Katching Up With the Kernels
Image courtesy of Steve Buhr (photo of Gabe Snyder)Cedar Rapids topped Clinton on Friday night, then saw their Saturday tilt against the Lumber Kings suspended due to rain. The next day, they swept the suspended game and the regularly scheduled contest against the Clinton. When Burlington fell to Peoria on that final day of the first half, the Kernels had qualified for the postseason.
2019 is the seventh consecutive season that the Kernels will participate in the MWL playoffs. That’s every season since the Kernels and Twins affiliation began with the 2013 season.
It took a major comeback from a very slow start to the season for Cedar Rapids to even be within shouting distance of a playoff spot by mid-June.
“We were scuffling a little bit, not playing our best baseball,” recalled manager Brian Dinkelman, this week. “A lot of new players in their first year of pro ball, so getting their feet wet. It was still cold.
“Then guys started playing better, it warmed up a little bit. Guys got comfortable. Hitters started swinging the bat a lot better there, the middle of May, finally. They helped out our pitching staff a little bit. Yeah, the last few weeks we made a run. The boys competed well there at the very end. I think they had a sense that they were getting closer, they had a chance to possibly make a playoff spot, so that helped drive them.”
The Kernels started the second half of the season a little sluggish, dropping six of the ten games played through the rest of June. But once July rolled in, the Kernels started rolling, as well. They won eight straight games to start the month before suffering a three-game series sweep to Great Lakes.
The Kernels’ pitching has been solid to very good all season long and the hitting has started to show signs of coming alive this month.
Of course, this being minor league baseball, as soon as a player starts showing he can be consistently successful at this level, he’s getting a ticket to the next level up in the organizational ladder.
Four of the Kernels’ top hitters on the season, measured by OPS, have been promoted out of of Cedar Rapids. Only first catcher/first baseman Chris Williams (.836) and baseman Gabe Snyder (.789) remain of the seven position players that put up better than a .650 OPS in a Kernels uniform this season (minimum 10 games with Cedar Rapids).
“It’s my fourth year here (in Cedar Rapids) and every year it’s the same,” said Dinkelman. “The guys who do well in the first half usually stick around for all of the first half, then right after the All-Star break, head down to Fort Myers and join the Miracle. That’s the way the game is and it’s good for the players who do well here to move on to the next level and challenge themselves a little bit more and get closer to the big leagues.”
Josh Winder put together a string of seven consecutive quality starts. Andrew Cabezas followed up a strong June with a complete game one-hit shutout in his first start of July. Luis Rijo, Tyler Palm, Kai-Wei Teng and Austin Schulfer have all put up quality starts in each of their two July starts.
Out of the bullpen, Moises Gomez has had three one-inning scoreless outings, while striking out seven batters.
In addition to Snyder’s .341 BA and .962 OPS in July and Williams’ .897 July OPS (despite just a .211 BA for the month), Gilberto Celestino has contributed a .297 BA and .840 OPS during the month.
Mauer Inducted into Hall of Fame
No, not that Mauer and, no, not that HOF. Though that day may certainly come.
On Wednesday night, former Kernels manager Jake Mauer was inducted, along with three others, into the Cedar Rapids Baseball Hall of Fame.
Mauer managed the Kernels for four seasons, beginning with 2013, the inaugural season of the Twins/Kernels affiliation. He led Cedar Rapids to four consecutive postseason berths, including a trip to the MWL Championship series in 2015.
Interviewed during the game that night and after the on-field ceremony, his comments were absolutely Mauer-esque.
“It’s pretty cool coming into here, seeing the lights,” he said, concerning his family’s arrival back in Cedar Rapids for the first time since the end of the 2016 season. “The kids remembered it right away. It’s pretty neat.”
Mauer, now working in the family’s Twin Cities auto dealerships and coaching his kids’ softball and baseball teams, seems content with his decision to leave the grind of minor league professional baseball.
“I miss the guys. I miss being around, being around the boys, competing and games and that stuff,” he admitted,. “But there was so much more that I was missing back home with those kids growing up that now I get to be a part of.”
Baseball is still in the blood, though. Asked if he’d consider an opportunity, if offered, to return to pro ball, he certainly didn’t rule it out.
“I would say if the situation was right, I would. For sure, yeah. The travel, that’d be tough. Tough to do bus rides and all that, but if the situation was right and made sense professionally and with the kids and the wife, too, I would definitely get back in.”
On his staff for several of those seasons was Tommy Watkins, who now coaches first base for the Twins. Watkins, in Cedar Rapids over the MLB All-Star break, was in attendance the night Mauer was honored at the ballpark.
As the Twins’ first base/outfield coach, Watkins has had a first-hand view of the incredible start to a Twins’ 2019 season that has them sitting atop the American League Central Division race by several games over the Cleveland Indians.
Did he see this kind of success on the horizon when he was working with the team in spring training?
“I tell you what, when you leave spring training, I think you always think you have a chance to compete for something and leaving spring training, I felt like we had a good chance to play for something,” Watkins said. “The group of guys that we have are amazing. Everybody. They’re all talented. At each position, they all can hit. I think we’ve got like ten guys with double-digit homers right now. That’s crazy. So, it’s been fun to watch.”
Of course, spring training is still just spring training and you hesitate to put too much stock in what happens down in Florida during February and March.
“You do,” Watkins concurred. “And you just saw in spring training, I guess we didn’t have the whole lineup playing together every day, but every day you had somebody in the lineup that can hurt you with the long ball. You would hope it would carry over (to the regular season).”
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