Kernels in a Dogfight for MWL Postseason Spot

In mid-June, after a brutal first half to their Midwest League season, the Cedar Rapids Kernels limped in to the MWL’s All-Star break with a 31-39 record, not only 14 games behind Western Division leader Kane County, but also 7.5 games behind the Burlington Bees.

The latter is important because, in the world of Class A minor league baseball, seasons are split in to two halves, with the first and second place teams in each division, each half-season, earning berths in the postseason playoff series.

Kane County and Burlington snatched the MWL West spots in the first half, leaving Cedar Rapids, Quad Cities, Clinton, Beloit, Peoria and Wisconsin to slug it out in the second half for two more spots, with each team starting with fresh 0-0 records on June 19.

With Peoria, Wisconsin and Quad Cities all assembling winning records in the first half, it was logical to assume that those three teams would contend for the Western Division’s two second-half playoff spots – and they have been doing just that.

Entering Wednesday, Peoria and Quad Cities were tied for second place in the Division’s second-half standings, trailing Kane County by just one game, and Wisconsin is two games back.

Clinton and Beloit have repeated their first-half fortunes, each at least 11 games under .500 and filling the final two spots in the standings, as they did in the first half.

And then there’s the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Rather stealthily, manager Jake Mauer’s Kernels have turned around what, as recently as three weeks ago, looked likely to become a lost season.

There weren't a lot of reasons for Kernels manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga to smile in the season's first half, but that's changing.

There weren’t a lot of reasons for Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and manager Jake Mauer to smile in the season’s first half, but that’s changing.

The Kernels lost four of their first five series to begin the second-half schedule and had compiled just a 6-11 second-half record through July 6.

They haven’t lost a series since.

Cedar Rapids has taken six consecutive series, against six different clubs, while putting together a 15-5 record in that time and launching themselves in to a second place tie with Peoria and Quad Cities, just one game behind Division leader Kane County in the MWL’s Western Division standings.

Since the Cougars and the Burlington Bees locked in their postseason spots in the first half, it doesn’t matter where they finish in the second-half standings so, from a practical standpoint, Cedar Rapids was tied entering Wednesday, with Quad Cities and Clinton, for the top available playoff spot, with Wisconsin trailing that group by one game.

The Kernels will face those three rivals 12 times in August and nine of those games will be on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids, where the Kernels have accumulated an 11-5 home record in the season’s second half.

How have the Kernels propelled themselves in to a four-team dogfight for playoff spots entering the final month of the regular season? And can they keep it up?

The answer to the first question is pretty clear when you look at the numbers and there is no way to know the answer to the second.

In the first three series of their current six series winning streak, Cedar Rapids essentially bludgeoned the opposition. In those ten games, they scored 6.7 runs per game. It’s a good thing, too, because their pitching was allowing 4.2 runs per game.

The offense stepped up in those series, but since then, things have taken a pretty dramatic turn.

In the nine games covering the last three series of this stretch, the results have come from pitching. While Kernels hitters were averaging just 3.9 runs per game, themselves, the pitching was giving up only two runs per game.

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

Digging deeper, it’s tough to find much in the offensive statistics that indicate a significant turnaround.

About half the club’s current position players hit a bit better in July than they had been hitting and about half had fallen off a notch, perhaps.

Catcher/DH Michael Quesada appears to have found his stroke and is hitting .270 in July, with a pair of home runs, after a dreadful June in which he managed just .150 with no extra-base hits.

Fellow catcher (turned primary right fielder) Alex Swim is hitting .364 in July after posting a .267 mark in June.

Alex Swim

Alex Swim

But a number of their teammates, including Mitch Garver and Chad Christensen, who have been among the team’s offensive leaders all season, have seen some of their numbers fade slightly in July, too, so it’s hard to credit this turnaround strictly to the offense.

Perhaps the most important contribution the offense has made has been its consistency.

Before Tuesday’s game with the Burlington Bees, Mauer emphasized the importance of that consistency.

