Minor League Sports

Cedar Rapids Kernels focus on continuing individual improvement with no playoff pressure

Kernels locked up Midwest League playoff bid in first half

Cedar Rapids Kernels manager Brian Dinkelman (left) talks to Gabriel Maciel after Maciel drove in two runs on a triple during the bottom of the second inning of the Midwest Baseball League game against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers at Veterans Memorial Stadium in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. The Kernels won 4-3. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids Kernels manager Brian Dinkelman (left) talks to Gabriel Maciel after Maciel drove in two runs on a triple during the bottom of the second inning of the Midwest Baseball League game against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers at Veterans Memorial Stadium in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. The Kernels won 4-3. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — There was no pressure on Brian Dinkelman. Yeah, right.

There’s always pressure on a minor league baseball manager to make sure his players are progressing, developing. That’s job Nos. 1, 2 and 3 for him.

Then, in the case of the first-year Cedar Rapids Kernels skipper, there was something else. The Minnesota Twins have been the parent club here since 2013, with the Kernels qualifying for the Midwest League playoffs every year.

That includes this year now. Cedar Rapids rallied in the final month of the first half to finish in a tie for second place in the Western Division, earning the division’s wild card playoff berth via tiebreaker over Burlington.

That’s seven for seven, folks, an impressive streak, no matter how you cut it. The Midwest League is a 16-team league, after all.

Dinkelman joins Jake Mauer, Tommy Watkins and Toby Gardenhire as C.R. playoff managers. Watkins is the Twins’ first-base coach now.

“It was different at first,” Dinkelman said, about his first pro managing gig. “Just getting used to the routine, everything that goes along with being a manager. We didn’t get off to the best start there. I think we were a few games under .500 in May. Then guys started turning it on a little bit and performing a little bit better. It was kind of a down-and-up first half for me. But it’s been fun.”

The Kernels (39-31) were five games under .500 at their worst in early May but surged suddenly and successfully. They won 10 of their last 12 games and 14 of their final 18 to virtually steal a postseason spot.

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They beat Burlington in six of 10 first-half games, which was the tiebreaker. Quad Cities ran away with the division championship.

“These guys competed really well the last couple of weeks,” Dinkelman said. “I think they knew what was on the line the last few days. Had a chance that we could win some ballgames. We played well the last few days, so it was fun.”

Dinkelman lauded the pitching staff of the Kernels, saying it was solid throughout the first half, despite losing starters Blayne Enlow, Jordan Balazovic and Cole Sands to promotions. The second half begins Thursday night with a four-game series at Peoria, and the Kernels/Twins announced the promotions of key relievers Derek Molina and Zach Neff, as well as starting third baseman Andrew Bechtold.

Player movement was a constant in the first half. The Kernels had 42 active guys throughout the half, approaching two full teams.

That’s higher than normal.

“When you get a few players in, you try and get them (to jell) real quick,” Dinkelman said. “We know most of these guys from spring training. We get to see them there, so when they get up here, they’re not completely new. You try and get guys into the right situations, try and get them to succeed. The last few weeks have been good. I’m excited for them.”

We’ll have to see what the second half brings. Certainly the Kernels will see at least a couple of new 2019 draft picks of the Twins.

That always happens.

But everyone can just go out and play. A playoff spot already is in their pocket.

“You just out and do your best to perform,” Dinkelman said. “Then when the playoffs come around, you get ready to play. It might take a tad bit of pressure off the guys, but you just go out and try to perform each day. That doesn’t change.”

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

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