite different than the club that earned the playoff spot,
Position players like Jermaine Palacios, Jaylin Davis and others could be deemed ready for promotion, as could a number of the pitchers on the staff.