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  1. Katching Up With the Kernels

    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.”

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    Watkins Returns

    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).”

    • Jul 13 2019 06:07 PM
    • by SD Buhr
  2. The Baddoo Philosophy: Just Score Runs

    "Just score runs. That’s the goal and that’s how you win games."

    Of course being a consistently productive leadoff hitter at any professional level really is a little more complicated than that.

    “Just really getting on base,” Baddoo said in an interview late last week. “If I get a walk, I’ll be satisfied with a walk because I know I’ll turn a walk into a double when I end up stealing second base. I’m just trying to find a way to get into scoring position so my third hitter and fourth hitter, which we have studs in the third hole and the fourth hole, just can knock me in.”

    You also won’t see Baddoo swinging at the first pitch often. His aversion to first-pitch cuts may not be quite as severe as the current leadoff hitter for the parent club Minnesota Twins, but at least in his first at-bat of the game, his approach does appear more than a little bit Joe Mauer-ish.

    “I’m just seeing what the pitcher has, how his curveball is, what the fastball’s doing,” Baddoo explained. “Then, if I get a base hit, then that’s a good thing, it’s a positive. But mostly it’s like a sacrifice, I’m just trying to figure out what he has, so I’m prepared in my next at-bat and third at-bat and going on. Then I can translate that to my other players. I can tell them, ‘Hey the breaking ball is 12 and 6,’ or ‘it’s side-to-side and the fastball has a little run to it.’ That’s what I kind of do my first at-bat. And then, if I get a hit, that’s good, that’s positive. But I know what he has.”
    Baddoo’s “just score runs” philosophy has translated to results on the field.
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    Akil Baddoo (Photo by SD Buhr)

    Through Sunday’s 3-2 win at Wisconsin, Baddoo had crossed the plate a team-high 77 times for the Kernels in 2018. That’s 25 more than any of his Kernels teammates and only two players in the Midwest League have scored more runs than Baddoo this season.

    So how does a guy sporting a modest .238 batting average score so many runs?

    “Akil is an athlete and a good baseball player,” Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman explained. “ He goes through stretches where he’s really good and he goes through stretches where he has tough times. I think he’s still learning the game and learning himself, to be a consistent ballplayer all the time. But if you look at his numbers, I mean, double digits in homers, doubles, triples, stolen bases. So he can do a little bit of everything.”

    Indeed, Baddoo’s 10 home runs tie him with Ben Rodriguez for third most among Kernels this season and since both of the guys ahead of them on the list are now playing for the Ft. Myers Miracle, you could say they are the active team co-leaders.

    His 20 doubles also make him the “active” team leader in that category, tied with Alex Kirilloff and trailing only Royce Lewis and Jose Miranda – and all three have been promoted to Ft. Myers.

    Baddoo isn’t looking up at anyone on the triples list as his 10 three-baggers not only leads the Kernels, but the entire Midwest League.

    He’s stolen 21 bases, good enough for second among Kernels this season, and he would look to be in position to claim the team lead soon as he trails the departed Lewis by a single stolen base.

    And don’t forget the walks.

    With 69 walks on the season, Baddoo leads his team and ranks fourth on the MWL leaderboard.

    Not too bad for a guy who just celebrated his 20th birthday last week and is in his first year of full-season professional baseball.

    Baddoo was a Lottery Round B (74th overall) draft selection by the Twins in 2016 out of Salem High School in Conyers, Georgia – about 20 miles east of Atlanta.

    Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it took a while for a Georgia kid to adjust to the chilly Midwest as the season got underway, but as the weather warmed up, so did Baddoo.

    After hitting just .196 in April, he nudged that average up to .240 in May and his .245 batting average in June was accompanied by an OPS of .820. He followed that up by hitting .280 in July, again with an OPS north of .800 for the month.

    August has not been particularly kind to Baddoo, so it’s possible that the long season is catching up to him. His 105 games played is also a team-high number.
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    Akil Baddoo (Photo by SD Buhr)

    “He’s going through a little rough spell where he’s striking out a little bit more, missing pitches,” Dinkelman observed. “We’re getting late in the season. I don’t know if maybe he’s getting a little bit tired, he’s been playing a lot of games for us. I’m sure fatigue probably is a little bit of a factor. Hopefully, he can find some extra energy the last couple of weeks.”

    Energy isn’t something the casual observer would ever think the dynamic Baddoo runs low on, but he’s also not all that concerned about his stat line.

    “I don’t really go too much on stats,” he said. “I know some people do, but it’s mostly about development and I feel myself getting better defensively and offensively. I’ve drawn a lot of walks, I’m getting on base, I’m scoring runs. I’m stealing bases. That’s really the goal and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m satisfied with what I’m doing, so far.”

    One thing we know for sure is that it’s not the Iowa summer, with temperatures through most of the past month running consistently in the upper 80s and into the 90s, that’s worn him down.

    “Exactly like Georgia, I love this weather right now,” Baddoo said. “They told me that, too, they said, ‘Once it dies down and not cold anymore, it’s going to get hot and it’s perfect.’ And they were right. This is amazing. I love it. Great baseball weather!”

    With just two weeks left in the Midwest League’s regular season, Baddoo said he’s looking forward to the drive toward the postseason, but doesn’t want to change his approach down the stretch.

    “No, not really, just keep getting after it,” he said. “Just going 110% and that’s what I do. I continue to work hard.”

    Under the MWL playoff format, teams that finish first and second in each of the league’s two division during the first half of the season already have postseason spots locked up, while the remaining 14 teams battle for the four second-half qualifying spots.

    With two weeks left, the Kernels hold the top spot in the MWL West Division, but need to hold off at least two of Beloit (3 games back), Kane County (4 games back) and Wisconsin (6 games back) to earn a playoff spot.

    Baddoo’s smile lights up when the subject of potential for postseason play is the topic and he likes his team’s chances of making a deep postseason run.

    “Now we’re in a race. We’re in a race for the playoffs,” he said. “I kind of like it though. We have a great team, coaches that have prepared us for this moment and we’ve been playing great baseball lately.

