Zack Larson: A Puzzle Piece for the Kernels – and More

In each of the past several seasons, the Cedar Rapids Kernels have held an “Autism Awareness Night” at the Veterans Memorial Stadium, with the Kernels wearing special jerseys that are auctioned off to benefit The East Central Iowa Autism Society.

The Society’s web site reports that the rate of autism is currently 1 in 88. However, as the site goes on to point out, “To most Americans, 1 in 88 is a number. To the families of a child with autism, our 1 in 88 has a face and a name.”

For one Kernels player, that face is his younger brother’s and that name is Max.

Cedar Rapids outfielder Zack Larson doesn’t need to wear a special jersey to remain aware of autism. In the unlikely event that Larson would require such a reminder, he needs only to look at his own right arm and the tattoo there consisting of the puzzle piece logo, widely used to promote autism awareness, along with his brother’s name.

Zack Larson  carries brother Max's name with him via the tattoo on his arm. (Photo: SD Buhr)

Zack Larson carries brother Max’s name with him via the tattoo on his arm. (Photo: SD Buhr)

Larson’s a native of the Bradenton, Florida, area, but moved to Virginia with his family when he was just five years old.

“I lived there for four years,” Larson recalled, “then, my little brother was born in Virginia and was diagnosed with autism. So we moved back down to Florida where we found a school for him to go to. That’s where we’ve been since.”

Max and the rest of Larson’s family follow Zack and the Kernels as closely as possible from Florida.

“They bought that (MiLB.tv) package so they watch the games on TV that are there to watch and they listen to every game with Morgan (Kernels radio broadcaster Morgan Hawk). My mom came (to Cedar Rapids) in May, so it was good to see her.”

If, as you’d expect, Max looks up to his big brother the ballplayer, it’s equally apparent that Zack admires Max, as well.

Lack Larson grew a mustache in high school and his brother Max got one, too. (Photo: courtesy Zack Larson)

Zack Larson grew a mustache in high school and his brother Max got one, too. (Photo: courtesy Zack Larson)

“He has pretty severe autism,” Larson explained. “He doesn’t talk very well but he knows words. He’s really brilliant on the computer. He knows how to work every electronic thing you can think of. My dad won’t know how to turn on something and Max will go in there and turn it on right away. My dad’s like, ‘what the heck?’ He’s a genius when it comes to electronics and computers and stuff.

“Not many people totally understand what it’s all about. It was eye-opening for me when I first started to understand what my brother was diagnosed with. I was still young. It made me a better person, it made my family better people and it’s a blessing to have my brother.”

Larson was signed out of high school in 2012 after being drafted by the Twins in the 20th round. Like virtually all high school players that are drafted, he had to choose between starting his professional career immediately or going to college first and trying to improve his future draft status. It really wasn’t a difficult decision for Larson, however.

“I signed with a junior college, but ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a professional baseball player and the Twins gave me the opportunity,” Larson recalled. “I didn’t want to pass on it. I could have gone to college and got hurt and could have never gotten another chance to play professional baseball.”

Larson said he did discuss options with his family, but, in the end, “it was always my childhood dream to play pro ball, so I did it.”

Had Larson gone to a four year college instead, he’d have been a draftable junior in this year’s draft. That’s not something he gives any thought to, however.

“I don’t play any ‘what if’ games. I just did what I wanted to do.  I just followed my dream and I haven’t looked back since.”

Is he happy with how that dream has turned out, so far?

“Yeah, absolutely. It’s awesome.”

Zack Larson

Zack Larson

Larson played 41 games with the Kernels a year ago, but missed much of the season with a hamstring injury.

The result of missing so much time with an injury was being assigned, again, to Cedar Rapids this spring as he works to resume his rise up the Twins’ organizational ladder.

“My goal was just to have good quality at-bats, not to give any at-bats away,” Larson said, of his plans for 2015. “Just get on base however I can. I never really set any number goals or any of that. I wanted to get to the playoffs the first half and we did.”

Larson got off to a slow start in April, hitting just .211 for the month, but he and Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins have been working together and that work is starting to show results.

“I’m working with Tommy just on staying through the ball, working down to the ball instead of lifting the ball,” Larson explained. “I’ve been getting under it and lifting it. I’ve just been working with Tommy every day in the cage and starting to improve.”

Larson has been particularly effective at driving in runs for the Kernels, hitting .347 with runners in scoring position and leading his team with 39 Runs Batted In headed in to the July 4 weekend.

Watkins said he likes what he’s seeing from his pupil.

