The Midwest League All-Star Game is drawing near and this week three Cedar Rapids Kernels were named to the team, assuring that Kernels fans will have some familiar faces to cheer for when Cedar Rapids hosts the annual event on Tuesday, June 21.
Kernels starting pitcher Sam Clay, second baseman Luis Arraez and outfielder LaMonte May were all named as MWL All-Stars. Arraez and Wade were selected as starters for the West All-Stars by the league’s managers and Clay was named as a reserve.
Clay, a lefty starter from Buford, Georgia, by way of Georgia Tech, has put together a 4-2 record in the season’s first half to go with a 2.43 ERA over 10 starts.
19-year-old Arraez was signed by the Twins as an International Free Agent out of San Filipe, Venezuela. He has posted a .315 batting average, including 11 doubles, a triple and a pair of home runs. He’s also walked 17 times, fueling his .380 on-base percentage.
Wade is a former Maryland Terrapin from Baltimore who has consistently hit above .300 all year and currently sits at .318. He also has six doubles, three triples and four home runs, which have contributed to his .891 OPS. He has also put up a 38/22 walk/K ratio, assembling a .438 OBP.
You might have thought that, with the Kernels holding a thin lead atop the Western Division standings, more of their players would have earned All-Star roster spots, but the recent promotions of starting pitcher Randy LeBlanc and closer Nick Anderson likely reduced the number of players the local club put on the team.
(LeBlanc, by the way, was named by the league as its MWL Player of the Month for the month of May, during which the righthander notched a 0.24 ERA and a 4-0 record over five starts before being promoted to Ft. Myers.)
In addition, players named to the All-Star squad two weeks before the game is played often turn out to not be available to play, due to injury or promotion, by the time the game is played. It’s not uncommon for players from the host team to be named as replacements for such players, so the Kernels could still see additional local favorites named to the West squad.
Regardless of whether additional Kernels players are ultimately named to the team, there will be no shortage of Cedar Rapids uniforms on the field and in the home team dugout as manager Jake Mauer and coaches Brian Dinkelman & JP Martinez will be coaching the West squad.
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.”
The Minnesota Twins and their full season minor league affiliates announced those affiliates’ initial rosters on Sunday and Monday this week and the one thing that stood out about almost every roster was the number of players returning to the same level where they finished their respective 2015 campaigns.
The Cedar Rapids Kernels initial roster, for example, includes 16 players that also wore Kernels uniforms last season and many of them performed quite well in the Class A Midwest League – well enough that, in most years, they’d have been promoted this spring and challenged to prove themselves at the next level.
But this isn’t most years, not in the Twins organization, anyway.
The Big League club came to spring training with few roster spots to fill. The clear strategy to fill the few spots they did have – primarily back up spots in the outfield and at catcher, along with left handed bullpen arms – was to sign a number of potential candidates to minor league contracts with invitations to the Twins’ Major League spring training, allow them to compete with whatever internal options might be candidates and open the season with whoever makes the best impression in camp.
Not surprisingly, that left the Twins with a large number of extra minor leaguers left over after the big club’s Opening Day 25-man roster was announced.
As a result, the Triple-A affiliate Rochester Red Wings will start the season with a roster that includes, by my count, about 10 guys who were not members of the Twins’ organization at the end of the 2015 season and the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts have maybe five more. Most of these newcomers were signed in the offseason as minor league free agents, but that isn’t the case with all of them. (Dan Palka, for example, was acquired via offseason trade.)
The result was inevitable.
Minor league baseball is a numbers game and it’s not all that difficult to figure out how it works for all but the hottest of an organization’s best prospects.
If you’re a minor league player at the low levels of the organization, you get a couple of years to figure out the game in short-season rookie ball and, if you show some level of competency or promise of competency, you move up to Class A, the first level of full-season professional baseball.
From that point on, each year, one of three things happens: The club determines that you’ve reached the level of competition at which you cannot compete and you’re released; you don’t put up stellar numbers, but you show enough promise that the club isn’t going to give up on you, so they send you back to the same level to start the next season; or you perform well enough for the club to want to see how you handle the challenge of the next level of competition and therefore get promoted to that next level.
Of course, there are always exceptions and nuances. Players may get a mid-season or late-season promotion to a new level and then start the following year at the same level or may suffer an injury that results in a need to repeat a level. That’s why, typically, a community like Cedar Rapids will see a handful of familiar faces each spring when the new batch of Kernels arrives.
