Playoff Loss Puts Kernels' Season on the Brink
By Josh Christensen and Jeff Johnson
DAVENPORT – What has been a magical summer comes down to a single thing for the Cedar Rapids Kernels. Find a way to come up with a two-game win streak or go home.
The Quad Cities River Bandits scored a run in the eighth inning to win a 2-1, in tensely played Midwest League playoff opener Wednesday night at Modern Woodmen Park.
The Kernels won 88 games in the regular season, the second-most in club history, so winning two in a row doesn't sound like much of a big deal. But the way they swung the bats here, not to mention the way Quad Cities has been their Kryptonite, appears to make this a larger task than you'd think.
"We get to go home, have the next two games at home," said Kernels outfielder Adam Brett Walker. "That's always hopeful. Just keep our heads up and go get them."
Game 2 of this best-of-three series is Thursday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium (6:35 start). The pitching matchup is right-hander Tim Shibuya (4-0, 0.96 regular-season earned run average) for Cedar Rapids against lefty Joe Bircher (3-3, 4.15).
A deciding Game 3 would be Friday night in Cedar Rapids, though there's no way anyone wearing blue and green should be looking that far ahead.
"We've just got to swing the bats better. It's plain and simple," said Kernels Manager Jake Mauer. "We caught the ball good tonight, played good defense. We just didn't do much offensively. You're not going to win many games scoring one run."
The Kernels averaged over five runs per game in the regular season and put up 15 in their finale Monday against Clinton. They led the Midwest League in several offensive categories, but that was then, and this is the postseason.
Cedar Rapids scored its only run in the second inning on a Walker leadoff infield single and ensuing Mike Gonzales RBI double to left-center. But they stranded the bases loaded and didn't get another hit until Jorge Polanco's one-out single in the eighth.
In fact, they only had three baserunners after the second. Not good enough.
"Had a big chance in the second and didn't make the most out of it," Mauer said. "Just kind of got ourselves out. They got strike one, and we kind of flailed away and chased. How many strikeouts did we end up with? Nine? That's too many. Just didn't have very competitive at-bats ... That's not going to get it done."
"It was just kind of an off game," said Walker, who hit 27 home runs and drove in 109 in the regular season. "We did have some good at-bats later in the game, had some lineouts. We kind of battled. We missed some pitches, I think, that we should be able to handle. Maybe we just got over-excited in a playoff game or something. Their pitchers were pretty good, but I don't think we should have gotten shut (down) the way we were."
The thing was C.R.'s pitching was good enough to win most games. Starter Brett Lee wasn't razor sharp, but battled through five innings, giving up just one run.
That came in the fourth, when Carlos Correa (remember that name) singled with one out and scored on a timely Rio Ruiz two-out RBI single to right.
"My control tonight was kind of spotty," said Lee, who allowed four hits and three walks. "I felt like I made pitches when I needed to. But you just can't fall behind hitters like that. Unfortunately, I did that quite a bit tonight."
Teoscar Hernandez greeted losing reliever Madison Boer with a single through the left side leading off the Quad Cities eighth. Correa squared to bunt Boer's first pitch, taking it, then switched up and lined and hit-and-run single to right, sending Hernandez to third.
Mauer eschewed playing the infield up with none out, and Danry Vasquez followed with the ever-exciting 6-4-3 double play to score the winning run.
"You think about it," Mauer said, when asked if he considered playing the infield in during Vasquez's at-bat. "The runner at third can run a little bit. It's risk versus reward. You think about maybe putting that guy (Vasquez) on and taking your chances, with (Bobby) Borchering, who not having as good of a go (three previous strikeouts). There were probably a couple of ways we could have gone there. We got a groundball. Unfortunately, it wasn't at one of our corner guys."
Correa, last year's top overall draft pick, torched the Kernels to the tune of a .426 batting average this season. Quad Cities is now 11-6 against a Kernels team that didn't have a losing record against any other team in the Western Division.
"Correa's beat us all year," Mauer said. "I thought we played (the hit and run) pretty good. Polanco didn't go cover the bag (because) we felt there was a hit-and-run coming. Just goes over his head. Good players make something happen, and that's what he does. He puts pressure on us, takes good at-bats.
"We just didn't do it tonight, plain and simple."
If they want to keep playing, they're going to have to do it Thursday night. Plain and simple.
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