    “You’ve got to realize that the teams that qualified in the first half, some of those guys aren’t there.”Posted Image
    Akil Baddoo with the stolen base (Photo by SD Buhr)

    It’s the second straight season that Baddoo has been a part of a playoff contender, after playing for Appalachian League champion Elizabethton in 2017.

    “E-town was great, I enjoyed E-town,” he said, smiling big. “We won it all, that was pretty cool.”

    Of course, that’s a pretty familiar refrain to Cedar Rapids fans who have heard about Rookie level championship rosters before, only to see many of the same players fall short of a Midwest League title the following year. Cedar Rapids hasn’t won the MWL since 1992.

    Baddoo hopes this is the year that trend changes.

    “Maybe this year we’ll pull it off! We’re trying. We’ll try our best.”

    • Aug 20 2018 09:47 PM
    • by SD Buhr
  3. Jose Miranda Heating Up With The Weather

    Since then, however, Miranda has not only been hitting at a respectable .262 rate, but has six doubles, a triple and four home runs among his 40 post-April hits.
    Being younger than almost all of the pitchers he was facing would be enough of a factor to explain the slow start with the bat, but Miranda had one more thing going against him that many of his teammates didn’t. Unlike some players who spent their high school and/or college days playing ball in the northern areas of the United States, playing baseball in the cold was a new experience for Miranda.
    He’s reluctant to blame his slow start on the weather, but facts are facts.

    “I don’t want to say it was the weather, but maybe in part, yeah, because the first month it was pretty cold,” Miranda conceded recently. “I’m not used to the cold weather because Puerto Rico is always hot.”

    As the temperatures have been rising in Iowa and the surrounding area, so has Miranda’s stat line.

    “I’m just making adjustments day-by-day, taking it step by step,” he said, explaining his turnaround. “I don’t want to get too anxious or too frustrated by what happens, I’m just in the moment and making adjustments every day.”
    Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman thinks the weather had something to do with the infielder’s sluggish start to the season, as well.

    “Over the first month, tough weather conditions, first time experiencing cold weather, so I’m sure that had a little to do with it,” Dinkelman reflected. “He’s got some confidence now. He’s been hitting the ball better the last few weeks. He’s swinging at more strikes.”

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    Jose Miranda (Photo by SD Buhr)

    Dinkelman is seeing better pitch selection from Miranda. “Especially with guys in scoring position. Not getting himself out on the first or second pitch by chasing or getting in a hole 0-1, 0-2. Been better the last month about getting good pitches to hit. When they’re in the strike zone, he does OK.”

    Miranda, himself, admits he has an affinity for taking a good whack at the first pitch. Even so, his aggressive approach hasn’t led to a ton of strikeouts. Through his first 213 at-bats, he’s K’d only 31 times.

    “Yeah, I like to battle,” Miranda explained. “Sometimes when I see a first pitch is right down the middle, I just like to swing. Take advantage of it, because sometimes it’s the best pitch you’re going to see. Maybe the first pitch is right down the middle, a fastball, then they’re going to work you with different pitches, so I like to jump at that first pitch. But if I don’t get it, then I’m going to keep battling.

    “And no, I don’t like striking out,” he added, emphatically. “I hate it. Since I was little, I’ve tried to battle.”

    Miranda has had plenty of talented hitters to watch and learn from in Cedar Rapids this season.

    “We’ve got a first overall here, Royce (Lewis), and other guys that are first-rounders, second-rounders,” Miranda pointed out. “It doesn’t matter if they’re like first 10 rounds, all the guys are super important for me, too. It’s pretty cool to play with these guys.

    “I like to watch every other player here. I like to watch what they do. What type of at-bats they take. What type of pitches they swing on. I admire everyone here. I admire what they do. I like everyone here. Everyone here battles. They play hard and that’s what it’s all about.”

    Miranda says he’s also feeling stronger as the season progresses.

    “I feel like the power is coming on,” he said. “I feel like I’m barreling the ball more. I’m have better swings and it’s summertime, so I think the ball is going to keep flying out.”

    Miranda said he’s been playing baseball since he was four years old.

    “When I was little I used to play in my back yard. Everybody came to my house,” he recalled.
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    Jose Miranda and Royce Lewis, either attempting to take flight or going through pre-game warm-up drills. You decide. (Photo: SD Buhr)

    He was a shortstop through his high school playing days, but at the time he was drafted, scouts reportedly projected him to end up filling out and moving to third base.

    He played almost exclusively at second base in Elizabethton a season ago, however, and seemed to be set there through most of the first couple months of the Kernels season, while 2017 fifth-round selection Andrew Bechtold was manning third base.

    In recent weeks, however, manager Toby Gardenhire has often swapped the two, giving Miranda time at third base, with Bechtold at second, while Lewis continues to hold down shortstop and Jordan Gore gets a lot of work in a utility role, filling in at all three positions.

    Dinkelman acknowledged the change in pattern, but cautioned about reading too much into it.

    “Just a little versatility,” he explained. “We like them both at second and third and Gore can play all three. Just to get the experience at each position, because you never know, the higher you go up the ladder and to the big leagues, what position you’re going to play. So, if you can get a little experience at each and figure out maybe what is your best position, it’ll be good for all of them.”
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    Jose Miranda catches a throw from Ben Rortvedt before tagging out a Lumber Kings runner attempting to steal second base (Photo by SD Buhr)

    As for Miranda, he’s open to playing wherever the team and it’s leadership need him to play.

    “I kind of play wherever they want me, he said. “I do like both (second base and third base). Since I was young, I used to play shortstop, but now I’m playing more second and third and I don’t have a preference. I just want to be in the lineup!”

    With the 2018 draft taking place early this month, Miranda was recalling what it felt like to go through the draft process two years ago, as a 17-year-old in Puerto Rico.

    “It’s been one of my biggest moments in my life,” he recollected. “I was at my house with my dad and my grandma and I was watching it because I wasn’t sure if I was going to go in the second round or third round. The first two rounds are the first day, so I was kind of unsure if I was going to go in the second round. I was just watching it and hoping to get the call from my agent. And then it was like the 59th pick or something like that when my agent called me and told me, ‘you’re going to go in the 73rd pick to the Twins.’