“He’s got a pretty good swing,” Watkins observed. “We’re just working with him on using the whole field, trying to drive some balls to the gap. Right now, just trying to get him to stay on top of the ball and use the middle to the opposite way. To pull the ball, let that happen on its own.

“He’s a student of the game and he’s a guy that I look to lead our club, being here last year. He’s more of a quiet guy and he’ll lead more by example than anything, but I look for him to be a leader on this team. Great guy with runners in scoring position. He hunts out those RBIs and that’s a good thing.”

Larson and his teammates put together a 41-29 record in the first half of their Midwest League season, good enough to lock up a playoff spot by finishing second in the Western Division, but they know they have more work to do.

“We had a pretty good first half, but we think we can do better,” Larson said. “We had a meeting with Jake (manager Jake Mauer) and he said that if we had averaged four runs per game, we could have won 50 games in the first half. So, we were like, ‘what the heck, we can score four runs.’

“We don’t want to take the second half lightly, we want to show the teams that we’re playing some ball and we’re ready for the playoffs, that we can push it all the way into the playoffs and make a run.”

When baseball gods get angry

Everyone who has ever played the game knows you simply do not anger the baseball gods.

The baseball gods are a vengeful lot. Any kind of slight, whether real or perceived, can cause them to rain down bad karma on players, coaches, teams and even, apparently, entire organizations.

Someone in the Minnesota Twins organization must have really ticked off those baseball gods back during spring training, because the Twins have had one calamity after another since March. That’s when arguably the top power-hitting prospect in the game, Miguel Sano, was lost for the season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), requiring Tommy John surgery.

A couple of weeks later, the consensus top minor league prospect in baseball, Byron Buxton, injured his wrist in the outfield on one of the back fields of the Twins’ training complex in Fort Myers FL. In fact, the baseball gods must really have it in for Buxton because just days after he was activated by Fort Myers, they zapped his wrist again, sending him back to the DL.

The Twins have had so many injuries at the Major League level that they’ve routinely been sending out career infielders like Eduardo Escobar to play in the outfield over the past week. The Twins currently have four players on a Disabled List of one kind or another. Others, including $23 million a year man Joe Mauer, have missed stretches of games with injuries despite avoiding a trip to the DL.

However, the wrath of the baseball gods has perhaps been visited hardest upon the Twins’ Class A Midwest League affiliate, the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Randy Rosario

Randy Rosario – on the DL

Cedar Rapids’ uniforms don’t have players names sewn on the back of their jerseys above the number. That’s probably a good thing this season, because the club may have needed to retain a seamstress full time just to keep up with the roster changes already during 2014.

Roster turnover is not unusual in the minor leagues, of course. Players are promoted, demoted and even released at various points during the season, making it not at all unusual to see close to 50 different players take the field in a Kernels uniform at some point during the summer. A year ago, 49 different players (including Twins pitcher Mike Pelfrey on an injury rehabilitation assignment) put in time with the Kernels.

But this year’s Cedar Rapids club is getting an unwelcome jump on the roster musical chairs game.

Jeremias Pineda

Jeremias Pineda – on the DL

On Tuesday, less than six weeks in to the new season, pitcher Jared Wilson became the 34th player to wear a Kernels uniform this year.

Before the end of the first game of the Kernels’ doubleheader Tuesday night, shortstop Engelb Vielma had been pulled from the game after coming up lame as he left the batters box in the second inning and center fielder Jason Kanzler had been injured on a collision in the outfield.

(UPDATE: After the 2nd game, Kernels manager Jake Mauer confirmed Vielma injured his hamstring and Kanzler likely has a concussion. Mauer said he expects both players to be placed on the Disabled List and hopes to have replacements up from extended spring training in time for Wednesday night’s doubleheader.)

Of the 25 players who arrived in Cedar Rapids from spring training to start the current campaign, pitcher Brandon Peterson has earned a promotion to Class high-A Fort Myers, pitcher Miguel Sulbaran has been traded, pitcher Christian Powell has been released and seven original 2014 Kernels have spent some time on the club’s Disabled List. If Vielma’s name is added to that list, he would be the eighth.

Centerfielder Zack Granite was hitting .313 for the Kernels just four games in to the season when the baseball gods struck him down with a rotator cuff strain.

Zack Larson

Zack Larson – on the DL

About ten days later, catcher Michael Quesada fell to a right wrist contusion.

Less than a week after Quesada was felled, outfielder Jeremias Pineda broke his wrist and pitcher Randy Rosario hit the Disabled List with a left flexor mass strain.