“Knock on wood, we’ve had a steady core group,” Mauer said. “Obviously, (Jason) Kanzler was (promoted), but we’ve had that set core group for about four weeks.

“Position player wise, we haven’t really changed much. It’s pretty much the same group of guys other than Swim and Wade playing a bigger part. Christensen, Garver, Haar, 3-4-5, have been that way since about May.”

The pitching side of the ledger tells a slightly different story, however.

As the Kernels’ manager observed, “The starting pitching’s been good, bullpen’s been outstanding.”

Indeed.

Of the ten pitchers currently on the Kernels roster who made appearances in June and July for Cedar Rapids, nine dropped his ERA in July, as compared to June.

The tenth, reliever Dallas Gallant, couldn’t cut his. He had a 0.00 ERA in his three June appearances and has exactly the same 0.00 ERA through eight trips to the mound in July.

Fellow bullpen arm Jake Reed also has a perfect 0.00 ERA in his six appearances in July after posting a 4.50 mark in June.

Chris Mazza hasn’t been that perfect in relief. His July ERA is 0.69. It was 2.25 in June.

Jared Wilson has slashed his ERA from 4.60 in June to 1.84 in July.

Hudson Boyd did the same. He had a 10.00 in June and a 1.13 in July. (Boyd, however, was suspended on Tuesday for an unspecified period of time for violating team rules.)

The sharpest drop, however, has to be Nick Burdi, the Twins’ second round draft pick in June of this year. How can you beat a drop from infinity to 2.25?

Burdi made one infamous appearance upon joining the Kernels at the end of June in which he walked all four batters he faced and all four came around to score. In July, he has allowed just a pair of earned runs. He has also struck out 16 batters in his eight July innings, while walking just three.

The rotation arms are getting in to the act, as well.

Aaron Slegers, who leads the Kernels with 113.1 innings pitched this season, struggled in June to a 7.97 ERA in four starts. It sits at 1.96 through six starts in July.

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers

18 year old Lewis Thorpe posted a 6.50 ERA in his four June starts, but he’s cut that to 3.51 in his six starts this month.

Kohl Stewart, Minnesota’s top draft pick in 2013, had an ERA of 2.16 in June. That’s pretty good. In fact, it was better than Stewart posted in April or May. But he’s bettered that in July, posting at 1.32.

Stewart, unfortunately, finds himself on the 7-day Disabled List at the moment, with a sore shoulder.

His replacement in the rotation is Stephen Gonsalves, freshly arrived from the Twins’ Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton.

Gonsalves has made just one appearance for the Kernels since arriving, but the lefty threw six shutout innings against Dayton on Sunday.

Chih-Wei Hu, the 20 year old from Taiwan, wasn’t with the Kernels in June, but he’s posted a 1.50 ERA in four July starts for Cedar Rapids.

Chih-Wei Hu

Chih-Wei Hu

Earned Run Average is not the only important pitching statistic. Arguably, it’s not even the most important, especially among relief pitchers.

But when your entire pitching staff is slashing their ERA from one month to the next, that’s a sign that good things are happening for your team.

The Kernels have put themselves in to contention for postseason play, but they’re going to need to overcome some challenges over the final month to earn one of those final MWL playoff spots.

They may need Stewart to come back from his DL stint healthy and effective.

They lost their center fielder, Jason Kanzler, who was contributing with his bat and his glove, to promotion this week. He has been replaced by Max Murphy, who was tearing up the Appy League to the tune of a .371 batting average and nine home runs.

Murphy, however, got off to an inauspicious start, going 0-4 with three strikeouts and a walk in his Kernels debut on Tuesday.

The Twins’ high-A affiliate in Fort Myers is already postseason-bound, having clinched a spot in the first half of their Florida State League season. There’s certainly no assurance the Twins won’t tab more Kernels for promotion to aide the Miracle’s own playoff preparations. In fact, with the way some of the players in Cedar Rapids are performing this month, you can probably count on it.