You don’t see 16 familiar faces, though.
It’s a safe bet that, among that 16, there are some players that feel pretty strongly that they did enough for the Kernels a year ago that they should be busing around the Sunshine State with the Fort Myers Miracle this month rather than wearing parkas in the Kernels’ dugout. And they’re right, they should be.
And I’m sure there are a similar numbers of guys in Fort Myers that think they should be in Chattanooga.
It’s pretty clear, from comments made by Kernels manager Jake Mauer and some of his players this week, that this is a subject that Mauer has addressed with his team.
“I’m not going to lie to you. There are a number of guys in our clubhouse that should probably be up, that either pitched or hit their way out of this league. But because of strength of organization, they are here. You try to convey to them that ‘You are here, don’t feel bad. You’ve got to go after it, you’ve got to put up numbers.’”
The trio of players – pitchers Randy LeBlanc and Sam Gibbons, along with infielder Chris Paul – that were fed to local media for a group interview on “Meet the Kernels” Night on Tuesday were asked by Johnson about the level of disappointment that players who played well for the Kernels last season were having to start this year back in Cedar Rapids.
LeBlanc, who has drawn the Opening Day start this week for the Kernels, was frank, but responded well.
“I’m not going to beat around the bush, it was pretty disappointing at first,” LeBlanc conceded. “Jake’s been kind of pounding into our head, since the rosters have been set, that you can’t go into it bitter. You’ve got to just play your way out of here. Just stay positive, just be happy you made a roster, stuff like that. I definitely think (several) of us did pretty well last year, but just go out there and do our best and see what happens.”
Gibbons then added, “As long as we’ve got a jersey, we’ve got an opportunity.”
Unlike LeBlanc and Gibbons, Paul was a relative late-comer to the Kernels last season, joining the team near the end of the season and contributing to the team’s postseason run which ultimately ended one win short of a Midwest League championship.
“It’s a little bit different for me. I came up a little bit late,” Paul said, on the subject at hand. “These guys spent the whole season – most of the season – here, so I think a lot of guys proved themselves, obviously, like Randy said. But like they said, we’ve still got an opportunity, so you’ve just got to continue to perform and prove that you should be somewhere else.”
It’s clear that the, “don’t let yourselves be bitter, be glad you have a roster spot and go out and prove you deserve to move up,” message has been delivered – and it’s a very important message.
You could argue that it’s not fair that many players in the Twins system didn’t get the promotions this spring that they earned with their hard work and performances last summer. But professional baseball often is not fair. (Players need only look at their paltry paychecks to be reminded of that.)
And this is not a permanent situation.
It’s understandable that the Twins would give most of the players they signed to minor league free agent contracts an opportunity to show what they can do in some regular season games and, while the organization is still widely heralded as having one of the best stocked minor league systems in baseball, that cycle won’t last forever.
But neither will the opportunities being extended to these minor league free agents last forever. I give it a month.
By the middle of May, I believe we’ll see minor league affiliate rosters that look a lot more like what most of us – and, clearly, many of the organization’s players – thought we would see. I expect those free agents will get about a month to show the Twins’ evaluators why they should keep their roster spots in Rochester and Chattanooga over guys that have come up through the system and expected to be playing at the next level this spring.
Some of the new players will stick and that’s a good thing. Talent is talent, whether the player came up through the Twins’ system or somewhere else and minor league baseball is one of the purer forms of meritocracy you’ll find anywhere.
This little blip in the normal process makes it more critical than ever that players follow the advice being given to them to focus on their own performances and not give in to what must be a sometimes overwhelming urge to get angry to the point of distraction.
Because, just as sure as some of those minor league free agents will fail to impress and find themselves looking for other work, the same thing could happen to some players that finished strong with a Twins affiliate a year ago, but couldn’t back it up with a strong start to 2016.
Every year, observers of minor league teams like the Kernels see players move up and players move down and players move out. The team you finish a season with never resembles the team you started with. It’s the reason lower level minor leagues like the Midwest League have split seasons, with division standings reset after the mid-season All-Star break.
Most of the roster changes resulting from promotions and demotions don’t usually start becoming regular until June. This year, in the Twins organization, things could get interesting for many players much sooner.
When you ask ballplayers about their outside interests, it’s not unusual for them to express an interest in hunting. In that regard, Kernels’ pitcher Randy LeBlanc fits in with the crowd.
