Twenty games into their 2016 season, the Cedar Rapids Kernels find themselves right in the thick of the chase for the Midwest League’s Western Division first-half title race with an 11-9 record. They sit just one-half game behind Division co-leaders Kane County and Clinton.
The Kernels are a combined 4-7 against the front-running Cougars and Lumberkings.
If you look strictly at the club’s offensive numbers, you’d be hard pressed to figure out how the Kernels have managed to keep aloft in the standings. They’re batting just .229 as a team, which is better than just four other MWL clubs.
What’s been the secret? It’s no secret, really. It’s been all about the pitching, so far.
“Pitching and defense is what you preach and try to be the most consistent at,” explained Kernels manager Jake Mauer this week, adding, “hitting tends to be more volatile.”
Mauer, who will notch his 250th win as Kernels manager with the next Cedar Rapids victory, doesn’t have to reach any further for an example of what he’s referring to than the team’s recent weekend series in Clinton.
After being rained out on Thursday night, the Kernels dropped a 3-1 game on Friday, mustering just five hits.
On Saturday, the two clubs had a pair of seven-inning games scheduled to make up for the rainout, but game one ran 18 innings, with the Kernels falling 2-1. They were then shutout 3-0 in game two.
On Sunday, the bats woke up and the Kernels put a 9-0 thumping on the Lumberkings to salvage their lone win in the series, despite outscoring Clinton 11-10 across the four games (and 43 innings).
Consistent pitching and defense, volatile hitting.
“We haven’t clicked very well offensively,” Mauer admitted. “We had the big outburst opening night (12 runs on 15 hits against Quad Cities) and we scored nine the last day in Clinton, but really in between that, we really haven’t done too much.”
Ah, but the pitching, that’s a different story.
The Kernels opened the season with 15 players on their roster who saw time in Cedar Rapids last season and some of those guys are playing key roles on the mound.
Returning pitchers Randy LeBlanc and Sam Clay have led the rotation. LeBlanc has a 1.50 ERA and a WHIP of 0.83 through his four starts, while Clay’s put up a 0.53 ERA in his three starts. He has struck out 19 batters in 17 innings pitched.
Cody Stashak, who was promoted to Cedar Rapids a couple weeks ago, has made two starts, winning both games and notching a 1.13 ERA and a 0.75 WHIP.
The bullpen has been stellar, as well.
John Curtiss and CK Irby have each made six appearances this season and neither has allowed an earned run. Irby has struck out 10 in 9 2/3 innings of work, while Curtiss has averaged more than two strikeouts in every inning he’s worked, amassing 17 Ks in 8 innings. Nick Anderson has also struck out more than one hitter per inning out of the pen.
“LaBlanc’s a guy returning and Curtiss is a guy returning, they’ve both been outstanding,” Mauer observed. “We’ve gotten big innings from Irby. Anderson has done fine. Clay has been really good. He looks like a different animal than he was last year.”
Like LeBlanc, Curtiss, Anderson and Irby, Clay put in time with the Kernels in 2016. He posted a 0-3 record and allowed 1.86 runners to reach base for each inning he pitched for Cedar Rapids, resulting in a trip back to the Twins’ rookie-level club in Elizabethton.
“It’s a testament to what (Elizabethton pitching coach) Luis Ramirez did down there at Etown and that staff,” Mauer said, referring to Clay’s significant improvement. “It was the same with Felix Jorge a year ago. “For whatever reason they didn’t do so well here, they went down there and got right, came back and now they’re on their way.”
Curtiss spent time in the Kernels’ rotation last season, but suffered some shoulder issues. He was a reliever at the University of Texas and his return to the bullpen now appears to be permanent and Mauer thinks that could help the righthander move quickly up the organizational ladder.
“I think that’s the right call, keep him in the bullpen,” Mauer said. “He’s got a chance to be a pretty fast mover, I think. It can happen pretty fast for those college relief guys.
“(Irby) is another one that could move quick. Anderson, same situation. There’s three guys right there that, if they’re rested and we can set the game up the way we want, we like our chances with the lead going with those three guys.”
Of course, that involves a couple of pretty big “ifs.” It assumes you can generate enough offense to get an early lead and also that those arms will stay in Kernels uniforms for at least a while longer.
The parent Minnesota Twins have had some pitching issues already during the first month of their season, both in terms of injuries and ineffectiveness. That could lead to some early adjustments to pitching assignments, not only at the big league level, but also all the way through the system.
“We’re three weeks in, I’m sure there’s going to be some movement here, probably sooner than later,” Mauer said.
He can’t do anything about it if Twins Farm Director Brad Steil decides his pitchers should be promoted, so the manager’s focus is on getting wins any way he can.
“Pitching has been really our key and now we’re starting to play better infield defense, getting a little more settled in the infield. Hopefully we don’t have any more of those 18 inning games.
“We played 18 innings (in game 1 Saturday), then played seven more (in game 2), and only scored one run. That’s pretty frustrating, especially with all the opportunities we had, including runners at third with nobody out and one out. Guys let the moment get too big and try to do too much instead of just doing what they can. We’ve been a little better at that starting Sunday.”
Outfielder LaMonte Wade has been the most consistent offensive contributor, hitting .344 with six doubles, two triples and a home run. Unfortunately, Wade has been on the shelf for a few games while nursing a sore hamstring.
Chris Paul was batting .346 when he was promoted to the Fort Myers Miracle and infielder Luis Arraez has come on to hit .395 and put up an OPS of 1.083 in 11 games, doing most of his damage after Paul’s departure (he’s hit .483 in his last eight games).
“Arraez has been a shot in the arm for us,” his manager said. “He played in the big leagues down there in Venezuela in their winter league, so he’s not intimidated by anything that’s going on here, that’s for sure. He’s a hitter, really, He knows where the barrel is, works counts, not a strikeout guy, just puts together good at-bats.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the Kernels have seven players who currently are batting below the .200 mark.
“Really, it’s been LaMonte and Chris Paul, before he left, and Arraez that have been our only offense,” Mauer confirmed. “(Zander) Wiel looks like he’s starting to come around a bit, which is good. Get him going and then (Jermaine) Palacios had a better week last week, he’s hitting the ball better. We need to get some of these guys to get going here so we don’t have to rely on the pitchers.”
In the meantime, Mauer looks for things he can do to put his team in the best position to win a game, even when the crucial hits aren’t coming.
“We’re struggling a little bit when we’re in scoring position and we’ve got to get better at it,” he explained. “That’s why we played the infield in (Tuesday) in the fourth inning with nobody out. Runs are hard to come by for us. Same thing with Arraez trying to score (from third base) on a 180-foot fly ball. Kid made a good throw – we were kind of hoping that he would throw it away or something – try to force the issue a little bit. We’ve got to do things like that to try to create something. We don’t get many opportunities.”
Wade is expected to return to the Kernels lineup within the next day or two and the manager is hoping his return, along with some improvement among the others in his lineup, will help put a few more runs on the board.
If not, the manager is mindful that changes can be made.
“We left a couple college guys that are down there (in Extended Spring Training) that could probably help us. Sometimes you just need a break or a movement situation.”