However, right at this moment, the Kernels are in serious contention for the postseason and that’s not something many fans would have envisioned just three weeks ago.

Few Silver Linings for Kernels

June has not been kind to the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

As a team, they’ve lost a dozen games this month and won just six. The first half of the season mercifully drew to a close a week ago, but the Kernels started off their second half season by dropping three of four road games to the Midwest League’s Western Division champions, the Kane County Cougars.

Silver linings are a little difficult to come by for a team that most people expected to be led by their pitching when the season opened, only to find themselves with the 15th ranked team ERA (4.83) in the 16-team Midwest League.

There are a handful of bright spots as the Kernels begin the race for a postseason spot that would come with finishing as one of the top two teams in the MWL Western Division among the six teams that have not already qualified for postseason play.

The brightest of those bright spots might be catcher Mitch Garver. So far in June, Garver is batting .364, has an on-base percentage of .500 and an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of 1.045.

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

According to TwinsDaily.com’s Seth Stohs, heading in to this week’s series in Peoria, Garver is among the Twins minor league organizational leaders in batting average (2nd), on-base percentage (1st), slugging percentage (3rd), OPS (2nd) and home runs (tied for 4th with teammate Bryan Haar).

Cedar Rapids native Chad Christensen has also shown he can handle Class A work. He is hitting .323 in June and has a .963 OPS. He’s had eight extra-base hits in the month, including four home runs.

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

Christensen’s .299 batting average ties him for fourth among all Twins minor leaguers.

But Garver and Christensen can’t win games by themselves. Most of the rest of the Kernels’ batting order have seen their hitting numbers drop considerably in June.

The Kernels could get some offensive help as some of the hitters that have been idled by injuries begin to return.

That process has begun already as outfielder J.D. Williams was activated from the Disabled List on Tuesday.

Zach Larson, Logan Wade and Jeremias Pineda remain on the club’s DL for now. Larson, in particular, could provide an offensive boost if he can get healthy and return to a level of productivity he demonstrated in April when he hit .307 for the Kernels.

Unless you’re a fan who worships gaudy strikeout numbers for pitchers, there has been nothing to complain about in starting pitcher Kohl Stewart’s performance thus far.

Kohl Stewart

Kohl Stewart

Stewart’s 2.44 ERA on the season would be good enough for fourth best in the league if he had enough innings to qualify (he’s one inning short, which should be more than met in his next scheduled start on Wednesday).

Stewart has continued to lead the rotation with a 1.13 ERA in three June starts, with batters putting up just a .236 batting average against him this month.

To find anything else resembling “bright” among the Cedar Rapids pitching corps, it’s necessary to turn to the bullpen, which has had its own share of ups and downs through the first half of the season.

Todd Van Steensel perhaps represents the best of the “ups” for the bullpen corps recently.

Todd Van Steensel

Todd Van Steensel

Van Steensel has put up a 1.67 ERA since joining the Kernels at the end of April. He has struck out 35 batters in 27 innings of work and opponents are hitting just .179 off the right hander.

Alex Muren has been among the team’s most consistent bullpen arms, assembling a 3.43 ERA on the year and a similar 3.48 ERA so far in June.

This month, hitters are batting just .171 against Muren. He’s thrown 10.1 innings in five June appearances. All four runs surrendered this month came in one forgettable appearance on June 15.

Alex Muren

Alex Muren

Brandon Bixler had two good months in April and May, but has been less consistent in June. He has a 3.13 ERA on the year and hitters have just a .201 batting average against him. He’s struck out 39 batters in 40.1 innings.

Jared Wilson’s year has been similar to Bixler’s. Since joining the Kernels in mid May, Wilson has put up a 2.49 ERA and a .197 BAA (batting average against), while striking out over one batter per inning pitched. He’s been somewhat inconsistent in June, with three outings where he was almost unhittable and three others where he gave up almost an earned run per inning.

The Kernels bullpen could be in for a boost, however.

