Since it was so late when I got home after last night’s Midwest League All-Star Game, I was too tired to get all of the photos included in my ASG post that I would have liked to. (Sure, the margarita or 5 that I had at the game MIGHT have had something to do with my drowsiness, but there’s no hard evidence of that, so I’m going with ‘I was just tired.’)
Anyway, I decided to post several more pictures from the ASG festivities over the past couple of days in Cedar Rapids.
Now, here’s the thing: I discovered, after taking the first couple of pictures with my camera Tuesday night, that my carmera’s battery was nearly kaput (that’s a technical photojournalist term, I think), so for many of the pictures I wanted, I had to use my phone’s camera.
Now, here’s the other thing: Because I used an app on my phone to provide yardage estimates when I was golfing earlier in the day, my phone’s battery was pretty much kaput, too. Fortunately, the Kernels have one of those charging stations where I was able to pump a little extra charge into the phone midway through the game (and where I had a nice chat with a Lumberkings fan who found himself in the same predicament.)
In the end, photos were taken and here are a few of them:
(All photos: SD Buhr)
After the game, the players and their guests gathered at the Newbo City Market for a postgame party that was open to the public, as well (for a nominal charge, of course). I didn’t make that event (one party per week is pretty much my maximum these days), but I’m sure it was a great time.
Again, you just don’t appreciate, sometimes, how much work goes into putting on an event like this. I’ve had an opportunity this summer to get a small glimpse at all the preparations the Kernels staff have made, from the flowers/landscaping done outside the stadium to all of the meticulous field preparation, event planning and concession work, as well. I’m clearly biased, but I thought the staff put on a terrific event.
Now we move on to the second half of the MWL schedule, with all teams starting over with a 0-0 record and the Kernels needing to finish among the top two teams in the Western Division (among those who haven’t already qualified for the postseason) to reach the playoffs for their 4th consecutive season.
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.
Most of the work that Sam Clay and AJ Murray did together during their shared time at Georgia Tech was confined to the bullpen, but this season the pair of former Yellow Jackets have played critical roles together for the Midwest League Western Division-leading Cedar Rapids Kernels.
Clay, a lefty who was the Minnesota Twins’ fourth round draft pick in 2014, carries a 3-1 record and a 1.10 ERA into his Wednesday night start at Burlington. He has averaged more than a strikeout per inning in his seven starts.
Murray, selected by the Twins in the 14th round of last year’s draft, is carrying a .285/.394/.489 (.883 OPS) slash line as the Kernels’ primary catcher. He’s hit 11 doubles, one triple and five home runs while batting in the middle of the Cedar Rapids lineup and has thrown out 35% of runners attempting to steal a base.
That’s not bad for a guy who spent almost no time behind the plate during his college career, despite performing well enough in high school that Houston selected him late in the 2011 draft.
“I caught all through high school,” Murray explained. “Then when I got to college, they converted me to a first baseman because we had Zane Evans (who was ultimately drafted by the Royals in the 4th round of the 2013 draft), who was a lot better than I was at the time. So I learned first base, but I also got to play a little bit in the outfield. It kind of made me more versatile as a player in college.”
Murray certainly wasn’t disappointed when he was told the Twins had drafted him as a catcher, however. Quite the opposite.
“When they drafted me as a catcher, I was very happy because I thought that was my most comfortable position and I could be the biggest asset to the team,” he recalled. “I think it’s the best position on the field, besides pitching, because you’re in every pitch. You pretty much control the game as far as being a leader out there. I love catching every day and it’s definitely a learning process.”
After seeing limited time on the field behind the plate during his college career, Murray has certainly had a lot to learn about playing the position at the professional level.
“I think the biggest adjustment has been calling your own game. That’s kind of been a lost art in baseball,” he said. “I called my own game in high school, but when you get to college, a lot of the pitching coaches like to call the pitches. So that’s been the biggest adjustment.”
The biggest adjustment maybe, but not the only thing that differentiates catching in the pros from what he has done in the past.
“Learning to read hitters, learning to look at the stat sheet, look for tendencies, then fill in the game plans, which is fun actually,” he added. “JP (Martinez, the Kernels’ pitching coach) does a great job of giving us stats, getting the pitchers together, talking over game plans, hitters’ approaches and how we’re going to transfer that over to the game, so he’s the main driver in getting us ready.”