    “So I was kind of nervous and anxious. I was getting a lot of messages and calls and I just wanted to watch it on TV and enjoy the moment. I got a call from the scout for the Twins in Puerto Rico, (saying) ‘Hey, good luck, I know you’re going to do well.’ I said, ‘Hey, they haven’t called me yet, let me watch it first and I will call you back.’

    “So, yeah, it was one of my biggest moments in my life and I enjoyed it.”

    • Jun 11 2018 08:21 PM
    • by SD Buhr
  4. Talking Hitting With "Dink"

    Less than five years later, “Dink” is in his third season as the Cedar Rapids Kernels’ hitting coach and he and Kernels manager Toby Gardenhire are seeing the infield shift deployed several times on a nightly basis – both against their team’s hitters and by their own infielders.

    The times, they are a changin’.

    Any regular observer at Class A Midwest League games would likely tell you that the Quad Cities River Bandits probably employ shifts more than any other team in the league. It’s not a coincidence that Quad Cities is the Class A affiliate of the Astros.

    The Seattle Mariners’ MWL affiliate, the Clinton Lumber Kings, on the other hand, play a comparatively normal infield alignment against virtually every opposing hitter.

    The Kernels fall somewhere in the middle of those extremes, but the shift is something that has clearly been an increasingly apparent part of their defensive strategy over the course of Dinkelman’s tenure as the club’s hitting coach.

    And that’s fine with him.

    “I don’t think it’s a bad thing for baseball.” Dinkelman said in an interview during his club’s latest homestand, “Because teams are studying other teams and they’re playing the chances of where they think the hitter’s going to hit the ball, where his tendency to hit the ball is. Now, if that gives your team an advantage to play your players in that sort of position, then I’m all for it, because you’re looking for any advantage for your team to be better than the other team.”

    It may just be part of the natural cycle of teams trying to find the best way to win a baseball game, but infield shifts certainly have given hitting coaches like Dinkelman one more thing to think about as they help the next generation of position players to achieve their big league dreams.

    So far, though, it’s not causing a dramatic change in how he and the Twins are teaching the art of hitting a baseball.

    “We’ve addressed it a little bit,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to change the way that we approach it or our swing, to try to hit around the shift. Some guys just are not able to do that with their swing. I’d rather have a guy who can hit the ball hard and hit it right through the shift. Because if you hit the ball hard enough, you’re still going to be able to hit the ball through the shift, for the most part, most of the time.”

    Lou Boudreau, as the manager of the Cleveland Indians, famously implemented the infield shift to try to contain Red Sox Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams, but even Boudreau admitted later that his hope was that the shift would get into Williams’ head.

    Whether or not that strategy worked against Williams is open to debate, but Dinkelman indicated that, as they’ve begun implementing the shift themselves, the Kernels have seen evidence that the mental aspect of facing the shift can’t be discounted.

    “Where guys fall in trouble, and we’ve seen it even here at this level, is whenever they see a shift on, guys try to manipulate their swing to try to hit it where the guys aren’t and they end up making just weak contact or swinging and missing.
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    Brian Dinkelman and Toby Gardenhire (Photo by SD Buhr)

    “Toby and I talked about that. You see (an opposing hitter) swing and he’s trying to shoot it the other way because he sees that everybody’s on (the other side of the infield) and that’s just not part of his swing and he can’t do that. So that’s kind of an advantage for us because he’s taking a swing that he doesn’t want to take.”
    If that’s the case, would it make sense then to coach players to make that kind of swing a regular part of their game, in order to beat the shift? Are we on the verge of returning to the days where every hitter is coached to, “use the whole field?”
    Not necessarily, but some attempt to broaden a player’s range is only logical, given the current defensive trends.

    “There are still guys that use the whole field and there are still a handful of guys who are more one side of the field oriented,” Dinkelman explained. “If we can work on them to try to get them to use, say even the middle of the field, so it doesn’t have to just be all pull side. If they use the middle of the field, then their shift that (opponents are) playing against them won’t be as extreme and it’ll still open up a few more holes in the infield.”

    And what about bunting? Bunting has become a favorite target for ridicule from some of the more ardent supporters of more statistical metrics-based strategies who argue that giving up an out almost never improves a team’s chances of scoring runs.

    But would bunting more, especially into an almost open side of the infield, make bunting once again become a more important skill?

    “I think it is,” Dinkelman agreed. “I think that bunting still needs to be used if it’s the right situation in the game. If a guy’s leading off an inning and you need a baserunner or two and they’re playing a shift on you, giving you the whole left side of the infield for a bunt, I’m all for that. Because if you start bunting, they’re going to have to make an adjustment (to their shift) if you keep getting hit after hit.”

    It’s not a strategy that they’re going to encourage every hitter to employ, however.
    “Now, if you’ve got a guy who is a complete home run threat, then I’ll probably want to let him go ahead and swing the bat. Because if he hits a home run, that’s one run for us, where if he bunts and just gets a single, it may not do us a whole lot of good.

    “I think it depends on the player, but I think the bunt is still part of the game, if that’s part of your game, a way to get on base to help produce offense for our team, then I’m all for it.”

    This season, the Twins have entrusted millions of dollars’ worth of highly regarded young hitting prospects, including successive first round picks Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff, to Dinkelman’s tutelage.

    While Lewis, Kirilloff and infielder Jordan Gore have been producing at the plate with batting averages staying above .300 and only rare and short periods of anything that could be considered close to a slump, many of the other hitters in the lineup have been slower to come around.

    After the Kernels’ 16-hit onslaught in their 15-4 win over Wisconsin on Wednesday, Cedar Rapids sports the fourth highest team batting average in the league. But taking away the stats of Lewis, Kirilloff and Gore, you’re left with a team batting average of just .234.

    Granted, if you take away three .300+ stat lines from any team, the remaining team BA isn’t likely to be terribly strong.

    Regardless, however, Dinkelman remains bullish on the rest of his offensive unit.
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    Brian Dinkelman (Photo by SD Buhr)

    “They’re all making progress, they’re all learning the game,” he said.

