Minor League Sports

Pitching strong Cedar Rapids, Quad Cities face off in Midwest League playoffs

Best-of-3 series begins Wednesday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium

Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher Josh Winder. (The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher Josh Winder. (The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Their T-shirts read “Enter The Dragon,” which isn’t your ordinary sports cliche.

This isn’t something like “Busting Ours To Kick Yours” or “There’s No ‘I’ In Team.” This one needs some explanation.

So let’s let Virgil Vasquez do just that. What does this slogan that you and your pitchers are wearing around actually mean?

“Put everything you are, all your hard work, your passion, everything you want, your attention, into every pitch you throw,” the Cedar Rapids Kernels pitching coach said. “We’re trying to bring a feeling to the game. It’s like the fire being represented when (dragons) breathe fire. It’s doing what’s best for your team, because you know that what’s best for your team is also best for you.”

These dragons set a Cedar Rapids club record for most strikeouts in a season with 1,210, an average of 8.6 per game. A sign of today’s baseball, that number still ranked just fourth in the 16-team Midwest League, with Quad Cities first.

Considering all the Ks and that these teams ranked fourth and fifth in ERA, runs are likely to be at a premium in their first-round MWL playoff series. The best-of-3 set begins Wednesday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium, with Games 2 and 3, if needed, coming Thursday and Friday nights at Davenport.

The Kernels went 9-7 against Quad Cities in the regular season.

“You know, (setting the strikeout record) is a special thing for our guys because our job as coaches is to set an environment and a process for them to succeed in,” Vasquez said. “The process and environment that we have created encourages strikeouts and encourages the things that they are accomplishing. For them to go out and do it, to set a record ... Honestly, we didn’t even know about it until the day before it happened, that we were getting close. I was pumped, we were celebrating in the dugout because we love punchouts. It’s part of the dragon way.”

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The Kernels are expected to send Luis Rijo (5-8, 2.86 earned run average) to the mound for Game 1, with Matt Canterino (1-1, 1.35 in five games) going in Game 2 and Josh Winder (7-2, 2.65) in Game 3. Quad Cities is expected to counter with Valente Bellozo (0-1, 2.77 in three games), Brett Daniels (7-6, 2.10) and Matt Ruppenthal (5-7, 4.33), in that order.

All six guys are right-handers.

The Kernels finished 39-31 in each half, sweeping a three-game series at Beloit to end the regular season. Solid starting pitching and being able to win close games, many in late-inning rallies, were the trademarks of this team.

“This team has competed very well,” said Manager Brian Dinkelman. “We’ve had a lot of comeback wins this year. Even when we get down a little bit, no one panics. We’ve had multiple games this year where we’ve scored multiple runs in the ninth inning. They have played hard and don’t give up during games, so that’s a credit to them.”

This has been Dinkelman’s first shot at managing professionally, after serving as hitting coach for Cedar Rapids. He said he has enjoyed the challenge.

“Everybody is tired this time of year and thinking about the offseason, but I know the guys are excited about their chance at winning a (championship) ring right now,” Dinkelman said. “In 13 years, I’ve never won one. You never know when it might be your only opportunity to get one, so we’re going to go out there and put our best game forward and see if we can win a championship.”

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

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