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For CR’s ‘Dragons,’ Strikeouts Are So Much Fun!

Their jerseys may say Kernels on the outside, but underneath, the guys on Cedar Rapids pitching coach Virgil Vasquez’s staff have adopted a more burning mindset.

The pitching staff has adopted an “Enter the Dragon” motto that is reflected not only on the back of the T-shirts they wear under their uniforms, but in the intensity with which they attack opposing batters.
Image courtesy of Steve Buhr (photo of Jordan Balazovic)
“The dragon is like, you enter in this attack mode. We call it the dragon spirit,” Vasquez explained. “All your preparation, all your determination, all your belief in yourself, all the love you have for the game and everything you do.”

The approach seems to be working.

Through their first 16 games of this young season, Kernels pitchers are setting down batters at a remarkable clip of 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings.

How impressive is that? The franchise record for a season, set in 1964 by the Cedar Rapids Red Raiders, is 9.2 Ks per nine innings. Since the team became the Kernels in 1993, the best rate a team has recorded for a season was 8.7, a mark set just last season.

It’s not just a couple of guys racking up all the strikeouts, either. Ten of the 14 pitchers who have appeared for Cedar Rapids (not including infielder Joe Cronin, who made a one-inning mop up appearance) have struck out batters at a rate of at least one per inning pitched, with reliever Joe Record (21.2 K/9 IP) and starter Jordan Balazovic (16.0 K/9 IP) leading the way.

It’s early in the season, of course, but if it seems like the increase in strikeouts might be part of a philosophical approach to the art of pitching, there’s a reason for that.

Coach Vasquez explains.

“The strikeout is the best outcome for a pitcher, right? It takes out luck on balls in play, because when a ball’s in play, the average (for the batter reaching base) is .300. So, if we can get more strikeouts, we’re going to keep the game in our control more.

“Everybody on our (staff) has weapons for strikeouts, so it’s about how do I use them? Where do I use them? So yeah there’s an emphasis (on strikeouts) for our guys.”

Trying to strike everybody out can run up the pitch count, however. That’s not something any organization wants to do with its young arms.

Posted Image
photo by Steve Buhr of Derek Molina

As a result, Vasquez points out that there’s a time for getting quick outs and a time to… well… unleash the dragon and go for that strikeout.

“Early in the count, the mindset is ‘end the at-bat with every pitch you throw.’ You get strike one, control the count, finish the hitter,” he pointed out. “And then, as you get to 0-2, 1-2, let’s finish him! You own him. 2-2, let’s finish him! Either way, you have to throw a pitch, so why not throw a pitch where you’re going to get a swing and miss? So, understanding your swing and miss percentage, understanding where that is in the zone with those certain pitches, it’s a real benefit for you.”

Just thinking about all those strikeouts gets Vasquez smiling. “It’s so much fun! Like, what good is a hitter when they strike out? Go back to the dugout, you’re no good! Thank you very much! And it’s been a lot of fun to watch them. We have this aggressive mindset as a staff and they all encourage each other.”

With Game of Thrones being arguably the most talked-about program currently running on television, one might think the pitching staff’s dragon-themed motto is tied to the popular HBO series in which dragons play a major role. But the reality is that the motto has an old-school origin.

Vasquez said he saw the 1973 Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon over the offseason and that provided the genesis of the staff’s motto.

“(The movie) was very philosophical and there’s this warrior spirit to him. I kind of resonated with that,” Vasquez recalled. “I’m always trying to help them create a feeling of what they’re going to be like when they accomplish that feeling, not just the thing, but what’s the feeling?

“There’s this feeling that goes along with it and we’re all embodying it and I think that goes along with the strikeouts that we’re getting. It’s just attacking and trusting and believing and doing it for your team because you know what’s good for your team is also good for you.”

Cedar Rapids ranks third in the Midwest League in pitching staff strikeouts and second among teams in the league’s Western Division. Still, the team sits fifth in the standings of their eight-team division with a 7-9 record, as they start a road trip Monday night.

Posted Image
photo by Steve Buhr (Virgil Vasquez with hitting coach Ryan Smith)

Vasquez doesn’t sound concerned about that, however.

“Our record doesn’t reflect who we are,” he said. “Because the first few series, we were getting to know each other. You come into the season, you played together for five days or seven days in spring training, there’s a little, ‘who are we?’ kind of thing.”

He may have a point. The Kernels are 6-4 in their past ten games after getting off to a slow 1-5 record the first week of the season.

“We had communication, we kept preparing, we kept going and then all of a sudden, it’s like, this is what we do. As that’s happened, we’ve won more games. Ryan (Smith, the team’s hitting coach) has done a great job, too. We just kept improving that process and kept saying, ‘this is what we do.’ But changing it and adapting it so works better and more efficient. It’s a lot more fluid now.

“This is my first year being my own pitching coach and the feeling I have with the team, my heart feels so good just to have these guys connect the way they do with each other and how tight we are as a group. I feel like we’re seeing who we are now. Everybody’s been working hard. I hope all my seasons are like this.”


Kernels Notes
  • The Kernels have pulled up out of the MWL Western Division cellar and sit in 5th place with a 7-9 record.
  • They lead the MWL in stolen base efficiency (92.9%), successfully nabbing 13 stolen bases while being caught just once. Gilberto Celestino’s 4 SB lead the team, with the rest of the thefts spread among seven other Kernels.
Hitting:
  • Trey Cabbage continues to swing a hot bat, now with 5 HR (tied for 2nd in MWL), 1 3B, 1 2B and slashing .346/.443/.692 (1.135 OPS is 3rd in MWL)
  • Gabriel Maciel is off to a scorching start in his first 4 games with CR. .312/.500/.588 (1.088)
  • Gabe Snyder, through his first 8 games, has 2 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR and is slashing .379/.457/.621 (1.078)
Pitching:
  • Joe Record, in 4 relief appearances covering 4.2 IP, has surrendered 0 ER, 1 H, 1 BB and struck out 11 with a 0.43 WHIP
  • Reliever Brian Rapp has thrown 9 IP over 4 appearances, striking out 9. Since giving up 1 ER on April 5, he has not given up another run, earned or otherwise.
  • Austin Schulfer has been dominant in 3 of his 4 bullpen appearances, primarily in long relief. 3 shutout IP on April 4, 4 scoreless IP on April 12 and most recently, 3 shutout innings on April 18.
  • Starter Jordan Balazovic has struck out 9, 9 and 8 in his three starts this season, totaling 14.2 IP. He has a 2-1 record, a 1.02 WHIP and a 2.45 ERA. His 26 K ranks him 1st in the MWL.
  • Cole Sands has a 0-0 record but has shutout opponents in 2 of his 3 starts, throwing 5 innings in each of those 2 starts. He’s struck out 18 over 14 IP.
Want to read more about the Kernels? Click the links to read Cedar Rapids Gazette’s beat reporter, Jeff Johnson.

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