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CEDAR RAPIDS — It’s not technically first place. At least not yet.
But to the Cedar Rapids Kernels, it sort of feels like it, and you can’t blame them.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Manager Jake Mauer said, straining to be heard over a raucous home clubhouse at Veterans Memorial Stadium following a 3-2, 11-inning victory Wednesday night over Kane County.
Jonathan Hinojosa singled to right with two outs to score an elusive Tanner Vavra from second base and officially give the Kernels the top second-half playoff seed in the Midwest League’s Western Division. Instead of a first-round matchup against Kane County, which owns the league’s best overall record, it’s Burlington the Kernels draw in a best-of-three postseason series that begins next Wednesday night at Cedar Rapids.
Games 2 and 3, if needed, are at Burlington.
“Right now, what it means is we don’t have to face the number one team in the league in the first round,” Vavra said, after getting smeared on the chest and face by shortstop Engelb Vielma with congratulatory cake. “That’s huge, in and of itself. We’ve played well against both teams, I feel like. But, obviously, when you are looking at records, you would rather take your chances with the (team with the) lower record. That’s just plain statistics.”
The Kernels (72-63, 41-24) are two games back of Kane County for first place in the Western Division, with two games left in this series and five in the regular season. They have played tremendous baseball the last two months, compiling a 35-13 record in their last 48 games.
“This is something pretty special,” Mauer said. “From where we started, we had some long nights in May. It’s been kind of fun to watch this club come together. Obviously, the new additions we’ve had inserted a lot of energy. We’ve had a pretty good last six weeks or so.”
Vavra led off the 11th by lining a single to left. He was bunted to second by Zack Larson.
After Logan Wade struck out, Hinojosa rolled one through the hole on the right side against losing reliever Michael Wagner (3-3), with Kane County right fielder Jeffrey Baez charging the ball hard.
He appeared to have at least a 50-50 shot at gunning Vavra, but his throw was up the third-base line, with Vavra manevuering around catcher Cael Brockmeyer and coming back to touch the plate to end it. Vavra was thrown out at home for the third out in the bottom of the ninth, trying to score on Hinojosa’s liner to center.
Cougars center fielder Trey Martin, playing shallow, made a sliding catch on that ball, got up quickly and fired a perfect two-hopper to home.
“I’m going on contact there,” Vavra said of the winning run. “I knew the outfielders were playing in tight again to try and cut down the run on the routine single. Jake said gotta go, so I took off. I saw the throw take the catch up the line, so I just had to get down a little earlier. Fortunately, I was able to make a good slide.”
Hinojosa, who has been a sparkplug since arriving from Rookie-ball a couple of weeks ago, pulled a leadoff home run to right in the bottom of the first inning for his first professional home run. A wild pitch scored Alex Swim in the seventh innning to pull Cedar Rapids into a 2-2 tie.
Starting pitcher Ryan Eades continued his second-half comeback, allowing four hits and a pair of runs in six innings. Brandon Bixler, Jake Reed and Josue Montanez (2-4) combined for five shutout relief innings, Reed extending his scoreless streak to 21 2/3 innings.
Second baseman Ryan Walker was removed from the game in favor of Wade in the second inning after getting sick and throwing up. Mauer said the Kernels hope to activate injured pitcher Kohl Stewart from the disabled list before the season is over with.
He has been out with a shoulder strain. Chih-Wei Hu, who is the scheduled starting pitcher in Thursday night’s game, will be Cedar Rapids’ starter in the playoff opener against Burlington, with the rest of the rotation yet to be determined.
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