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Twins Minor League Report (9/21): Playoffs?! Yes, We're Talking About Playoffs!


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The Wichita Wind Surge and Cedar Rapids Kernels began their championship playoff series on Tuesday, each with their top pitcher Jordan Balazovic and Louie Varland taking the mound. Would either of them be able to lead their team to victory? Keep reading to find out!

TRANSACTIONS
There were no transactions in the system in advance of the Cedar Rapids Kernels and Wichita Wind Surge starting their league championship series on Tuesday.

SAINTS SENTINEL
Scheduled Day Off

The Saints got an extra day off on their schedule, as they begin the Final Stretch of games happening across the Triple-A level to end the season. They will play five games against the Iowa Cubs at home starting on Wednesday, and then five on the road against Toledo next week.

WIND SURGE WISDOM
Game 1: Wichita 5, NW Arkansas 7
Box Score

The Wichita Wind Surge had to feel good about themselves heading into game one against the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, with top prospect Jordan Balazovic lined up to start. It didn’t go as well as they hoped, but was a back and forth affair throughout with several lead changes and big plays on both sides.

Wichita had a two-out threat in the top of the first after singles from Roy Morales and Spencer Steer put runners on the corners, but Jermaine Palacios grounded out to keep them off the scoreboard in the opening frame. That changed in the second inning when Leobaldo Cabrera clubbed a home run to left field for a 1-0 lead.

Balazovic got two quick outs in the bottom of the frame, but the Naturals struck back with a single followed by a triple to tie the game at one. 

In the third inning, it was a D.J. Burt homer that put the Wind Surge back out front, but another two-out rally from the Naturals brought in two runs of their own that made the score 3-2 after three innings.

The fourth inning was much of the same as the teams again traded single runs, with Wichita getting an RBI double from Cabrera in the top half before the Naturals chased Balazovic in the bottom half after a pair of two-out walks loaded the bases.

Melvi Acosta was summoned from the bullpen and issued a walk of his own that made the score 4-3 for Northwest Arkansas. The fifth inning was finally a scoreless frame on both sides, though the Wind Surge had a chance as Austin Martin doubled to lead off the inning, but he was stranded on third base. In the sixth inning, it was one swing of the bat from Palacios that again tied the game at four.

With two outs in the top of the seventh and Spencer Steer at-bat, a pivotal play was made that may have finally swung the momentum of the game one way. Steer laced a 2-1 pitch deep into the gap in left-center, but the Naturals left fielder tracked it down at full speed before crashing hard into the wall, likely saving a run. That same fielder, Brewer Hicklen, of course was up the next inning, and with that adrenaline still running through his veins, took Erik Manoah Jr. deep to center for a 5-4 lead. The home team added two insurance runs in the eighth for a 7-4 lead that would turn out to be enough for the Naturals to take game one.

Wichita threatened in the ninth with three singles that scored one run, but couldn’t get the big hit to bring them all the way back.

On the pitching front, Balazovic went 3 2/3 innings in the start, allowing four runs on six hits and four walks while picking up three strikeouts. Acosta went the next 1 1/3 innings, allowing no runs of his own on one hit and one walk. Kody Funderburk went 2/3 of an inning and allowed a hit and walk. Manoah Jr. was tagged with the loss by allowing the go-ahead home run in the seventh. He pitched one inning, allowed two hits, and struck out one. Evan Sisk and Adam Lau each recording two outs, with Sisk allowing two insurance runs on two hits while striking out one. Lau allowed one hit, walked two, and struck out one.

The Wind Surge got multiple hits on the night from Martin (2-for-4, 2B, BB), Morales (2-for-5, RBI), Palacios (2-for-4, 2 R, HR, RBI, K), and Cabrera (2-for-4, R, 2B, HR) and the team's three home runs on the night were not enough.

Wichita will look to even the series at one with Cole Sands taking the hill tomorrow before heading back home to the ICT to finish off the series.

KERNELS NUGGETS
Cedar Rapids 2, Quad Cities 1
Box Score

The Kernels were able to fend off the teams on their heels to grab their league’s final playoff spot, and they sent a big reason why in Louie Varland to the mound in game one. He didn’t disappoint, though it looked shaky for a minute in the second inning.