It’s when you ask what he hunts that LeBlanc begins to vary from the norm.
He’ll tell you he spent most of his offseason fishing and duck hunting, with a little deer hunting thrown in. Although, “my dad does more deer hunting than I do,” he says.
After a pause though, he adds the kicker.
“I’ve been gator hunting a few times. A couple of years ago, my cousin got a tag and we got one that was ten feet.“
LeBlanc hails from Covington, Louisiana, though while his offseason activities might be right in line with his Cajun heritage, you’d barely know it to speak to him.
“I’ve had people tell me up here that I don’t have any kind of accent,” he said. “People down south tell me I have an accent. It’s different than an Alabama accent. I’m definitely Cajun. My dad grew up in Cajun-land.”
You can take the boy out of Cajun-land, but it’s not so easy, apparently, to take the Cajun-land out of the boy.
In all the years the Minnesota Twins have been conducting spring training in Florida, they’ve certainly dealt with a wide variety of minor disciplinary issues with their ballplayers. Boys will be boys, after all.
But this spring, LeBlanc and fellow Louisiana native (and former Kernels pitcher) Ryan Eades may have been among the first Twins farmhands to get talked to about messing with the local alligators.
“Me and Ryan got in some trouble messing with some of the ones in Florida during spring training,” LeBlanc admitted with a small smile. “We had a meeting about it.”
“Everybody’s so scared of them,” he added, in a way that made it sound like he couldn’t quite grasp why that would be the case.
You can hardly blame the Twins, though, for discouraging LeBlanc from “messing with” alligators.
Despite being relegated to the often anonymous role of middle relief pitcher, LeBlanc is opening eyes this summer with the Kernels. He took a string of 26 consecutive scoreless innings of relief work in to the tenth inning of Friday night’s game against the Quad Cities River Bandits, a team high for the season that he shared with one of the Kernels’ closers, Trevor Hildenberger.
That string might have extended to 27 games, but for a line drive in to the outfield that was a single misplayed in to a triple. The result was LeBlanc’s first loss of the season, as Cedar Rapids fell to Quad Cities 4-3 in ten innings.
As rare as the loss was for LeBlanc, almost as rare was the fact that LeBlanc worked just one inning in the game.
The 6’ 4” right hander has made 19 appearances this season for Cedar Rapids and all but two of them have involved more than one inning of mound work. His 42 and 1/3 innings leads all non-starters for the Kernels.
The Twins drafted LeBlanc out of Tulane University in New Orleans with their tenth round pick in the 2014 draft.
Those who follow the Twins minor league organization closely know that they’ve had a pattern of drafting hard throwing college relievers with the intention of trying to turn them in to starting pitchers.
The Twins have seemingly done just the opposite with LeBlanc, who was almost exclusively a starting pitcher during his college career at Tulane, but has been used only in relief roles since signing with the Twins.
“I made a couple of relief appearances (in college), but other than that, I started my entire life,” he said. “I’d never done any relief, not consistent relief. Last year (at rookie level Elizabethton) was definitely the first time I’ve done that. But I was fine doing it, comfortable doing it. Whatever the Twins feel is my best role is what I want to do.”
LeBlanc was drafted in the 16th round of the 2010 draft by the Florida Marlins after his senior year of high school, but chose to attend Tulane, rather than sign with the Marlins.
“They made me a pretty big offer. That was before the slotting stuff,” he recalled. “It was definitely a big decision to turn down the money and go to school, but I don’t regret that for the world. I enjoyed my four years of college. It was definitely a lot of fun. New Orleans is a great city. I love it.”
That’s easier for LeBlanc to say now than it might have been after his first season of college ball.
“I had Tommy John (elbow ligament surgery) my freshman year of college. I actually tore it in my third start. I ended up having surgery a week later and was out the rest of the year.
“Came back the next year and struggled a little bit, just didn’t have quite the same stuff. I say I struggled, but it definitely could have been worse, don’t get me wrong.
“Did a little better my junior year, went undrafted after that year. Had a couple of phone calls with some offers, but went back to school. I had a really good red-shirt junior year and got drafted by the Twins.”
So, after four years in Big Easy, LeBlanc found himself in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in April.
New Orleans and Cedar Rapids – pretty much the same thing, right? No, not so much.