His work behind the plate hasn’t gone unnoticed by fellow Yellow Jacket Clay.
“As soon as he got to Elizabethton, he was far and away a much better catcher than he was at Georgia Tech,” Clay said of his battery mate. “He became unbelievable behind the plate and I love throwing to him.”
Murray and his fellow Kernels went through a stretch earlier in the season when they struggled offensively. Runs were rare and that put a lot of pressure on the pitching staff. They’ve pulled out of that rut over the past few weeks and Murray’s bat has been a big reason. He is hitting .333 in May and has a .986 OPS for the month.
“I’m definitely feeling more comfortable at the plate and focusing on having consistent at-bats,” Murray said, of his recent success at the plate. He’s quick to point out, however, that he’s not the only hitter in the lineup that’s making a difference.
“I think a lot of it has to do with others guys on the team hitting around me. You look at our stats the last couple of weeks, we’ve put up a lot of runs. Everyone’s been hitting well, so I think it’s contagious. When you’re getting on base, it puts pressure on the pitcher, and then hitting in the middle of the lineup, hitting behind LaMonte (Wade), (Luis) Arraez, guys like that getting on base a lot.”
Like Murray, Clay has also had to make some adjustments to the professional game.
In college, Clay worked out of the bullpen and, in fact, he began the 2015 season as a member of the Kernels’ relief corps. Things didn’t go terribly well for Clay, however, in his first tour with Cedar Rapids, and he was sent down to Elizabethton.
“Last year was a little bit of a struggle,” Clay recalled. “I started off up here in the bullpen and I had a lot of trouble finding the plate, so they kind of pigeon-holed me into throwing basically strictly fastballs and one off-speed (pitch), whichever was working for me that day, so hitters were looking for one of two pitches.
“Once I got sent down, I had one or two weeks in the bullpen and then they turned me into a starter when one of our guys went down. It gave me a chance to get up there and throw all of my pitches and really learn how to pitch instead of just going up there and throwing the ball.”
Clay has taken to the conversion to a starting pitcher very well. He and righthander Randy LeBlanc have combined to form a powerful left-right combination at the top of the Kernels’ rotation. Combined, the two have made 15 starts and evenly split just 10 combined earned runs surrendered. Neither pitcher has given up a home run this season.
Making the switch to starting pitcher did mean some adjustments for Clay in the offseason.
“They pretty much had me being a starter, so I knew that going into the offseason, what I needed to work on conditioning-wise and weight training wise,” he said. “So I really kind of got after it this offseason and just worked harder than I probably ever have.
“I lived with my parents in the offseason and I would probably lift weights four times a week. I didn’t really pick up a ball, because I threw a lot of innings last year compared to what I usually would as a reliever. So I didn’t really pick up a ball until probably January and January in Georgia is pretty cold.
“It probably got me ready for the first month here (in Iowa),” Clay added, with a smile.
Once he was ready to start throwing, however, Clay still had challenges to overcome – such as finding someone to throw with.
“Probably the first two or three weeks I was throwing I didn’t have anybody to throw with, so I was throwing long toss into a screen. Not very fun,” he remembered. “But I was lucky, I had one of my friends from high school, Jake Burnette, he’s playing for the Pirates organization (7th round pick in 2011), I got together with him and was able to throw with him for the rest of the offseason.”
As minor league seasons approach their midpoints toward mid-to-late June, it would be understandable for players performing as well as Murray and Clay to start peeking at the next rung on their organizational ladder and wondering what more they need to prove to earn a promotion.
Clay, however, says he knew coming into the season that he had work to do at this level and he’s not going to let his focus get drawn away from his business at hand.
“I knew that I was coming back here as soon as I got to spring training because I didn’t perform that well here when I was here. So I knew I had to come out and really show what I could do – show that I could be a starter, that I could throw against these hitters.
“All the Fort Myers starters are doing really well right now so it will be really tough for us to move up, but we can’t really think about them. We have to focus on ourselves.”
For now, Clay, Murray and their Cedar Rapids team mates are sitting atop the Midwest League’s Western Division standings and they have four more weeks of work to do in the season’s first half. The top two teams in each division during the first half qualify for the MWL playoffs in September and earning that berth early takes a lot of pressure off for the remainder of the season.
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.”