CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Eight current minor leaguers hail from South Africa, a country that has yet to produce a major leaguer. Two of them reunited over 8,500 miles from home Thursday at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Pitchers Dylan Unsworth (Clinton) and Hein Robb, who joined the Kernels Monday from extended spring training, share a long history of competition dating back to age six. Unsworth started the opener of Thursday's doubleheader, while Robb debuted in the nightcap.
"You could say we're sort of like brothers from different mothers kind of thing," Robb said. "So every time we've pitched, we've pitched against each other so it would have been nice to pitch against him tonight."
Robb, a 21-year-old resident of Johannesburg, signed with the Twins as a non-drafted free agent in 2008. He represented South Africa in the World Baseball Classic at age 16, and spent last season at rookie-level Elizabethton (2-4, 3.73 earned run average in eight starts).
"It's great for him getting called up, and hopefully he can put a spark on the team and stay here," Unsworth said. "He's real tall, he's got a good angle coming down. That's always been his strong point."
Robb gave up one hit in two scoreless innings to start the nightcap. He was drilled by a second-inning liner from Clinton's Janelfry Zorrilla to the throwing shoulder, but gathered himself to throw Zorrilla out. Robb remained in the game, but struggled in the third, surrendering three hits and two runs.
Travis Harrison's solo home run (his ninth) in the bottom of the fourth inning held up to give Cedar Rapids (33-19) a 3-2 victory for a sweep in the doubleheader and three-game series. The Kernels have a 2 1/2-game lead in the standings over Beloit (31-22).
Unsworth (4-0, 2.25 earned run average in nine starts) gave up a run and five hits in for a no-decision in the opener, a 5-3 Kernels' win delayed two hours, 56 minutes by rain and wet field conditions. Tyler Duffey struck out five in four innings for Cedar Rapids, but Clinton tallied three runs off Kernels reliever Steve Gruver once play resumed. Tyler Grimes hit a three-run home run off Clinton reliever Grady Wood in the sixth to take the opener for Cedar Rapids.
The 20-year-old Unsworth, who makes his home in Cape Town, has walked just two batters in 56 innings pitched.
"To be honest with you, he throws a lot of strikes, he's got good stuff and he gets outs, so that's the most important thing," Robb said.
Robb and Unsworth faced off many times for club teams in the South African Baseball Union, and were teammates in both an under-18 national tournament in 2009 and the last September's qualifying tournament for the World Baseball Classic. While South Africa fell short in their bid, both pitched well.
"He was a great teammate, he is a great friend, you know he's always been there for me and I've always been there for him," Unsworth said.
Both pitchers are committed to the growth of the sport in South Africa, a country largely dominated by cricket, rugby, and soccer.
"We're actually working on putting programs out for like kids to join in," Robb said. "All the professional guys playing here, when they go back home, they go to these like coaching clinics and that type of stuff just to get the kids interested in the game so it can grow some more."
Cedar Rapids begins a four-game series at Kane County Friday.