    “The thing with our roster is we’re so young. We work on things, work on approach and set up, stuff like that. Try to help get them through a daily routine of being a professional baseball player. But they’re coming along nicely.”

    Nine of the 13 position players on the Cedar Rapids roster are 21 years old or younger and, even after Jacob Pearson’s 20th birthday party on June 1, three will still be teenagers.

    These guys weren’t facing 94 mph fastballs and 86 mph sliders from every pitcher who stepped out of an opponent’s bullpen before they put on a Kernels’ uniform for the first time. But that’s what they’re getting accustomed to seeing in today’s Midwest League.

    “These guys are new to this league or to pro baseball, so it takes a little bit of adjustment to get used to it, but they’re coming along,” Dinkelman said. “We’re about two months in now, so I think they’re starting to get the feel or understanding of a daily routine and what they’re going to face daily from the opposing team.

    “It’s not always about the numbers right now at this level, it’s more about your mindset and making progress and building that routine so as the season goes along or as the seasons go on, you have that to fall back on.”

    • May 31 2018 09:40 PM
    • by SD Buhr
  5. Kernels Expect A Fun Season

    There were differing opinions concerning who won the dance contest held in the Kernels' clubhouse prior to "Meet the Kernels Night" in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, but the players and coaches who were brought in to talk to the media were in agreement on one thing. They all expect the 2017 Kernels season to be fun.

    • Posted Image
    • Kernels players meeting fans on "Meet the Kernels Night" in Cedar Rapids. (photo: SD Buhr)
    In fact, almost all of the players and coaches who endured media interrogation before moving on to the stadium concourse to meet the fans who showed up for the event used the word "fun" in at least one of their responses to media questions.

    (Article originally posted at Knuckleballsblog.com.)

    That shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone who has spent time with the Kernels' new manager, Tommy Watkins. If you see Watkins at a ballpark without a smile on his face, snap a picture quick. It would be a rarity.

    Early during the media session, Watkins was asked what sort of mood he likes to see in his team's clubhouse.
    "Probably like a somber mood," Watkins deadpanned.

    "No, a lot of energy," he continued, after the laughter in the room faded. "We just had fun down in the clubhouse before we came up, so it was a lot of fun. Get the guys moving around a little bit. Everybody danced a little. I think we like to bring a lot of energy and like to have fun. Play the game the right way."

    His coaches, Brian Dinkelman and J.P. Martinez, claimed Tommy won the dance contest and Tommy claimed the two coaches had been the winners. Later, pitcher Sean Poppen would claim that he'd been the true winner.

    Whether or not there was an actual winner of that contest, there was no question that Watkins, his coaches and his players all are looking forward to having a fun season - and winning some baseball games along the way.

    "I’m excited about all of these guys," Watkins said of the players making up the first roster of his minor league managing career.

    "They were fun to watch in spring training. Good group of guys, they all got along well. Up and down the lineup I think you’ll see a lot of energy, you’ll see a lot of guys play the game hard. I think they’ll be fun to watch this year. Same thing from the pitching side. We’ve got guys who can throw it over. We’ve got guys that throw hard, got some off-speed stuff. From both sides of the ball, these guys will be fun to watch."

    While last year's opening day roster was composed largely of returning players from the 2015 Kernels roster, only eight of this year's group wore a Cedar Rapids jersey at some point last year. Most of the group, including many of the returning players, played together at Elizabethton in the Appalachian League, during a season that did not see the sort of success on the field that E-town fans have come to expect.

    Pitching coach J.P. Martinez said he things this group is hungry for success, as a result.

    "I think in Cedar Rapids, in particular, we’ve set the bar pretty high," Martinez said, recounting the success the Kernels have had, including making the playoffs in each of the four seasons since the inception of the affiliation agreement with the Twins.

    "I think (these players) are eager to prove that they belong at this level, maybe partly because they didn’t really have the success they wanted last year, but they're a really, really talented group. A really close-knit group and so we’re hoping that we can kind of steer them in the right direction. They are the future of the franchise."

    Brian Dinkelman, the hitting coach, also thinks there's a lot of potential in this group of Kernels.

    "Yeah, we’ve got some guys that can definitely swing the bat," he said of the hitters he'll be working with. "We've got a lot of young guys. We’ve got (Lewin) Diaz and (Jermaine) Palacios and (Ben) Rortvedt - guys that are still in their teens. But we’ve got some guys who can swing the bat and do some damage, so looking forward to the season. A lot of guys to work with. Hope we can develop them and move on to the next level.
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    • Ben Rortvedt, Sean Poppen and Travis Blankenhorn (photo: SD Buhr)
    One of the guys the hitting coach mentioned, Rortvedt, is among the players who will be getting their first taste of full-season professional experience this season in Cedar Rapids.

    "Wonderful. A bit of an upgrade with the stadium from Elizabethton and the Florida GCL," the Wisconsin native responded, when asked for his initial impressions."I played here growing up a couple of times and it was fantastic. I mean, it wasn’t full bleachers, but I’ve seen pictures of you guys filling up the stadium, so I’m really excited.

    "I played with a bunch of the guys last year and we’ve bonded pretty well, so it’s going to be a fun season."

    There's that word, "fun" again, along with another common theme of the day, team chemistry.

    Pitcher Sean Poppen and infielder/DH Travis Blankenhorn expressed similar expectations.

    "(Tommy) is great. I think he’s really going to develop team chemistry and that’s pretty important," Poppen said, of his manager.

    "We had Tommy in instructs (fall instructional league) and spring training," Blankenhorn added. "He just keeps the game fun. It’s fun to play for him. He keeps it fun for all of us. It makes baseball a lot better when you’re having fun."

    "Absolutely," Rortvedt agreed. "I didn’t know Tommy going into instructs and he came in already cracking jokes at me, so he’s definitely going to keep us loose in the dugout."

    Fun and chemistry are important, but Poppen doesn't think that's all Watkins brings to his team.

    "He’s a good coach. I’ve had some experiences with him that were very helpful and I feel like he’s going to help me - and help the team - get better."