On Tuesday, the Twins announced that they had signed Nick Burdi, their second round pick in the 2014 draft, and that Burdi will be joining Cedar Rapids on Friday.

Burdi, the closer for a University of Louisville squad that qualified for the College World Series, reportedly throws in the 96-98 mph range and is capable of regularly topping 100 mph with his fastball.

Expectations for the Kernels coming in to the season were modest, but a seventh place finish in the MWL Western Division first-half standings was a disappointment.

Garver and Christensen will need some of their teammates to step up their games and the Kernels rotation will need to start contributing more than three or four innings of solid pitching on a regular basis if the team expects to contend for a postseason berth in the second half of the year.

- JC

A Kernels Day in Photos

I’m traveling for work the first half of this week, so I won’t really have an opportunity to write a regular weekly update on the Cedar Rapids Kernels. Perhaps it’s just as well, though, because the Twins’ Midwest League affiliate did not have a real good week.

The Kernels dropped from the second spot in the MWL Western Division standings all the way to the cellar, as they endured an eight-game losing streak.

That losing streak ended Sunday in Burlington, however. Cedar Rapids topped the Bees 7-6. As a bonus, the win lifted the Kernels out of the MWL West basement.

Since I don’t have anything exciting to write about this week, I thought the least I could do is provide a few pictures of the game on Sunday. I had hoped to take more, but it turns out there are very few spots where you can take pictures at the Burlington ballpark that aren’t behind netting.

Some of the photos are a bit blurry. I hoped they just looked blurry on Sunday because I was having a few beers at the game, but no, they’re still a little blurry.

3B Bryan Haar and SP Ethan Mildren

3B Bryan Haar and SP Ethan Mildren

Manager Jake Mauer coaching 3B in the first inning. That's something he would not be doing by the 9th inning, however.

Manager Jake Mauer coaching 3B in the first inning. That’s something he would not be doing by the end of the game, however. Mauer was ejected in the 7th inning following a heated discussion with the umpires over a balk call.

Leadoff hitter JD Williams

Leadoff hitter JD Williams

Tanner Vavra pulling in to 2B with a double

Tanner Vavra pulling in to 2B with a double

Tanner Vavra chats with manager Jake Mauer. Vavra would ultimately be stranded at 3B.

Tanner Vavra chats with manager Jake Mauer. Vavra would ultimately be stranded at 3B.

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

Ivory Thomas

Ivory Thomas

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

Joel Licon

Joel Licon

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Bo Altobelli

Bo Altobelli

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

Ethan Mildren

Ethan Mildren

Tommy Watkins took over 3B coaching duties following Mauer's ejection.

Tommy Watkins took over 3B coaching duties following Mauer’s ejection. Two runs scored in the 9th inning with Watkins and his bubble gum in charge.

Tommy Watkins gets a close-up look as Chad Christensen tags up and scores on a sac fly for the Kernels' final run.

Tommy Watkins gets a close-up look as Chad Christensen tags up and scores on a sac fly for the Kernels’ final run.

 

Getting to Know the Kernels’ Bryan Haar

The Cedar Rapids Kernels sported a 9-7 record as they departed for Peoria Monday for the first of seven road games before returning to Veterans Memorial Stadium on Monday, April 28. They enter the week just two games behind Kane County in the Midwest League’s Western Division standings.

One reason for the success they’ve had thus far has been a power surge in the heart of their batting order.

The Kernels lead the MWL in slugging percentage entering this week’s games largely due to power generated by catcher Mitch Garver and infielder Bryan Haar. Garver leads the league in home runs, with five, and Haar is right on his heals with four round-trippers.

Over the weekend, Haar shared his perspectives on the start to the season that he and his team mates have had, as well as some thoughts about his own experiences moving from college ball, through two levels of Rookie level professional baseball and on to his first month with the Class A level Kernels.

Though Garver and Haar have provided much of the power early on for Cedar Rapids, Haar insists that their offensive success has been a team effort.

