Kernels Youth Baseball Camp is a Hit

One of the things the Minnesota Twins and Cedar Rapids Kernels organizations have in common is an emphasis on community service and that commonality was on display Saturday morning on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids.

Jared Wilson and Michael Theofanopoulos working in the bullpen with young pitchers
Jared Wilson and Michael Theofanopoulos working in the bullpen with young pitchers

After playing a night game on Friday night, Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins and several Kernels players were back at the ballpark by 8:30 the next morning to conduct a Youth Baseball Camp for well over a hundred boys and girls.

There was a signup sheet in the Kernels’ clubhouse with nine lines on it for volunteers  to sign up to work the camp. Every line was filled and a couple additional players wrote their names in between the lines, giving Watkins a group of 11 ballplayers pitching in for the two-hour long camp, topped off with an autograph session.

Blake Schmit and Randy LeBlanc teaching campers proper fielding position
Blake Schmit and Randy LeBlanc teaching campers proper fielding position

Wandering around the field, it was really hard to tell who was having more fun, the kids or the players. Suffice to say there were a lot of smiles among the young players and the not-as-young.players.

With kids as young as five years old, there was a bit of a “herding kittens” aspect to some of the groups, but each of the six stations that the campers rotated between worked on specific aspects of the game of baseball.

Zach Tillery with instructions for campers on proper grip and form
Zach Tillery with instructions for campers on proper grip and form

In the indoor batting cage, pitcher Cameron Booser and first baseman/ outfielder Trey Vavra gave kids a chance to hit in the cage.

Out on the field, Catcher Brett Doe and pitcher John Curtiss worked with kids on coming off the mound to field bunts and throw toward first base.

Down in the Kernels’ bullpen, Michael Theofanopoulos and Jared Wilson were working with pitching fundamentals.

Cam Booser gets a "pinky promise" from a young camper
Cam Booser gets a “pinky promise” from a young camper

Out in right field, pitcher Zach Tillery was giving lessons on proper throwing technique.

In center field, infielder TJ White and pitcher Trevor Hildenberger were teaching kids how to go back on fly balls hit over their heads.

And over in left field, pitcher Randy LeBlanc and infielder Blake Schmit were teaching technique for fielding ground balls and making a throw.

While the kids were learning the game from Kernels players, some of the Kernels staff gave parents an opportunity to take a tour of the stadium, from the suite and pressbox level down through the clubhouse and batting cage level.

Many of those parents took the time afterward to thank Kernels staff and players for giving their kids this opportunity.

Kernels General Manager Scott Wilson was also appreciative of the time put in by Watkins and the players.

TJ White and Trevor Hildenberger working with a group of outfielders
TJ White and Trevor Hildenberger working with a group of outfielders

“You’ve got to think about, these guys played last night and get out of bed and be here by 8:30 to do this camp,” WIlson pointed out. “Then they’re probably going to go in the locker room, take a nap on the couch and then at 2:00 get back up and report for baseball and then do their jobs.”

The Kernels have a long tradition of community outreach and the camps are just one example. They also sponsor a summer reading program that involves Kernels players going out in to the elementary schools to read to kids and encourage them to read on their own over the summer.

Cam Booser and Trey Vavra talking baseball with campers in the indoor batting cage
Cam Booser and Trey Vavra talking baseball with campers in the indoor batting cage

The Youth Camp has long been a popular program

“I would say we’ve probably been doing this camp for about ten or twelve years,” Wilson said. “It’s gone through a lot of changes. We used to do a two-day camp that was four hours at a time – much more kind of intense. But with 137 participants that we had today, that’s hard to try to keep focus and attention spans.

Brett Doe and John Curtiss getting organized with some campers on the mound
Brett Doe and John Curtiss getting organized with some campers on the mound

“The way that Tommy runs it now, I love it, because everybody rotates to little different things.”

Nobody is going to become a big league ballplayer just by attending the Kernel’s two-hour camp, of course. But that’s not really the point.

The Kernels want to provide an enjoyable and affordable opportunity for some of the youngest fans in the local area to share a field with real professional ballplayers. Each camper also gets a Kernels cap and a voucher for a free ticket to a Kernels game, in addition to getting autographs from the players once the camp wraps up at the end of the morning.

Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins was directing things at the camp but pitched in with the workout stations, too
Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins was directing things at the camp but pitched in with the workout stations, too

“Although you might think that they’re not getting a lot of individual instruction, it’s an affordable $15 camp,” Wilson pointed out. “You’re getting a ball cap, you’re getting a ticket and they get to spend some time with some guys and see the drills that they do on a daily basis.

As Wilson went on to explain, it’s very possible that some of the young ballplayers have already had a chance to meet a few of these players.

Kernels players signing autographs after the camp wrapped up
Kernels players signing autographs after the camp wrapped up

“All of these (players) have been involved, too, in our schools program for us. These kids probably saw them at the reading program and now they get to shake their hand, get an autograph and play catch in their world with them, even if it’s just throwing the ball to them one time.”



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