    "I think we have a good team this year," Blankenhorn concluded. "I think we have a bunch of pitchers that are going to throw strikes and go out there and put some zeros on the board. I think we have some good sticks in our lineup that are going to put the ball in play and puts some runs up and hopefully we can win some games."

    Having fun and winning games. Sounds like a pretty good combination.

    • Apr 05 2017 09:55 PM
    • by SD Buhr
  6. Kernels Hot Stove/Twins Winter Caravan In Cedar Rapids

    Broadcaster Kris Atteberry did a terrific job as the emcee for the Twins Caravan portion of the program, doling out opportunities to address the gathering to five members of the Twins organization gathered on stage. They included a pair of Twins players, pitcher Trevor May and outfielder Byron Buxton, newly announced Kernels manager Tommy Watkins, new Twins General Manager Thad Levine and Brian Dinkelman, who served as the Kernels hitting coach in 2016 and, while no official announcement has been made as yet, is presumed to be serving in that capacity this summer, as well.

    In addition to responding to Atteberry's prepared questions from the podium and answering questions from the crowd, the Caravan participants also were available for media interviews.

    Here are a few highlights from one-on-one interviews, as well as the public portion of the program.

    Early in January, the Twins and Kernels announced that Watkins, who served as the Kernels hitting coach, under former manager Jake Mauer, from 2013 through 2015 and in the same capacity for Class AA Chattanooga last season, will get his first opportunity as a minor league manager in 2017 when he takes the Kernels' reins.

    Watkins said that he and farm director Brad Steil had discussed the possibility of Watkins getting a managing opportunity for the past couple of years, but no such position had opened up until last year's Fort Myers Miracle manager Jeff Smith got promoted to a coaching position with the Twins this offseason. Still, Watkins said, "I didn't know if I would get it or not."

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    • Trevor May and Tommy Watkins react to Byron Buxton explaining how he "noodled" a catfish
    Once the assignment was officially offered, Watkins was very happy to accept. "It was just like the news I got when I was going to the big leagues. I was happy, I was nervous, I was scared, I didn't want to go. So it was a lot of things. I cried, I laughed, I called my family and told them. It was exciting news."

    Asked by Atteberry to tell the gathering what went into the front office's decision to offer the job to Watkins, Levine led off with tongue firmly planted in cheek. "I've got to be honest with you, I have no idea how this came to pass. This is news to me. I'll try to adjust on the fly."

    Levine then turned serious - and very complimentary toward the new Kernels manager.

    "I think that one thing you guys always hear about is that we're trying to develop players, there's a development track. But I think the other thing that we're trying to develop concurrently is staff members. Guys who have a chance, on the scouting side, to influence decision-making and, on the coaching side, a chance to be major league coaches.

    "One of the things that I heard when I first joined the Minnesota Twins was about the man to my right, Tommy, and I think the universal feeling was that he had a chance to be a really good hitting coach, but he had the chance to be special as a manager. So when the opportunity presented itself to give him an opportunity to pursue his career as a manager, I think everybody in the organization really endorsed him because we felt as if that's where he's going to be a difference maker.

    "We think he's going to have a chance to be a major league coach down the road. We think in the short term, he has a chance to really influence our minor league players, and as a manager we think his impact could be even greater than it was as a hitting coach.

    "He's a special man. He's very charismatic. He knows the game of baseball. He's still trying to learn every single day. Each time I've been around him, I feel as if I've gotten to know him a little bit better. This guy's a very dynamic man. He's going to be a leader in our organization for a long time to come and he's just scratching the surface of his potential."
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    • TC Bear made the trip to Cedar Rapids with the rest of the Twins Caravan crew
    Watkins said before the event that he's looking forward to his return to the Kernels. "It feels good. I had a bunch of different emotions but I'm excited. It feels like I've been gone for a lot longer than just a year, but it's good to be back. I enjoyed my time here and I'm looking forward to it."

    Asked by Atteberry to set the line on how many times Watkins will be ejected by umpires in 2017, Brian Dinkelman didn't hesitate before saying. "I set it at 3 1/2."

    Buxton said he's been feeling good since his hot finish to last season in September. "I've been hitting since late November, working on a few things and getting some stuff kinked out, but other than that, I feel great.

    "I'm just focusing a little bit more on hitting, being a little bit more consistent, using my legs, staying down through the ball, keeping my head down. Just small things to help me out in the long run."

    He said he didn't think there was any major change in his game that led to his strong finish to the 2016 season.

    "Just stop thinking. Just run out there and play baseball. Have fun, going out there and have fun with teammates. We competed, September was different for everybody, not just including me. We went out there with a different mindset to finish the season strong and carry that over into spring training and this season."

    Looking back at his time in Cedar Rapids as a teenager barely out of high school, he said the dream of playing big league ball has turned out to be everything he hoped for, "and more."

    "Not many people are able to make it up there to the bigs, so I'm very blessed and thankful to get up there. Just being able to play beside Trevor when he's up there pitching, not many people can say you've been in a big league uniform and you've been behind a pitcher like him that gives it his all and you're right there giving it your all and trying to compete for a World Series ring."

    For his part, May also indicated he's feeling good after having some trouble staying healthy in 2016.

    "I'm feeling good," said May. "I had some patterns I needed to break. In the past, I've always thought four months was enough to heal from everything in the offseason. But I've come to the realization that breaking down a muscle and building it back up again to where you want it to work just takes time."

    He said even little things such as posture, while standing or sitting, have been items he's focused on this offseason, with an emphasis on workouts that increase his flexibility, like Pilates and yoga, rather than weight training.

    "I was doing a bunch of stuff that was just exacerbating the problem 24 hours a day. Changing all those things has been a lot of work, but I'm excited to just keep doing what I'm doing into the season.

    "I threw a bullpen today. If I threw a bullpen when my back was tight back there, I would definitely feel some stiffness right now after I threw and I don't feel stiff at all, so I'm just taking that as a really good sign."

    May wasn't just trying new things in regard to his offseason workout regimen. While he did some DJing again this year, as he has in the past, he also expanded his horizons.

    "I actually have a new hobby," he explained. "I broadcast video games, which has been really fun. It's like having your own radio show in which you talk and play video games. I really enjoy it. I'm going to try to do it once a month on an offday during the season. I'm going to host tournaments of games I play for viewers."