The game’s mystic guardians finally looked in other directions for almost two weeks before returning their attention to the Kernels with a vengeance and sidelining infielders Tanner Vavra (right ankle sprain) and Logan Wade (dislocated left shoulder), as well as outfielder Zack Larson (right hamstring strain) all during the first ten days of May.

That’s an average of better than one player a week that manager Jake Mauer and his coaching staff have had to replace due to injury.

Logan Wade

Logan Wade – on the DL

So far, the nine players added to the Kernels’ roster as replacements from extended spring training have managed to avoid the DL, though Kanzler would break that string if he lands on the DL following his injury Tuesday. One replacement, Jonatan Hinojosa, was with the team only long enough to play in one game before finding himself suspended by Major League Baseball for having tested positive for a PED.

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada – back from the DL

Twins farm director Brad Steil must cringe every time his phone rings and he sees Jake Mauer’s name on the caller ID.

Perhaps remarkably, Mauer has patched together line ups that have managed to win more games than they’ve lost. In fact, with five weeks left in the Midwest League’s first-half race, the Kernels are right in the thick of the race for second place in the league’s Western Division and the automatic postseason spot that would come with it.

The Kernels struggled through a tough six-game road trip during which they won just two of six games and they play just seven of their next 17 games at home, but both Quesada and Vavra have returned from their injuries.

Even Quesada’s return, however, poses a peculiar challenge for his manager. The Kernels’ current active roster includes 13 pitchers and 12 position players, four of which are catchers. Of course, at this level, it’s not unusual for catchers to play some first base. Which is good, because the Kernels’ regular first baseman of late, Chad Christensen, is likely going to be needed in the outfield.

The arrival of JD Williams from extended spring training, where he’d been recovering from his own spring training injury (a broken thumb) has certainly provided a spark at the top of the Cedar Rapids batting order.

Tanner Vavra

Tanner Vavra – back from the DL

After Monday night’s doubleheader against Peoria was washed out, the Kernels were scheduled to play back-to-back doubleheaders against the Chiefs Tuesday and Wednesday.

Going in to Tuesday night’s games, Peoria sat in second place in the MWL West, just a half game ahead of Cedar Rapids. There were four more teams, however, bunched tightly together behind the Kernels and all of them have their eyes on the second Western Division postseason spot.

– JC

(All photos: JC/Knuckleballs)

Meeting the Kernels: Tanner Vavra and Zack Larson

Heading in to the 2014 season, everyone pretty much had expectations in check with regard to the Cedar Rapids Kernels. The team’s fortunes would likely turn on the performance of a staff of young, highly heralded pitching prospects. The offense, meanwhile, could very well struggle to score enough runs to keep the Minnesota Twins’ Midwest League affiliate competitive.

As they near the end of the first month of the season, however, the Kernels are two games above .500 with a 13-11 record and the hitting is at least as responsible for that success as the pitching staff is.

Infielder Tanner Vavra and outfielder Zack Larson are just two of the Cedar Rapids players making major contributions with their bats. Before Tuesday night’s game with Kane County, Vavra and Larson talked about their season thus far.

Zack Larson and Tanner Vavra

Zack Larson and Tanner Vavra

Vavra, the son of Twins coach Joe Vavra, spent a few days recently at the very top of the Midwest League’s leader board in batting average and still leads his team with a .344 average. He’s also reaching base at a .391 rate and carries an .829 OPS through Tuesday’s games.

While most fans may not have expected that kind of production out of Vavra, neither he nor his manager seem terribly surprised, either.

“He’s a guy that really obviously has been around the game his whole life, with his dad being a professional baseball guy,” said Jake Mauer of his second baseman. “He’s got a lot of baseball instincts. He knows himself as a player. He knows what he needs to do and he plays to his strengths. He’s a guy that puts together good at-bats. He makes the routine plays. He’s definitely earned his playing time.”

“I’m just trying to put good swings on (the ball) and help the team win,” said Vavra of his hot start to the season. “I’m just trying to stay with the same approach and kind of just get my pitch and get on base for guys like Larson here to drive me in.”

Meanwhile, Larson’s also got a pretty impressive early-season slash line, as well with a .307 batting average, a .351 on-base percentage and an .806 OPS. That’s not a bad start for a 20 year-old in his first year with a full-season affiliate.

“He’s really come on for a younger guy and made some adjustments.” his manager said of Larson. “He was having a little hard time with offspeed pitches, but that’s not the case any more. He’s doing a nice job out in right field. He’s going to hit in the middle of our order and he’s getting even better in the outfield and that’s pretty encouraging to see.”