“When our team got hot and went on a little winning streak, I think we were all hitting pretty well so that helps,” said Haar. “Hitting is contagious. So I think we all contributed to the good start.”

While the Kernels have kept their record above .500, they haven’t exactly had it easy thus far.

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Haar and many of his team mates have spent their lives playing ball in far warmer climates. Several of the Kernels’ games have been played with temperatures in the 30s and 40s, so they were glad to see things warm up a bit over the past weekend.

“Anything above 50 right now is good for us,” Haar said with a smile on Saturday. “If it’s not 35 and raining, we’re happy.”

You won’t yet find Haar’s name on many of the organizational “top prospect” lists published during the offseason, but the 24 year-old from San Diego is showing power that’s been largely missing to this point in his professional career.

Haar was drafted by the Twins in the 34th round of the 2012 MLB June Amateur Draft, following his senior year at the University of San Diego.

He hit only one home run in 44 games with the Gulf Coast League Twins in 2012 after signing with the Twins and went deep just six times in 60 games with the Twins’ short-season Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton last season.

Haar said it took some time for him to adjust from college pitchers, who generally threw a mix of pitches, to lower levels of professional ball, where he faced a lot of strong young arms who were looking to impress.

“In GCL that first summer, it was just fastballs all day,” recalled Haar. “I actually struggled a little bit because I forgot how to hit a fastball. It was new to me. They were blowing it by me.”

He had to continue working on being able to catch up with the heat a year ago in Elizabethton.

“In E’town, it was rookie ball, so there were a lot of 18 year old pitchers out of high school that maybe thought they threw 95 and really threw 91-92, trying to throw fastballs by me. I got more fastballs then. Jeff Reed (hitting coach at Elizabethton) is a great hitting coach, so he helped me out a lot.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean the pitching he faced in college was superior to what he saw his first two years in the pros, though.

“I’d say not better, but more command of their sliders,” Haar explained. “In E’town it was sliders in the dirt, sliders in the dirt. They never flipped one over for a strike. In college, it was slider for a strike, slider for a strike, now you’re down 0-2. But now (in the MWL), it’s more college guys so I’ve got to readjust to college pitching, I guess.”

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Haar knows he’s largely been feasting on fastballs this season and said he already sees pitchers making adjustments.

“The first game of a series, usually I get some fastballs to hit. If I hit them well, then the next two or three games I get sliders and change-ups and curveballs. Just making that adjustment has been a little harder than I would have thought, but I’ve got to hit the fastball when I get it.”

Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins has been working with Haar to keep a step ahead of the adjustments the pitchers are making.

“They’re throwing me off-speed a lot, so I’ve got to start adjusting my swing a little bit towards that,” Haar said. “Tommy and I have been working on that the past couple of days. Not really trying to strike out less, but just put more balls in play hard.

“I’ve hit two home runs off sliders, but I think they were the only hits I’ve had off sliders. We were working on that (Saturday), just kind of letting the ball get a little deeper, seeing it deeper.”

At 24, Haar is a bit older than the average MWL position player, but he’s not feeling any extra anxiety about trying to advance quicker up the Twins organizational ladder because of that.

“I don’t really worry about that. I’m just having a good time in Low-A with my friends,” he said. ”I got drafted in 2012 and pretty much all the guys here were drafted in the 2012 draft, so it’s nice to move up with them, in a sense. I’m just letting my play speak for itself and doing what I can here.”

That includes being versatile in the field. Haar has played both corner infield positions for the Kernels already and that’s fine with him. Haar said he’d play anywhere, “as long as I’m in the lineup.”

Haar played some football and basketball in high school and said his interests include, “pretty much every sport with a ball.” But as a Southern Californian, his interests outside of baseball go beyond what local fans might consider the norm.

“I’m from San Diego, so I surf whenever I can. Usually in September I take some time off from baseball and I go surf. But when I get back in to workouts, I don’t have much time for that.”

There’s obviously neither time nor opportunity for surfing during the season, so Haar is looking for other things to do with his limited down time.