    Asked to evaluate the state of the Twins' farm system, now that many of their previous top prospects have broken into the big leagues, new GM Levine said that the Twins front office doesn't necessarily look at the organization strictly in terms of players that have exhausted their eligibility for Rookie of the Year awards and those that have not.

    "I think we look at the farm system as an extension to the major leagues, so any guy in the major leagues who has two or fewer years of service is part of that next wave, that core," he said. "So I think when you include those players with your minor league players, you can really see the waves of players coming.

    "There's a wave in the big leagues right now, there's a wave right behind them, there's a wave that will be playing at Cedar Rapids this year. I think we're excited about the depth throughout our system, inclusive of the major leagues and I think if you include that young group in the major leagues all the way down, you could see that the future is very bright.

    "For a team that has the payroll that we will have, you're looking at having as many young players who can impact the game as possible and I think you've got to look at the guys who have matriculated to the big leagues when you're factoring that."

    The subject of the relatively public flirtation with trading second baseman Brian Dozier came up both in the interview setting and during the public Question & Answer session.

    Levine indicated that, while it certainly appears that Dozier will be opening the season with the Twins, he wouldn't say the door was completely closed on the possibility of moving Dozier, or any other player for that matter.

    "I don't know that we would talk specifically about any one trade negotiation, but I think the way Derek (Falvey) and I are going to operate is that we're not closing doors at any juncture. At that point, you are not doing your job to the fullest. Any time you close off opportunities to improve the team, I think you're doing the franchise a disservice."
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    • Buxton and May did the autograph thing after the Twins Caravan program
    During the public session, Levine was asked specifically what he expected Dozier's future was with the Twins.

    "I think we think his future is going to be glorious with the franchise," he responded. "He's been the consummate professional throughout this process. We always approached this from the mindset of, the best the Minnesota Twins could be would be with Brian Dozier. If someone wants to blow our socks off, we'll consider talking about him. But for that fact, we see him as part of this franchise moving forward."

    Atteberry asked Levine to address the "stats vs scouting" issue that comes up in almost any conversation about the new front office management. Again, the new GM mixed humor into his more thoughtful response.

    "When the movie Moneyball came out, everybody who was below a certain age - at that time, I would say 35, now I would say 45, just conveniently (Levine celebrated his 45th birthday in November) - you were viewed to be more of a formulaic-based decision making group vs if you were older, you were more of a scouts guy. And I think it's a bit of a misconception.

    "Derek and I are both guys who are going to have analytics and scouting and player development factor into every decision that we make. We're not going to focus singularly on any sort of formula to spit out a decision we're going to make.

    "The other big misconception I think about that movie is that anybody working in a front office looks at all like Brad Pitt. We really don't. Honestly.

    "So the movie did some disservices across the board, but I do think analytics plays a role in decision-making, but that's all it is. It's a piece of the pie. It's not something that is going to drive us to make any singular decision. It will be something we weigh in, we factor in, but it's not going to drive our decision-making."

    Also during the public session, Atteberry challenged Levine to demonstrate how much he knew about the two players he was sharing a stage with. Atteberry presented a few bits of trivia and asked Levine to guess which player, May or Buxton, the fact pertained to.

    The questions were: Which player DJ'd at his own wedding? Which one of them has the highest vertical jump and is the fastest runner in his family (and which is not)? Which has successfully noodled a catfish? And which one has a mother that kept a mountain lion as a pet for four years?

    The answers: May (obviously), Buxton is NOT the fastest runner or best jumper in his family (he said his dad jumps higher, his brother is faster and he has a 13-year old sister who may eventually pass them all), but Buxton did noodle a catfish. It was May's mother who kept a mountain lion as a pet.

    And Levine nailed every answer correctly.
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    • Two members of the "Knuckleballs" table took home door prizes. A May & Buxton signed jersey and a Twins stocking cap
    The final question from the audience asked Watkins and Buxton to relate the funniest thing that happened to them during their time with the Kernels.

    Suffice to say that you won't find Buxton playing baseball with ping pong balls in the clubhouse again any time soon and Watkins' days of shaving his head are over.

    (This article was originally posted at Knuckleballsblog.com)

    • Jan 26 2017 07:36 PM
    • by SD Buhr
  7. Kernels And Jake Mauer Focus On "Task At Hand"

    While winning takes a back seat to player development in modern minor league baseball, the local fans definitely like to follow a winner and Mauer has given the locals plenty of success, beginning with a squad that was loaded with top prospects in the inaugural season of the Twins/Kernels relationship. That team made winning look easy – at least a lot easier than it has looked in the two-and-a-half seasons since.

    2016 has, perhaps, been the most challenging of Mauer’s four years of wearing number 12 for the Kernels. This year’s group is short on players you would find among “top prospect” lists published by the likes of Baseball America, MLB.com or any other group in the business of tracking minor leaguers’ paths to the big leagues.

    Nonetheless, in an interview late last week, Mauer was unwilling to say that the lack of blue chippers on his team makes this season his most challenging.

    “Each year is different,” Mauer said. “If you have a lot of high-end (prospects), you’re expected to win and if you don’t have a lot of high-end guys, you’ve got to find ways to win. It’s all part of development, it’s all part of the process.

    “The second year (2014), I thought we had a lot of challenges, they were comparing the ’13 team to the ’14 team and that wasn’t fair to that ’14 team.”

    Winning is obviously a lot easier when you’ve got a lot of those high draft choices and big money international free agents. Several of them, including first-round draft choice Byron Buxton and six-figure bonus international signee Max Kepler (both now playing the outfield for the Twins) spent much of their 2013 seasons in Cedar Rapids uniforms.

    “You get blessed with years like ’13 where you have seven of them, eight of them. They’re all panning out at different speeds,” reflected Mauer. “You know, some of the clubs I had at Fort Myers I don’t think we had one. So it just depends on what you have.”

    When you’ve got a team of projected stars, a manager in Mauer’s position will generally stick with a pretty consistent lineup. “Obviously, guys that are higher end guys as a player," he said, "you’ve got to find out what they can and can’t do, that’s the nature of the beast.”

