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CEDAR RAPIDS — When Travis Blankenhorn executed a clean steal of home to win Saturday night’s game, you kind of had a feeling. When he clanked one off the right-field foul pole for a two-run home run Sunday afternoon, you had no doubt.
The Cedar Rapids Kernels were going to the Midwest League playoffs. Again.
Nothing like a nine-run first inning to take away the suspense. That’s what the Kernels had in a 16-3 romp over Clinton before a terrific Father’s Day crowd of 3,926 at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Cedar Rapids ends the first half with a 39-31 record, second place in the Midwest League’s Western Division and its wildcard berth to the postseason in September. The Minnesota Twins have been the local club’s major league affiliate for five years, and this will be the fifth straight playoff appearance.
You can’t beat that.
“When we’re there, I think we are, by far, the best team in our division,” said Kernels catcher Ben Rortvedt, whose first career home run in the seventh inning capped off the offensive explosion. “We have a lot of great talent up and down our lineup, and everyone can do their part.”
The Kernels were in first or second place in the division most of the first half, but had a relatively poor final week and suddenly found themselves in a second-place tie with Quad Cities going into Saturday night’s play. The River Bandits had a better winning percentage by .001, which would have given them the wildcard berth.
But Blankenhorn’s home-plate steal in the eighth inning gave Cedar Rapids an electric 2-1 win Saturday night, and Quad Cities ended up losing at Beloit in extra innings a couple of hours later. The Kernels were back in control of their playoff destiny.
“I think we had a lot of momentum after that win last night,” Blankenhorn said. “Then when we found out Quad Cities lost, and we knew it was back in our hands, that helped a lot.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever been more excited over a game than we were last night,” Rortvedt said. “We were really fired up. There were a lot of good feelings coming into this one. We were all excited to have the opportunity to play for a (playoff spot).”
Poor Clinton starting pitcher Danny Garcia (5-5) didn’t even record an out, as the first seven C.R. hitters reached against him, the final one Christian Cavaness, who tripled in three runs. Garcia saw his earned run average grow over a full run.
Three more runs in the second inning made it a 12-0 game. Spot starter Max Cordy teamed with Alex Robinson, Logan Lombana and Patrick McGuff to take care of the 27 outs needed.
Robinson (2-5) relieved Cordy in the fourth and got the victory, throwing 2 1/3 hitless innings.
“I know it’s been a rough week and a half, two weeks for us, but after last night ...,” said Kernels Manager Tommy Watkins, celebrating his 37th birthday in style. “Just go play (today). I had a conversation with some of the guys this morning, and we were talking about that Quad Cities game last night. I told them I didn’t even want to know how they were doing, and I didn’t know ... I got a text after their game was over. Pretty cool.”
Six Kernels took off Sunday night to drive part of the way to Midland, Mich., for Tuesday night’s Midwest League All-Star Game. They were pitchers Sean Poppen and Clark Beeker and starters Lewin Diaz (first base), Mitchell Kranson (designated hitter), Jermaine Palacios (shortstop) and Blankenhorn (third base).
The MWL’s second half begins Thursday night at Quad Cities.
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