“I do enjoy fishing, so since we’re in Iowa, I’d like to get out and fish a little bit, but it’s tough. Getting back from a long road trip, you want to sleep in, and then you’re at the field.”

Of course, there’s always the standard fallback option for ballplayers: video games.

Haar and team mates Garver and Zach Larson, who live in close proximity to one another this season, “have a little FIFA battle on the X-Box. We’re on that quite a bit.”

Who Are These Guys?

The people who pay attention to such things during professional baseball’s offseason were pretty much in agreement in their expectations for this team coming out of spring training in Fort Myers.

The starting pitching should be quite improved, perhaps the best it has been in a few years. The bullpen should once again be sound. But when the topic turned to the offense, one question was nearly universal, “Where will the runs come from?”

Now, roughly two weeks in to the 2014 season, there have been a couple of surprises. First, the supposed much improved rotation was a little slow getting out of the gate, but now we’re seeing results that look much closer to what we had hoped we would see from some of the starting pitchers.

But the offense is not what was expected. Instead of struggling to score runs consistently, we’re seeing an offense that sits at or near the top of several offensive statistics. Granted, the season is still young, but the rate at which the team is scoring runs is certainly encouraging.

All of which begs the question, “Who are these guys?”

Coincidental or not, that question could be answered in either of two ways and both would be accurate.

We could certainly be talking about the Minnesota Twins, who came through the past weekend’s series sweep of their American League Central Division rival Kansas City Royals averaging 5.6 runs per game, good for a third place tie in all of Major League Baseball. All three of their starting pitchers in the Royals series chalked up quality starts (at least six innings, giving up three runs or less).

But we could equally be describing the Twins’ Class A Midwest League affiliate, the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

The Kernels are expected to have one of the top rotations in minor league baseball this season, staffed with several of the organization’s top prospects, including the Twins’ first and second round draft picks a year ago, Kohl Stewart and Ryan Eades, among others.

The Kernels’ pitching certainly has been showing glimpses of their talent and arguably have done a better job of living up to their pre-season expectations than their counterparts with the parent Twins.

Hudson Boyd

Hudson Boyd

Through Tuesday’s games, relievers Brandon Bixler, Josue Montanez, Brandon Peterson and Hudson Boyd have each averaged at least a strikeout per inning pitched and have given up just four earned runs combined, between the four of them.

After struggling a little bit during the season’s chilly opening series at home, the rotation started to find their groove during last week’s eastern road trip, as well. Aaron Slegers has just a 1-0 record to show for his efforts, but he’s racked up 14 strikeouts in just 16 innings of work, while walking only a single batter.

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga indicated Monday night that he was pleased with the work his starting pitching corps did during their recent 5-1 road trip.

“This early in the season, you hope they give a good effort every night, which they did,” Arteaga said of his rotation arms. “They pretty much took us where we wanted them to take us.”

Arteaga added, “We have a pitch limit, everybody knows that. It’s a team effort. The relievers are giving us a chance every night, we can’t ask for more than that. The bullpen’s doing a great job.”

That swing out east last week also seemed to wake up some of the Kernels’ bats, a fact not lost on hitting coach Tommy Watkins who, while praising catcher Mitch Garver for an outstanding road trip, also saw progress from others.

“It was different guys every night,” said Watkins. “The hitters did a good job having quality at-bats. The main thing is they had a pretty decent approach and they stuck to it.”

That approach is showing up in the offensive statistics.

After Tuesday’s game, the Kernels were second in the MWL in runs scored (60) and at the top of the league in both slugging percentage (.442) and OPS (.777).

Cedar Rapids hitters have notched 11 home runs, tying them for the MWL lead with Lake County and Wisconsin. They also rank fourth in the league in doubles (23) and sit atop the MWL list in triples (8).

The power surge wasn’t something that Kernels manager Jake Mauer expected to see at this point.

