Kernels lose another toughie, still tied for 1st

CEDAR RAPIDS – In case you are wondering, yes, the Cedar Rapids Kernels care about finishing off this first half with a division championship.

“A lot,” confirmed Kernels first baseman D.J. Hicks after another tough-to-take loss last night, 6-2, in 10 innings to Peoria before 4,580 fans at Veterans Memorial Stadium. “More than a lot of people probably think. When we clinched (a playoff berth) the other night, everyone was like ‘Good job. How many more do we have to win to get first place?’ We’re still chasing that pretty hard.”

Hard enough, at least, for hitting coach Tommy Watkins to bring up the calculator app on his cell phone postgame to figure out the winning percentages of the Kernels and Beloit. The teams are still tied for first place in the Midwest League’s Western Division with two games to play for each: the Kernels at home against Peoria and Beloit at home against Clinton.

The team with the better winning percentage when all is said and done Sunday will officially be first-half champ and earn home-field advantage in the first round of September’s MWL playoffs. Right now, that’s Cedar Rapids by .003.

It’s hard to believe the difference between first and second could come down to which team played fewer first-half games. While Beloit (41-27) will likely get in all 70, Cedar Rapids (40-26) has had two of cancelled by poor weather.

Hey, a championship is a championship, right, even if you back in? The Kernels held a five-game lead on May 20, but have gone 10-13 in their last 23 games.

That includes giving up five runs in the ninth inning Thursday night to lose at Quad Cities and four unearned ones in the 10th here.

“We’re just coming up a little short,” said Hicks, whose opposite-field, two-run home run onto the porch in left in the eighth tied the game at 2-2. “That’s really what it all comes down to. We’ve got to make a couple of plays here and there, and the outcome changes.”

Jordan Walton led off the Peoria 10th with a grounder toward the hole between first and second that Kernels second baseman Candido Pimentel did well to get to but threw wild for a two-base error. An infield hit put runners on the corners, then Jesus Montero hit a chopper off the plate that third baseman Travis Harrison dropped in a rush to try and get a double play for another error.

Luis Perez put it out of reach with an ensuing pinch-hit, three-run home run. Steve Gruver (4-2), whose been as reliable a reliever as the Kernels have had this season, took the loss despite not giving up an earned run.“We’re first place for right now,” said Kernels Manager Jake Mauer. “I don’t know what’s going on, but the baseball gods haven’t been too good to us lately. They chop the ball a dozen times tonight and get hits … That’s just the way it goes.”