116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS – The Minnesota Twins thought so much of Matt Wallner, they drafted him twice.
This has nothing to do with favoring a hometown kid. The Cedar Rapids Kernels right fielder grew up in Forest Lake, Minn., which is about 25 miles northeast of Saint Paul.
It has everything to do, at least the second time, with his ability to drive a baseball a long way. Wallner hit two home runs and drove in six in the Kernels’ 7-6 win Wednesday night over Peoria at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Cedar Rapids won it in walk-off fashion, with Gabe Snyder’s double to left field with none out in the ninth inning bringing home Seth Gray with the winning run. The Kernels are 2-0.
Now back to Wallner. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound lefty swinger was drafted by the Twins out of high school in the 32nd round in 2016 but didn’t sign.
“I wasn’t ready,” he said. “I needed to go to school … Also I wanted to be a hitter, and I got drafted as a pitcher, which was an issue.”
He intended to head to the University of North Dakota until that baseball program was unexpectedly dropped. Instead his would-have-been coach at North Dakota, Jeff Dodson, was from Alabama and had connections at Southern Mississippi, where Wallner wound up, becoming quite possibly that program’s most decorated player.
And this is a school that produced former Twin and longtime major league second baseman Brian Dozier.
Wallner hit 54 homers in three seasons for the Golden Eagles, which prompted the Twins to draft him again, this time 39th overall in 2019 in the Competitive Balance ‘A’ round. He began in Rookie ball after signing a contract and ended that season with the Kernels.
“It worked out. It was a long journey, but I’m happy where I’m at right now,” Wallner said. “Really cool to be with your hometown team. That’s what you want.”
Wallner struck out swinging in the first inning when he admitted he was trying to hit a home run. His sacrifice fly to center scored the Kernels’ first run in the third, then the real fun began.
A majestic, no-doubter two-run home run over the advertising ribbon boards in right field cut Peoria’s lead to 5-3. He came up again in the seventh with two on and nobody out, worked a 3-1 count from Peoria reliever Freddy Pacheco and smoked more of a line-drive, three-run home run more toward the right-field foul pole.
“He’s a good hitter, a big-bodied kid with big power,” said Kernels Manager Brian Dinkelman. “A middle-of-the order bat, and we’re glad to have him here. He got a couple of good pitches to hit tonight, and he didn’t miss them. Couple of good swings to get us back in the game, one that put us in the lead. It was good to see him square a couple of them up tonight.”
After Gray led off the ninth by being hit by a 3-2 pitch, Wallner dropped a ball opposite field inside for a single and his third hit of the game. Snyder followed with a twisting ball to left that Peoria left fielder Chandler Redmond misplayed and allowed to drop.
“I’ve really tried to simplify my swing, so I feel better at the top of the zone,” Wallner said. “So I’m just more consistent. Obviously it’s still a work in progress, with more ABs coming. But, yeah, my swing just feels simpler. It’s quicker to the ball. I’m happy with where I’m at with that.”
“His swing just looks a little bit more compact,” Dinkelkman said. “He takes some violent hacks when he’s at the plate. Some swing and misses. When we saw him in ’19, he could have been worn down at the end of the season, playing college and then pro. But he’s off to a good start here, had a nice spring for us down in Florida. Hopefully he can continue this as we go on.”
Spencer Steer had three hits for the Kernels, after collecting a pair in Tuesday’s season opener. Snyder had two hits to match his total in the opener.
Though he gave up a game-tying homer in the eighth, Jordan Gore got the pitching win in relief. He is pitching professionally for the first time after being an infielder previously in the Twins system, including at Cedar Rapids.
The teams play again Thursday night at 6:35.
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