“That (the home runs) has been a surprise,” Mauer said Monday night. “We know Garver and (Bryan) Haar have some pop, without a doubt, but I’d say the frequency that they’ve hit them, to this point, has been surprising. But they’ve also had some pretty good at-bats with runners in scoring position and we’ve been able to keep that carousel moving. We were a little concerned early that we’d only be able to score one run (at a time), but we’ve found a way to score multiple runs and that’s encouraging.”

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

Garver, the Twins’ 9th round draft pick a year ago, has accounted for nine of the team’s extra-base hits. He has three doubles, a triple and is leading the MWL in home runs with five. The combination has lifted his slugging percentage to a league leading .825 and his OPS to 1.254, good enough for second highest in the league.

Garver and Haar also lead the Kernels with 10 RBI each.

As Watkins pointed out, however, the offensive contributions haven’t been limited to just a couple of guys.

Outfielder Zach Larson’s six doubles have him tied for the MWL lead in that category and, while seeing action in just seven of the Kernels’ 12 games, through Tuesday, infielder Tanner Vavra has made the most of his opportunities to get to the plate and leads the club with a .360 batting average, just a single point above Haar’s .359.

After Monday’s come-from-behind win over South Bend, Mauer summarized his team’s efforts thus far. “The pitching has been really good, really good. The defense, for the most part, has been pretty good. We’ve gotten some big hits. We’re proud of the boys. They really don’t give up.”

Mauer credits the work the hitters have been doing with their hitting coach for their offensive progress early in the year.

“I think that’s what Tommy Watkins has been doing with these guys, just learning how to trust their hands and try see the ball a little bit. He’s got a pretty good plan that I think the boys are starting to buy in to. Overall, the quality of the at-bats has been much better,” Mauer said on Monday.

The season is young and less than 10% of the Kernels’ regular season games are behind them, but if early hitting trends can be maintained and their pitching turns out to be as improved as it was expected to be, this Cedar Rapids club could turn out to be quite competitive.

Of course, you could perhaps say something similar about the Minnesota Twins.

- JC

Meet the Kernels’ Catchers

The Cedar Rapids Kernels opened their 2014 season with a split of their four-game series with the Clinton Lumber Kings. The weather over the weekend was tolerable, with highs in the mid 50s to around 60 degrees, but Thursday’s Opening Night was far from delightful, with temperatures in the 30s and occasional rain. On Friday, the weather forced the season’s first postponement.

On Monday, the team boarded their bus for their first road trip. They’ll play six games in Michigan before returning Monday, April 13.

Before they left town with their team mates, the Kernels’ three-man catching corps sat down for an interview.

Kernels catching corps, from left to right: Bo Altobelli, Michael Quesada and Mitch Garver

Kernels catching corps, from left to right: Bo Altobelli, Michael Quesada and Mitch Garver

Bo Altobelli, Michael Quesada and Mitch Garver have several things in common. They are similar in age and each played some college baseball before starting their professional careers with the Twins.

In addition, each of the three hails from areas of the country that you would assume allows baseball to be played in more moderate weather than what welcomed them to Cedar Rapids last week. Altobelli’s from Texas, Quesada went to school in California and Garver in New Mexico.

They were asked over the weekend if they had any prior experience playing ball in conditions comparable to what they faced in their first week of Midwest League play this season.

Bo Altobelli: It’s a little different, especially coming from Florida up here, so that’s the major change. But it does get cold in Texas. We have played games in sleet and snow before, so I’m a little bit used to it. Of course, you prefer the Florida weather, which hopefully will come here soon.

Michael Quesada: Being from California, this is as cold as I’ve had to play in, but it’s a learning experience. You go up and down the (organizational) ladder, there’s cold places.

Minnesota, for example. You’re not going to complain when you’re up there, are you? You might as well get used to it now.

We’re not the only ones who are cold, everyone else is cold, too. So it’s something you’ve got to work through it and experiment with ways to stay warm.

