Home Helps Cure What Ails Sweeney

By Jeff Johnson, Reporter

Lansing infielder Kellen Sweeney(left) is congratulated by his teammate Dwight Smith Jr. (18) after hitting a home run at the Cedar Rapids Kernels versus the Lansing Lugnuts baseball game at Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids on April 28, 2013. Kellen is from Cedar Rapids.(Kaitlyn Bernauer/The Gazette-KCRG9)

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By Josh Christensen

CEDAR RAPIDS – He thought mom had lasagna on the menu for supper Sunday night. Being a minor-league baseball player, anything but fast food or ballpark food works.

Besides, Kellen Sweeney got a heaping helping of home cooking Sunday afternoon at Veterans Memorial Stadium, and it was mmm, mmm, good. Slump-busting good.

The Cedar Rapids Jefferson grad hit a home run and double in his Lansing team’s 4-3 loss to the red-hot Cedar Rapids Kernels. Sweeney figured it was the first time he had played at “The Popper” since he was a senior participating in a Perfect Game USA showcase.

If this is any indication, maybe the Kernels’ parent Minnesota Twins ought to consider trading for him and sticking him here the rest of the Midwest League season.

“I’ve been comfortable at the plate the last week or so, but nothing was falling, and that’s just baseball,” Sweeney said. “To come home and have a good game the first time here, having my family here rooting me on, is an awesome experience.”

Sweeney, 21, was a second-round draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2010, but it hasn’t been a smooth ride as a professional. He has dealt with injuries and came into this season a .209 career hitter.

The lefty swinging infielder was in a 0-for-24 batting skid when he drove a Tyler Duffey pitch just over the center-field fence (and a leaping Byron Buxton) for a 400-foot home run in the fifth inning. He drilled a pitch into the right-field corner for a double in his next at-bat in the seventh.

Those were just his second and third extra-base hits this season. The much-needed 2-for-3 game improved his average to .169.

He hopes it’s the beginning of a turnaround.

“I didn’t know I had a home run (at first),” Sweeney said of his fifth-inning hit. “I thought he had caught it, and I was just like ‘Aw, just my luck. This guy’s going to rob me.’ But after I knew it was out, I could hear everyone cheering and stuff. A good experience.”

Sweeney had roughly 25 to 30 family members and friends in attendance rooting him and the Lugnuts on. By the way, his older brother, Ryan, is hitting .369 with six homers in 18 games for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs.

“My family does a great job of calming me down,” Kellen said. “I get frustrated and stuff. But other than that, it’s baseball. Everyone is going to go through these slumps and all that. You’ve just got to pick yourself up and get out of it.”

Sweeney was a shortstop in high school, but the Blue Jays moved him to third. He primarily has played second base this season, though he was Lansing’s first baseman Sunday for just the second time.

He was terrific defensively, snagging a line drive in the first inning and doubling up a runner at second base with a strong throw. In the fifth, he alertly caught a pickoff attempt from starting pitcher Alonzo Gonzalez and made a quick and strong throw to the plate to nab J.D. Williams of the Kernels, who was trying to steal home.

That play, in particular, impressed Kernels Manager Jake Mauer.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Mauer quipped, when told of Sweeney’s middle-infield experience.

The Kernels won their seventh-straight game, scoring the winning run in the eighth on a two-out RBI single to right by Dalton Hicks. Duffey (3-1) gave Cedar Rapids a huge lift with a strong eight-inning starting pitching performance that saved what has been a recently over-worked bullpen.

Tyler Jones got his third save with a 1-2-3 ninth inning. The teams play again Monday night at 6:35.

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