After picking up a groundout for the first out of the frame, Varland allowed a double and the game’s first run on a single that followed. He then walked a batter and surrendered another single to load the bases before a mound visit was in order to get him back in rhythm. After that, he got a grounder to first that forced the runner out at home, then a pop out to escape that jam.

His lineup got that run back for him in the bottom of the inning, as consecutive two-out doubles from Jair Camargo and DaShawn Keirsey tied the game at one.

That mound visit was definitely what the doctor ordered, as Varland was locked in from then on.

He retired nine in a row from the third through the sixth inning, and gave up just two singles to bookend that streak. In all, he finished seven fantastic innings, tying his mark for longest outing of the season, and allowed just the one run on six total hits and one walk. He struck out four River Bandits in the outing and of his 98 pitches, 68 went for strikes (69.4%), along with getting 14 swinging strikes.

Varland was matched, however, by the pitching staff of Quad Cities. The game remained tied while he was on the mound. The Kernels were unable to cash in any of their scoring chances, including a bases-loaded opportunity in the sixth.

In the seventh inning, the Kernels struck out four times, but nonetheless had an opportunity as one of those K’s resulted in a wild pitch that allowed Edouard Julien to reach base. Another wild pitch moved him to second before the River Bandits played the percentages and intentionally walked Aaron Sabato to get the lefty-lefty matchup against Matt Wallner. It worked, as the pitcher got his fourth K of the inning and kept the game tied at 1-1.

In the top of the eighth, the Kernels went to reliever Osiris German, and he delivered a one-two-three inning to bring his team back into the dugout looking to finally break through.

Jair Camargo did just that, sending a two-out home run over the wall in right field to give the Kernels the lead.

With the lead in hand, Cedar Rapids called on one of the best relievers in the system this year in Zach Featherstone to close out the game. He allowed a one-out single but like he had all season, also racked up the strikeouts, getting three of them to pick up the save and take game one for the Kernels.

Camargo (2-for-3, 2 R, 2B, HR, RBI, BB, K) was the only batter in the lineup with multiple hits on the night while Sabato and Julien each reached base twice. They were 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position compared to 2-for-4 for the River Bandits, but it was enough behind Varland.

It’s worth noting that the Kernels were just 7-17 against the River Bandits during the regular season, but that means nothing in a playoff series they now lead 1-0 with Sean Mooney taking the mound in game two tomorrow night.

TWINS DAILY MINOR LEAGUE PLAYERS OF THE DAY
Pitcher of the Day - Louie Varland, Cedar Rapids Kernels (7 IP, 6 H, ER, BB, 4 K)
Hitter of the Day - Jair Camargo, Cedar Rapids Kernels (2-for-3, 2 R, 2B, HR, RBI, BB, K)

PROSPECT SUMMARY
#2 - Austin Martin (Wichita) - 2-for-4, 2B
#3 - Jordan Balazovic (Wichita) - 3.2 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 4 BB, 3 K
#12 - Matt Wallner (Cedar Rapids) - 0-for-4, 2 K
#16 - Brent Rooker (Minnesota) - 0-for-1 (pinch hit appearance)
#20 - Spencer Steer (Wichita) - 1-for-5, K

WEDNESDAY’S PROBABLE STARTERS
Iowa @ St. Paul (7:05 PM CST) - RHP Derek Law (1-0, 2.66 ERA)
Wichita @ NW Arkansas (6:30 PM CST) - RHP Cole Sands (4-2, 2.46 ERA)
Quad Cities @ Cedar Rapids (6:35 PM CST) - RHP Sean Mooney (0-1, 6.23 ERA)

Please feel free to ask questions and discuss the playoff games from Tuesday!

 


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2 hours ago, mikelink45 said:

In the later part of the season it feels like Balazovic has been losing his position and the top of the prospects list. I've been really excited about him and hoped that he would really finish with a flourish. 

Agreed Mike.  Balazovic has had several stinkers over the past month.

On the other hand Varland has been solid, and last nights outing was fantastic!

 

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With Balazovic on the mound for the Wind Surge and the Kernels facing the powerful Quad Cities nine, would we win one and lose one would have expected the win to be from Wichita.  I guess that's why they play the games.

With an off year last summer and a late start, seemed to me that Balazovic tired following that tremendous streak of four or five games without giving up a run.  Expect his ceiling remains very high, just gonna take a couple more years for him to grow into that big time major league starter.  No one knows the future, but we may not see him at Target Field until 2023.