Larson’s just as humble as Vavra when asked about his contributions, too.

“Like Tanner, I’m just trying to put good swings on it,” said Larson. “That’s my main focus, put a good swing on the ball and hopefully good things happen.”

Both hitters have been particularly productive at the plate with team mates on the bases. In fact, both Vavra and Larson are hitting at a .400 clip with runners on base.

Neither man claims they do anything special in those situations, though.

“I don’t like to get out, so I try to take the same approach with runners on or runners not.” said Vavra, laughing.

Added Larson, “Just barrel it up and put a good swing on it. I try to do that every at-bat; stay focused.”

The two team mates may be making similar contributions to their team’s cause this season, but they come at their tasks from very different backgrounds.

Zack Larson

Zack Larson

Larson was drafted by the Twins in the 20th round of the 2012 First Year Player Draft out of his Bradenton, Florida high school.

A 24 year-old from Wisconsin, Vavra played college ball at Valparaiso University before being drafted by the Twins in the 30th round of last June’s draft.

A year ago, top Twins prospects Jorge Polanco and Adam Brett Walker were manning the positions that Vavra and Larson are holding down this season. Both guys just smile when asked about trying to live up to the offensive legacy of last year’s Kernels.

“I think we all knew it was going to be tough to follow in the footsteps of the team from last year and we were never trying to do that,” said Vavra. “We’re never trying to live up to what they did last year, because, let’s face it, that’s pretty special what everybody got to see with the number 1 prospect in all of baseball playing (in Cedar Rapids).”

“With that being said, our goal is still the same,” Vavra added, “to get to the playoffs and put good seasons together individually and have a great team season. Hopefully take it one step farther and get that ring.”

And maybe do enough to get a promotion to the next level in the organization?

“Everyone wants that,” acknowledged Larson, “but you can’t control that. You can only control what you do. Can’t worry about that.”

Larson shares the Midwest League lead with 10 doubles already this season, just one shy of his total two-baggers during his 55 games a year ago at both rookie league levels combined. Then again, he had five home runs last season and has just one as a Kernel.

But don’t expect Larson to feel disappointed with his results so far.

“I’m not disappointed at all,” Larson explained. “I’m not worried about hitting home runs. I’m just worried about helping the team win and putting good swings on the ball and if I hit a home run, it’s cool. Whatever I can do to help the team.”

“He’s young.” chimed in Vavra, about his team mate. “He’s still got a lot of manpower to come his way. This is his first full season. You never know, he might catch hot in July once the weather warms up and you’re going to see big things out of him.”

Tanner Vavra

Tanner Vavra

Vavra’s complete story can’t be told without mentioning that he’s blind in his right eye, the result of a fishing accident at age three and a subsequent injury suffered playing football several years later.

His ability to play baseball at a professional level with that limitation inevitably comes up during interviews. That could give a player a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but Vavra said questions about his eyesight don’t bother him much anymore.

“It’s kind of came and gone. That used to be the biggest concern.” said Vavra. “People doubted me.”

“It irritated me for a while and it’s still a little chip,” Vavra continued, “but I’m just trying trying to get rid of the whole, ‘You’re here because of your dad,’ type deal.”

“I haven’t gotten anything like that from the players, they’ve all been great. I haven’t heard that once. It’s from bloggers and those people that somehow send a letter to your house and tell you that you don’t belong. That’s my chip right now. The eye thing is always going to be there, but that’s my new chip.”

While it’s understandable that Vavra would be sensitive to suggestions that he hasn’t earned his place in pro ball, having a father in the game has its benefits.

“This offseason, I got to work with him for 5-6 months. That’s incredible. Going from usually working with him for three or four weeks over Christmas break to five months. It was definitely helpful.”

While Vavra was spending his offseason working out indoors in Wisconsin with his dad, Larson was wintering in a much warmer climate.

“Down in Bradenton, I give lessons at an indoor batting facility and my hitting coach is also there,” said Larson, of his offseason. “I hit with him and work out, try to get in the best shape I can before the season starts. Every day, hitting cage, doing something with baseball.”

Larson arguably seemed to have an edge on non-baseball related activities.

“I go to the beach. Beach is a big thing in Florida,” said Larson. “Just hang out with my friends. I don’t see them that often. They’re in college when I’m back at home.”

Vavra, on the other hand, “did a lot of hunting and fishing. Different fishing though, dropping a line through the ice.”

The look on Larson’s face, hearing that, gave the impression he wasn’t inclined to trade offseasons with his team mate.

– JC