CEDAR RAPIDS — Manager Tommy Watkins came out to get the baseball from Griffin Jax with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning Saturday night.
It seemed kind of peculiar timing because the Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher had just gotten an out on a routine flyball to center field and seemed poised to get another one. His team was well ahead at the time.
But Watkins had a reason to do what he did, and it was a really nice one.
“Tommy came out and said ‘Hey, man, I just want to get you a standing ovation, so get out of here,’” Jax said, after his team’s 12-4 win over Lansing at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Which he got, tipping his cap to the crowd of 3,375 as it was announced this was his final appearance on a baseball diamond for the forseeable future. Jax leaves Monday to begin a career as a second lieutenant in the Air Force.
“I really appreciate all the support from Cedar Rapids,” he said. “It’s been unbelieveable here. The fans have all been great. To walk off like that was definitely very cool and special to me.”
If you haven’t heard the story, the 22-year-old was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the third round last year out of the Air Force Academy. He originally was told he could serve his two years of mandatory post-graduation military service in the reserves while pursuing his professional baseball career.
That policy changed with a new president and Secretary of Defense. Jax must serve his time in active duty, which he will — for the time being — as an acquisitions officer at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
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He only pitched here and at Rookie-level Elizabethton while on a 60-day leave after graduating from the academy in May.
“It hasn’t really hit me, yet,” he said, when asked about his emotions. “I think it will tomorrow or Monday when I leave. But right now, the way it ended, you kind of relish the moment a little bit ... It was a great day, I’m glad I get to leave on a high note.”
Jax pitched this one in front of his father and grandfather, which made things even more special. Garth Jax, his dad, played as a linebacker in the NFL for the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals.
He allowed just five hits and two runs to Lansing, walking three and striking out three. In his four C.R. starts, he went 2-1 with a 2.39 earned run average, giving up just 16 hits in 26 1/3 innings.
Considering he hadn’t really pitched in a game environment for over a year, what he showed was rather remarkable.
“I couldn’t tell that he hasn’t pitched a whole lot since college,” said Kernels pitching coach J.P. Martinez. “It seems like he’s got a pretty good feel for what he’s doing with his delivery and his ability to repeat pitches. I like his makeup, believe in his makeup. He’s a good kid, a grinder, and I’m excited to see him when we get to see him next.”
Jax said there was a chance he might be able to pitch on weekends for high-A Fort Myers after he gets settled in with his Air Force job. Cape Canaveral is 210 miles from Fort Myers.
There also is speculation he could get grandfathered in to the old policy, since he signed his baseball contract under the guise of being able to play full time. Whenever he reappears on the mound, he’ll take with him multiple lessons learned while in the Midwest League.
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“Every day it was something different,” Jax said. “Whether it was how I go about my business, my routine. What I can do to better (with) my arsenal, what I can do to better (to) set me up in innings, what I can do to just get me through the game a little easier. I just tried to pick up something each day.
“I will say I have learned a lot. Hopefully it’s stuff that I can remember and keep working on these next couple of months or however long it is until I can come back.”
The Kernels (52-47, 13-16) had 12 hits in support of Jax, including two apiece from Lewin Diaz, Trey Cabbage, Christian Cavaness and Travis Blakenhorn. Cabbage hit his first Kernels home run.
Catcher Ben Rortvedt had a three-run home run and four RBIs, which made a cheering section of buddies from his hometown of Verona, Wis., deliriously happy. The group of about 10 guys, high-school classmates and former teammates, were very audible in their support of their hero.
The teams play again Sunday afternoon at 2:05.
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