    Not so this season.

    “I wonder how many different lineups we’ve used,” Mauer pondered. “It’s probably been fifty or sixty of them, would be my guess.

    “Clubs like this, some of these guys that aren’t necessarily Baseball America guys get an opportunity to kind of put themselves on the map. As you can see, there’s no way to get buried on our bench here. Everybody plays.

    “Pitching’s a little bit different,” he conceded. “They earn (consistent playing time) a little bit more. They’re all going to get an opportunity, it’s just a matter of what they’re going to do with it.

    “It’s all getting these guys to understand themselves, first, in order for us to do anything - in order for them to have any impact down the road. This is the league where we start to shake out the guys that aren’t as mentally tough as others. Find out who can play every day, find out who can do what it takes. So, they’re going to get tested, they’re going to get innings, they’re going to get at-bats, get all that stuff. Then we’ll kind of look back in September at how everything unfolded.”

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    • (L-R) Cedar Rapids Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez, manager Jake Mauer and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman (behind screen) (Photo: SD Buhr)
    Throughout most of the first half of the season, it looked like the Kernels would easily clinch an early playoff spot by finishing in one of the top two spots in the Western Division’s first-half race, but they faltered badly during the final couple of weeks before the midpoint and ended up in third place.

    “You hate to say it,” Mauer commented on his squad’s late first half implosion, “but we scored the same amount of runs, but we lost two guys in the back end of the bullpen and lost probably the best starter in the league.

    “We weren’t necessarily blowing the doors off of anybody in the first half. It takes you a while to figure out who can step up and take those roles.”

    Mauer is starting to see some guys stepping up.

    Last week, the Kernels went on one a six-game road trip over into the MWL Eastern Division territory and came away with a perfect 6-0 record against Lake County and Fort Wayne.

    “We swung the bats really well,” he said of their Eastern sweep. “We rode (Luis) Arraez, (Zander) Wiel and (Jaylin) Davis, really. Other guys chipped in here and there, but those guys had a monster week. You’re scoring 6, 7, 8 runs a night, it gives you a pretty good chance to win.

    “(Wiel) can carry a team, which he did the last week. Jaylin Davis is probably in the same boat, he can carry a team. Arraez has been pretty consistent, but we kind of go where those three guys go. When the three of them are having a pretty good week, we’ve got a pretty good chance. If they’re not, it will be more difficult for us.”

    Finding pitchers to fill the holes left following promotions has been more challenging for Mauer and pitching coach J.P. Martinez. “Pitching is still kind of up in the air who we’ve got,” the manager said.

    “It’s so different,” Mauer said, of the Kernels’ bullpen situation. “We’re not as pitching-deep as we were last year. If we had a lead going into the fifth inning, we pretty much knew we were going to win last year. That’s not the case this year. You’ve got some guys that need to step up and take control. I’d say (Anthony) McIver has, to a point. We’ve got to find out about (Tom) Hackimer. But we still have several guys you don’t quite know what you’re going to get in given situations. We’ve got to find out.”

    Mauer’s clearly also looking for some improvement among his starting rotation.

    “(Cody) Stashak’s probably our number one (starting pitcher). (Lachlan) Wells has been good. Those two guys have been pretty good. If we can just get some of these (other) guys to take that next step, it would make the process better.”
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    • Kernels pitcher Lachlan Wells strikes out Reds first-round draft choice (2nd overall) Nick Senzel July 25. Catching is Rainis Silva. (Photo SD Buhr)
    The season’s second half is shaping up to be at least a four-team dogfight with the Kernels, Burlington Bees, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and Quad Cities River Bandits playing leapfrog with one another in the standings on virtually a daily basis as they jockey for one of the coveted second-half playoff spots.

    “That’s our division,” said Mauer. “There really isn’t a team that’s head and shoulders above anybody. Anybody can beat anybody on a given night and I think you’re going to see that kind of as we go through. Things change, obviously, as these draftee guys (from the 2016 draft) starting to come and some of these first full season guys that tend to hit a wall a little bit.”

    Mauer’s working with a pair of coaches, in his fourth season with the Kernels, that he hasn’t been teamed with before. Martinez and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman are in their first seasons by Mauer’s side after coaching with the Twins’ Gulf Coast League team, where games are played on back fields at the organization’s spring training complex in front of few, if any, fans.

    But the manager says things are going, “good,” on that count.

    “(Martinez and Dinkelman) have been real good. Their first ‘real baseball’ compared to that ‘complex ball’ that’s a lot different. They’ve done a good job. For them, their first year, this is unusual to have so many different guys coming through.”

    Forty-nine players have already worn a Kernels jersey in 2016. It’s not unusual for fewer players than that to suit up for Cedar Rapids in an entire season.

    “What’s nice is that these guys know most of the kids that have come up,” Mauer added. “They’ve had them, they know what makes them tick, the things to do with them, what they need to work on.”

    High roster turnover, few top prospects, new assistant coaches. Those things, on their own, might make a manager’s job challenging, but last week the Twins added a little something extra to the load that Mauer and his staff have to carry. Long-time General Manager Terry Ryan was fired by the Twins ownership.

    “It’s unfortunate,” Mauer said of Ryan’s dismissal. “Obviously, he’s a great baseball man. He’s all I’ve ever known as a GM, other than Bill Smith, but Terry wasn’t far away (during Smith's tenure as GM). I think it came as a shock, the timing of it, to everybody. He’s done so much for us and for our organization and whoever comes in after him is going to have big shoes to fill.”

    As a result, Mauer and his coaches now are essentially lame ducks, uncertain whether the new GM will choose to retain them going forward. How’s that for adding a little anxiety to the manager’s life?

    But, as Mauer observed, the anxiety goes well beyond just he and his coaches.

    “It could be for scouts, all the way down to the athletic training guys and strength guys. You don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know who is the next guy, if they have somebody in mind, if they don’t. So, we’ll see. I’m sure they’ve got a game plan up there for what they’re going to do.