Wichita cannot afford to come home down 0-2, so tonight becomes a MUST game for them and Cole Sands.

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4 hours ago, mikelink45 said:

In the later part of the season it feels like Balazovic has been losing his position and the top of the prospects list. I've been really excited about him and hoped that he would really finish with a flourish. 

I'm not overly concerned. For starters, its a long season and pitchers are pretty wiped at this point; other than his injury at the beginning of the season, Balazovic has more or less made every start he's been scheduled for, so he's probably pretty drained coming off little work last year. Also, as Dan Hayes wrote about at The Athletic, he's working on adding a splitter and changing up his approach. This should be good for him in the long run, but bumps in the road are expected at first. 

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Varland is an interesting prospect. The Twins system depth is pretty high right now so it might be a challenge for him to crack the top 20, but based on performance he should get some serious consideration. He's responded really well to not having a 2020 season, but it still put him a year behind on his development track; you'd like to see him in AA at his age, but it's hard to say he should have skipped A-ball entirely after less than 10 innings in rookie ball and coming from a small school college program. but when a guy executes, you have to reward him for it. I'm guessing he's borderline top 20 for the Twins next year and starts in AA. If he can make that jump he'll be on a good track.

I'm not super worried about Balazovic either; yes, he hasn't finished as dominant as we'd like to see, but he's handled the transition to AA pretty well, especially while working on a new pitch. He still looks like a guy who's going to be in line to make his MLB debut at some point in 2022, and I'm happy to have him pitching this late in the year. I'd bet on a spring training looksee and a start in AAA.

Duran, Balazovic, Strotman, Winder, Woods-Richardson, Canterino, Sands...nice group of guys with good upside to compete for shots in the rotation after the injuries/ineffectiveness hits for the MLB club. (right now, I'm betting on the rotation being: "best FA starter we can get", Pineda, Ryan, Ober, and Dobnak/reclamation project flyer out of spring training with the 7 guys I listed above getting looks in spring training and fighting for their shot by May. Duran could grab the 5th spot if he's healthy out of spring training...) The upside on these 7 guys is higher than guys like Thorpe or Jax, so hopefully the talent pays out.

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1 hour ago, jmlease1 said:

Varland is an interesting prospect. The Twins system depth is pretty high right now so it might be a challenge for him to crack the top 20, but based on performance he should get some serious consideration. He's responded really well to not having a 2020 season, but it still put him a year behind on his development track; you'd like to see him in AA at his age, but it's hard to say he should have skipped A-ball entirely after less than 10 innings in rookie ball and coming from a small school college program. but when a guy executes, you have to reward him for it. I'm guessing he's borderline top 20 for the Twins next year and starts in AA. If he can make that jump he'll be on a good track.

I'm not super worried about Balazovic either; yes, he hasn't finished as dominant as we'd like to see, but he's handled the transition to AA pretty well, especially while working on a new pitch. He still looks like a guy who's going to be in line to make his MLB debut at some point in 2022, and I'm happy to have him pitching this late in the year. I'd bet on a spring training looksee and a start in AAA.

Duran, Balazovic, Strotman, Winder, Woods-Richardson, Canterino, Sands...nice group of guys with good upside to compete for shots in the rotation after the injuries/ineffectiveness hits for the MLB club. (right now, I'm betting on the rotation being: "best FA starter we can get", Pineda, Ryan, Ober, and Dobnak/reclamation project flyer out of spring training with the 7 guys I listed above getting looks in spring training and fighting for their shot by May. Duran could grab the 5th spot if he's healthy out of spring training...) The upside on these 7 guys is higher than guys like Thorpe or Jax, so hopefully the talent pays out.

I voted Varland as my Twins Minor League Pitcher of the Year. He still may end up in the bullpen long term due to his lack of a third pitch, but his results this season were undeniable. His command got better as the season progressed and his overall numbers remained unchanged despite a drop in his K%. Some of that may be a little flukey, but no other pitcher in the Twins system put together as complete a season. 

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For context, Varland is over one year older than the average competition in his Low-A league…while Balazovic is nearly 3 years younger than his average AA competition.

Still, no way to look at Balazovic’s numbers this year and conclude anything other than that he struggled significantly. For those that want the FO to push the top prospects…this is what you’re going to get more often than not. I don’t think it’s anything to be too worried about…but it seems clear he’s not ‘close’.

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