“When I flew up to Minneapolis to sign last year, that was the farthest I had ever been north in my life,” a smiling LeBlanc recalled. “I would assume this (Cedar Rapids) is probably the second farthest.
“The games this year in Appleton, when it was snowing for two days, I’d never seen snow before. It was the first snow I’d ever seen. It’s been a trip. That was the coldest I’d ever pitched in, for sure. Man, it was cold. The wind was just howling the whole time. It was miserable.
“I do a lot of hunting and fishing in the offseason, so I’m used to being out in the cold, but not snow cold, not like that.”
The climate may not be familiar to LeBlanc, but if his performance this season is any indication, he’ll have no problem adjusting to pitching in Target Field someday.
LeBlanc has notched a 1.70 ERA in 42 and 1/3 innings over 19 appearances for the Kernels.
“I had a really good first month of April,” he recalled.”Then we started May and I kind of had a little rough stretch for about two weeks. Ever since then, I’ve had a little better command up and down in the zone and I think that’s the biggest thing.
“I’ve been throwing well. A couple times, I guess, during this little streak or whatever, I haven’t had my best stuff at all. Basically, I’ve just made pitches when I’ve had to, able to get out of jams, that’s the best way to describe it. I’m not out there just dominating everybody and striking everybody out. Just making pitches when I have to.”
LeBlanc is also quick to point out that he and his fellow Kernels pitchers have benefited this season from some pretty solid defensive efforts behind them.
“We’ve played a ton of defense. TJ (White) and Nick (Gordon) and the whole left side of the infield, that’s where the majority of my balls go, to that side. So they’ve done an incredible job and Pat (Kelly) has done a great job up the middle.
“We’ve had guys mixing all over the place at first base. Brett (Doe) has never played first base in his life and he finds himself over there and he’s doing a really good job. It definitely helps having good defense behind us.”
LeBlanc uses a three-pitch mix on the mound and, like a lot of young pitchers, he came in to the season with an agenda.
“Originally, coming up here, I was working on the breaking ball. It’s gotten much better. I’m throwing a slider, It’s kind of a slider or a slurve, I guess. I’ve gotten a lot of swings and misses with it.
“But, I mean, I’m a sinkerball guy. I throw sinkers down and in to most people. That’s probably my best pitch; that or my change up. My change up’s my out pitch. If I need a swing and a miss, I go to my change up. But most of my success is just getting ground balls.”
While LeBlanc isn’t unhappy with his middle relief role, he wouldn’t exactly be opposed to getting a shot at a rotation spot at some point, either.
His Kernels pitching coach, Henry Bonilla, is in LeBlanc’s corner on that issue, too.
“I’ve been pulling for it,” Bonilla said. “I’ve been putting that thought in their (the front office) heads that he can start, he wants to start.”
His success out of the pen may be working against the righty’s chances of changing roles, however. Sometimes you don’t mess with what’s going well.
“I just think he’s having so much success right now,” Bonilla added, “that you just kind of say, ‘just keep going.’”
LeBlanc says all the right things when he’s asked about his role now and in the future.
“I think that Henry has talked about it a little bit to some of the guys up above us making the decisions. But I’m not sure what they’re doing. I told them at the beginning of the year I’ll do whatever they want me to do that’s going to help me to move up. Whatever will get me to the big leagues, I want to do. Whatever, starting, closing, throwing relief, long relief, whatever it is. So whatever they feel comfortable with me doing, I’ll do.
“They might ask me to start here in three weeks, I have no idea. I’d be fine doing that, though, I’ve started my whole life.”
Many starting pitchers pick up a few miles per hour on their fastballs when they start working out of the bullpen, but LeBlanc said that’s not historically been the case with him.
“It’s actually the other way around,” he said. “I threw harder as a starter. I threw harder as the games went on in college.”
He has no explanation for why that might be the case.
“I have no idea. It was like that in high school and it was like that in college. I don’t know, that’s the weirdest thing.
“When I was getting drafted, (scouts) were like, ‘so if you threw in relief, you could throw a couple miles per hour harder,’ and I’m like, ‘yeah!’ I figured it would be around the same. Definitely not going to tell them, ‘no’.”
Whatever his role may be during the second half of the Kernels’ season, he’s been a major contributor to the Kernels’ success, so far, and his pitching coach recognizes that.
“He’s been doing everything we ask,” Bonilla said. “He’s been a big glue to the middle innings right now.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”