    “But, if you’re confident in what you’re doing and you do a good job, you can’t control that,” Mauer concluded. “This is just like we tell the players, if they look at what’s going on ahead of them or who’s doing what behind them, they can’t control that. Same with us, (we can’t) worry about who’s coming in and fret about it, and not do the task at hand. We’ve got to do the task at hand first of all and see what shakes out.”

    The “task at hand” for the manager and his charges is to finish the final six weeks of the season strong. How does Mauer see the remainder of the season shaping up?

    “We’ll see. I wish I could answer that, honestly. I have no idea. We look like a million bucks for three or four days, then we have a tough time for three or four days. It’s just kind of how it is. We talk extensively about, we need leaders to step up and to lead and to be our guys so you kind of know what you’re going to get day in and day out.

    “They’ll keep playing hard and they’ll keep competing and we’ll just see how it ends up.”

    (This article was originally posted at Knuckleballsblog.com)

    • Jul 25 2016 09:11 PM
    • by SD Buhr
  8. Get To Know: Kernels Infielder Sean Miller

    However, things weren’t looking real good early in the season. On May 2nd, the 21-year-old infielder was hitting just .171/.188/.237 (.424) through the first 19 games with the Kernels. Not exactly numbers that earn a player a promotion, but when Nick Gordon went on the 7-Day disabled list in Ft. Myers, Miller was called up. In his week with the Miracle, Miller played in four games and hit just .125 (2-16).

    Gordon came off the DL, and Miller was shipped back to Cedar Rapids. Ironically, some of his baggage arrived in Ft. Myers after Miller returned to Iowa..

    Back in Cedar Rapids, things changed. Miller got back to work and the results started showing immediately.

    “When I got back, I really started to get to work with Jake (Mauer) and Dink (hitting coach Brian Dinkelman), and they’ve really helped me turn things around. Once I started consistently doing it, it just took off for me. Once you get hot and get confident, it’s kind of hard to go back to... crap, which is what I was doing.”

    Posted Image

    In 27 games since returning to the Kernels, Miller has hit an impressive.368/.372/.496 (.868) with nine doubles and three triples. In that time, he has hits in 25 of the 27 games, and he’s been on base in all but one game. Because of it, he finds himself hitting at the top of the Kernels lineup.

    Drafted in large part due to his ability to play shortstop, he has played all over the diamond for the Kernels already this season.

    “I’ve gotten used to playing third and second. I’ve played a lot at third this year. This is the first time I’ve ever played there, but I've learned a lot from Jake over there. He’s taught me and showed me different things.” Miller continued regarding the differences between shortstop and the hot corner, “Maybe the spin on the ball. Balls that are smoked and maybe top-spun, you just have to react. You don’t have time. At short, I have time to move my feet. At third it’s taking different angles and getting used to it.”

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    Just one year ago, Miller had completed his junior season at USC-Aiken. He was back home with his family. He assumed he wouldn’t be drafted on Day 1, but he figured there was a really good chance he would be taken sometime on Day 2. “I was expecting to go in the Top 10 (rounds) somewhere, I just didn’t know where, I had no idea.”

    The draft is always unpredictable. Players may hear all kinds of opinions on where they might be selected. They talk to scouts, but even that doesn’t give them a whole lot of clues. “I met with one Twins scout, one time, in Charlotte, NC, and that’s the only time I talked to them. I got a couple of calls before the tenth (round), but nothing really worked out and all of a sudden I got that call, and it was awesome.”

    You’ll find that players hoping to be drafted will try to find anything to keep from following the draft too closely (while at the same time fully understanding what’s going on). His advisor was keeping him updated through much of the day, so Miller spent the morning golfing. However, he was at home during much of the draft.

    “I was playing golf, and then I went home sitting on the couch watching TV. My dad had it (the draft) on in the other room. I was done. I was over it. But then he called me into the room, and I said ‘Wow, I’m glad you called me in here.’”

    It was appropriate that he was able to share the draft day experience with his father, Steve. When asked who in his life helped him get to where he is today (playing pro ball and finding success), Miller answered very quickly.

    “I would say my dad. He played pro ball for several years. He’s been around. He knows more than me. He’s helped me prepare for it, to know to expect or not to expect. The highs and lows of playing. He coached me for two years in HS, freshman and sophomore years, and then he was done.”

    It was time for him just to enjoy watching his son play ball. Steve Miller was San Francisco’s 13th-round pick in 1983 and spent five years in the Giants organization. He spent a couple of years in AAA but fell just short of the big leagues. He was known for his glove and for his defense primarily.

    Some of the best advice the son has been given by his father? “Don’t get too low, or don’t get to high. If you go 0-20, don’t go out and stay out all night. Still have to treat it like you’re 10-20 or something.”

    Sean has an older brother who pitched for four years in college. While Sean is listed at about 5-11, his brother stands 6-7.

    So what were Miller’s goals heading into this season?

    “I moved up quick last year. I wanted to come in here and do that again, maybe move up at some point. Mainly I just want to get comfortable and show my skills at the plate. I know I can hit. I want to show everyone that I can hit, and I’m starting to. After a rough start, I’m starting to show that I can hit a little bit.”

    Though he hasn’t walked a lot through his hot stretch, Miller knows that getting on base will be a key skill for him. “For me I’ve got to get on base and run, use my speed. See more pitches. I mean, I can hit a lot of pitches, but hitting pitches that are in my zone is just going to help me so much. I’ll be successful.”

    But that doesn’t mean he he isn’t continuing to work hard on his defensive skills. “I’m definitely a defensive guy, but I want to show that I can swing the bat too. I’m not just a guy who’s going to get infield singles or bloop balls. I’ve got a little pop.”

    Miller is talked about as a leader on the team, a real team player on and off of it. He has been active in the Cedar Rapids community already, recently spending time meeting and playing games with elderly. Following each Sunday home game, the Kernels spend a half-hour in the outfield, giving autographs and taking pictures. It’s neat to see how the kids kind of gravitate to Miller.

    On the field, Miller continues to improve, and it is possible that at some point he could find himself in Ft. Myers for more than just one week.

    Posted Image

    • Jun 14 2016 07:31 AM
    • by Seth Stohs