INDEPENDENCE - For Independence, the prep football season opener bore little resemblance to its winless 2016 campaign.
Even in defeat, a clear message was sent that there are brighter days ahead for the Mustangs.
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Christian Ibarra was ready to go home. He had one more game left with the Fort Myers Miracle, and his 2016 season was done.
Then his manager, Jeff Smith, called him into his office.
“He was like ‘Your season’s not over, Ibarra,’” Ibarra said, after the Cedar Rapids Kernels beat Clinton, 9-3, Saturday afternoon in Game 1 of the Midwest League Western Division finals. “It was like ‘OK, I’ve got to get mentally ready now.’”
Ibarra played a flawless third base defensively and came up with the game’s biggest hit, a three-run home run in the fifth inning that put the Kernels over the top and within a win of returning to the MWL Championship Series for a second consecutive year. Game 2 is Sunday night at 6:35 at Clinton, with a if-neccessary third game Monday night along the Mississippi River.
“This team is in the whole scheme of being aggressive right now,” Ibarra said. “That’s what’s helping us out. We’re all having fun these last couple games. It’s a team game, we’re playing good defense, hitting in the clutch. It’s just a team effort.”
Ibarra was signed midseason by the parent Minnesota Twins out of the independent leagues. After an adjustment period, he played well enough to get a promotion to high-Class A.
A wrist injury to shortstop Brandon Lopez necessitated Ibarra’s re-assignment to the Kernels.
“If Lopez doesn’t get hurt, he wouldn’t be here. That’s the thing,” said Kernels Manager Jake Mauer. “We’re glad he’s here.”
Clinton scored twice in the first inning against Kernels starting pitcher Brady Anderson and added another run in the top of the third. Cedar Rapids tied it in the bottom of the third and went ahead for good with a pair of runs in the fourth.
Kevin Garcia beat a Clinton defensive shift by bunting for a single to a vacated third base leading off the C.R. fifth. Casey Scoggins singled to center, bringing up Ibarra.
This was a bunting situation, but Mauer rolled the dice and let Ibarra swing away. He eventually drove a Pablo Lopez fastball over the party deck in left.
“That’s what I was thinking as soon as I got up there. I was like ‘Here comes the bunt,’” Ibarra said. “But he told me to hack away.”
“We’ve seen that Lopez kid a lot and kind of know what he’s going to do,” Mauer said. “I think that helped. He’s not going to walk many, he’s not going to strike out many. His stuff isn’t too scary. Those kind of guys you can wait out sometimes, and when he throws a fastball where you want it, go ahead and take a whack at it.”
Andrew Vasquez was huge after relieving Anderson to begin the fourth. He posted four shutout innings, giving up one hit, walking one and striking out six to get the victory.
Lefty Vasquez has thrown 10 2/3 shutout innings against Clinton, including the regular season.
“It was kind of the same as every other time they call my name. I’ve got to go get outs,” Vasquez said. “It’s the same thing as always, no matter if I come in early or come in late.”
Sunday’s pitching matchup is Sam Gibbons (7-6, 4.61 ERA in regular season) for the Kernels and Kevin Gadea (3-0, 2.15) for Clinton. The LumberKings had the MWL’s best regular-season record of 86-54.
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