Minor League Sports

Cedar Rapids Kernels seek 2nd-half consistency

Cedar Rapids' Andrew Bechtold (7) is safe at third base while Kane County's Joey Rose (8) waits for the throw from the outfield during a Midwest League game at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids on Sunday, April 22, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids' Andrew Bechtold (7) is safe at third base while Kane County's Joey Rose (8) waits for the throw from the outfield during a Midwest League game at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids on Sunday, April 22, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — To prognosticate how the Cedar Rapids Kernels will fare in the second half of the Midwest League season, first you have to prognosticate who is going to be on the team.

The Kernels begin their final 70 games Thursday night at home against Wisconsin. It’s part of a seven-game homestand.

You’d hope a week at Veterans Memorial Stadium would help Cedar Rapids get off to a strong second-half start, though it went just 16-21 at home in the first half. It began the season winning six straight overall but still couldn’t clinch one of two available first-half playoff spots in the Western Division.

Quad Cities won the division, with Peoria and Clinton finishing a game behind. Peoria earned the division wild card playoff berth via tiebreaker. The Kernels, meanwhile, finished tied for fifth with a 32-37 record.

Just too much uneven play for a club that featured two first-round draft picks in shortstop Royce Lewis and outfielder Alex Kirilloff. The duo was dynamic in the first half, both earning starting spots for the Western Division in Tuesday night’s Midwest League All-Star Game at Lansing Mich.

Lewis, last year’s top-overall draft pick, hit .302 in the first half, with 16 doubles, six home runs, 37 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. It was revealed last week that the recently turned 19-year-old has been playing with patellar tendinitis in his left knee.

Kirilloff did not look like a player who missed all of the 2017 season because of Tommy John surgery, hitting .333 with a MWL-high 13 home runs and 56 RBIs. He posted an OPS of .999.

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The question is how long those two will remain in Cedar Rapids. Rumors have abounded that one or both will move soon to high-Class A Fort Myers, though nothing was officially announced by the Kernels and parent Minnesota Twins as of Wednesday night.

Their presence certainly would help the Kernels in the second half. Their absence would take a huge chunk out of the offense.

Cedar Rapids finished the first half fourth in the 16-team Midwest League in batting average and OPS. The late improvement at the plate of infielders Jose Miranda and Andrew Bechtold, in particular, should bode well in the second half.

It also will be interesting to see if the Kernels eventually get assigned outfielder Trevor Larnach. He was Minnesota’s top draft pick a couple of weeks ago but is still playing with Oregon State at the College World Series.

Cedar Rapids finished 10th in the MWL in team earned run average in the first half (4.03), and an overall improvement in pitching is integral to the club’s second-half fortunes. Manager Toby Gardenhire said he felt starter Bryan Sammons was the Kernels’ first-half pitching MVP, as he posted a solid 3.05 earned run average in 11 starts.

The six-man starting rotation also includes exciting young arms in Brusdar Graterol and Jordan Balazovic, among others. Graterol’s fastball has been clocked as high as 101 miles per hour, though he had a sudden drop in velocity in his final first-half start and was kept home from the MWL All-Star Game to rest what is being called a “tired arm.”

A bullpen guy to watch in the second half is Jovani Moran. The lefty allowed just one run over his last dozen first-half innings and struck out 21.

The Kernels have qualified for the MWL playoffs all five seasons they have been a Twins affiliate. To make it six straight, they’ll simply need to be more consistent.

Whoever is on the team.

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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