Mitch Garver: It’’s very similar (in New Mexico). We get a lot of wind. We don’t get a lot of moisture. There’s no snow and sleet and rain, but when it does rain, there’s always going to be wind to accompany it. So the cold is familiar, but you can never really get used to it.  You’re always going to be playing in cold, so the first few months of the season, there’s an adjustment.

A year ago, Garver was finishing up his college career at New Mexico. He was asked what differences he’s noticed as he enters his first year of full season professional baseball.

Garver: It’s just different doing this every day. You have to learn how to maintain your body and how you prepare each day is based off how you feel. If you’re feeling a little down one day, you might have to do something a little bit extra to get going.

It’s different from college because really baseball is the only thing you have to worry about. You have to worry about keeping your body in shape, showing up to the field on time, doing what you’ve got to do to prepare.

Whereas in college, you had to take care of your social life, your emotional life, your school work and other factors that go in to it. It’s a more independent way of living and the competition obviously is better.

So does that mean you have no social life or anything like that when you’re playing professional baseball?

Garver: You’ve really got to balance things. In pro baseball, your social life is within the team. It’s kind of who you hang out with 24/7.

Both Quesada and Altobelli spent time in Cedar Rapids a season ago. They were asked whether they were adjusting their approaches this year as they return to open the season with the Kernels, but clearly hope to be getting considered for possible promotions to the next level.

Quesada: My adjustment is not worrying about it. I think I worried too much last year, putting pressure on myself with what to do. It’s a marathon, like Mitch said, it’s every day. I think I played pitch by pitch every day like it was my last pitch and I think you have to pace yourself a little bit.

That’s the adjustment I’m making this year is pacing myself throughout the year. I understand it’s 140-some odd games, plus spring training. I’m treating my body a little differently, adjusting that way.

That’s really the difference that I feel. After my first full season, I caught a lot last year and this year I’m trying to treat it as a marathon and not a sprint.

Altobelli: Similar to what they said, you can’t worry about it because the moment you think you’ve got it figured out, you’ll find out you’ve got no idea what’s going on as far as what they think you’re going to do and what you think yourself you’re going to do.

So you can’t think about it. You’ve just got to go out there and play. Play how you want to play and the rest will take care of itself.

If the team wins, everyone’s going to be happy and, more likely, people will move up if you win. So just focus on winning and the rest will take care of itself.

The Kernels roster includes 13 pitchers, leaving room for just 12 position players. Three of those spots are held by these catchers. That means Kernels manager Jake Mauer has to ration out innings behind the plate among the three backstops. They were asked how it works out, splitting time among the three of them.

Altobelli: Every year of pro ball, we’ve had three catchers where I’m at, so it’s nothing new to me. But being here, we know Jake’s going to help us out the best that he can, DHing us, maybe getting time at first base, who knows.

You’ve got to try and stay focused, take some extra BP if you need it. At least we’re catching bullpens if we’re not playing, so the ball’s still coming at us. So we’re still getting that feel down. It’s definitely difficult, but Jake does a good job of getting us in there and trying to keep us in a routine so credit to him for keeping us up to date with what’s going on.

Quesada: All of that’s out of our control. It’s up to Jake and the organization. It’s not anything we have any power over. All we can do is go out and play the best we can. If they’re going to play us more, then they do. Jake, as Bo said, does a really good job of finding ways to get us in there somehow. He’s not going to shortchange us.

Garver, on the other hand, was catching almost every game during his college season a year ago.

Garver: Yeah, that’s right. It’s a long season. It’s longer than most people might think. It’s my first full season, so I guess I probably don’t have a feel for it like these guys do, but 140 games is a long time and if you’re really only using one or two catchers, it’s going to break down toward the end of the year.

I think having three guys is going to be helpful. You can stay fresh. You can get some days off, get some at-bats at some different positions where you don’t normally play. It teaches you how to be a good baseball player. If you’re only playing one position, you’re not going to be as baseball savvy as you are if you can play multiple positions. They like to see how you can do at different positions and I think that’s a cool thing.