The Cedar Rapids Kernels passed the midpoint of the first half of their 2015 season over the past weekend, making it an appropriate time to get manager Jake Mauer’s assessment of how their season is progressing.
There’s not a lot for the manager to complain loudly about, with his team vying for the second best record in the entire Midwest League. Then again, his guys have consistently remained several games behind Western Division leading Quad Cities in the standings, so there’s certainly room for improvement, too.
If the Kernels can maintain distance between themselves and the other Western Division challengers behind them, they’ll lock in a postseason spot as the Division’s first half runner-up, even if they can’t overtake Quad Cities by mid June.
In a conversation last weekend, Mauer quickly identified the primary reason for the Kernels’ success so far.
“Starting pitching has been good, for the most part,” Mauer said. “The bullpen’s been really good, for the most part and the defense has been good.”
It’s not a coincidence that those two aspects have led to wins on the scoreboard.
“It goes hand in hand,” Mauer explained. “The pitchers throw strikes and the boys get a chance to catch it. If (pitchers) don’t throw strikes and we’re standing for a while, when they do hit it, sometimes we’re not ready for it. It’s not an excuse but that’s what happens.
“Defense has been good, for the most part. We’re making the plays that we should and I think that’s the reason we’re pitching so well.”
Kernels shortstop Nick Gordon, the Twins’ first round draft pick a year ago, seconded his manager’s opinion on the value of the team’s defense this season.
“Pitchers like to throw strikes when they know they’ve got good defense behind them,” Gordon said on Saturday.
There’s one aspect of the pitching game that has surprised Mauer and it’s a component that defense has nothing to do with. More than half of the pitchers who have toed the rubber for the Kernels have averaged at least a strikeout for every inning pitched, led by reliever Cam Booser’s 1.75 strikeouts per inning.
“We’ve struck out a lot more guys than anticipated, which is probably a little bit of a surprise,” Mauer admitted. “We thought we’d have a couple of guys that would be able to strike guys out. Booser, obviously, and (Zach) Tillery, some of the guys that have some pretty good stuff. But for the most part, the pitching’s been what’s kept us going.”
He wouldn’t be a manager of young players if he couldn’t find room for improvement, of course.
“Still way too many walks,” Mauer said, concerning a few members of his staff. “We’re not taking that step forward, which is a little disappointing.”
Coincidence or not, since Mauer said those words, the Twins have sent several new pitchers to join the Kernels.
At least one case, of course, had nothing to do with a pitcher walking too many batters. Opening Day starting pitcher Mat Batts was rewarded for his strong work this spring with a promotion this week to Class high-A Fort Myers.
Pitching alone doesn’t win games, however. You need to score some runs, too, and the Kernels have outscored all but three teams in the Midwest League this year.
“The middle of our lineup is really starting to produce, which is huge,” Mauer observed, in regards to his lineup. “We’re starting to see some of the offensive guys hopefully get their legs underneath them and start going. We need some more contributions, especially from the bottom half of the order. I’d like to get our top half going again, but the middle’s been pretty good as of late.”
The “middle of the lineup” that Mauer referred to includes first baseman/outfielder Trey Vavra, who leads the Kernels in all three of the “Triple Crown” offensive categories, batting average (.353), home runs (6) and Runs Batted In (25), as well as almost every other offensive category that involves the use of his bat.
The Kernels haven’t faced any of the league’s Eastern Division teams yet, while seemingly matching up with the last two teams in the Western Division standings, Beloit and Wisconsin, at least every other week. Both of those clubs have younger rosters than many of their MWL competitors, including the Kernels.
That may have something to do with their early success, the manager will admit, but he’s not stepping up to volunteer to give back any of the wins against those teams, either.
“We’ve feasted on some of the pitchers we’ve needed to feast on, there’s no doubt about it,” Mauer observed. “We’re supposed to do that.”
But the manager doesn’t feel his guys have been bad against the better pitching they’ve faced, either.
“What we’re looking for is just a little more consistent approach at the plate.”
Gordon summed up the approach that he and his teammates are taking as they enter the final weeks of the season’s first-half.
“Our goal is to win so we’re out to compete and give our best,” the shortstop offered. “As for me, it’s been a learning experience for me to come out here and play against great competition every single night. You’ve got to make adjustments, you’ve got to learn. I feel as a team, we’re doing a pretty good job of that.”