Kernels Get Comeback Win Over Clinton

By Jeff Johnson (Story) and Josh Christensen (Video)

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By Josh Christensen

CEDAR RAPIDS – Shouts of “Uh-huh!” and “Yee-haw!” boom from the pitcher’s mound during batting practice. Cedar Rapids hitting coach Tommy Watkins’ encouraging instruction is then temporarily muted when Jeremias Pineda rips one back at him, ricocheting off his leg. A wailing Watkins gingerly dances to the infield dirt and launches a ball into right field to quell the pain, much to the delight of the waiting hitters.

Leave it to Watkins to provide some comic relief.

“I like to have fun, it’s always been a thing of mine even when I played, was to have fun,” Watkins said before Cedar Rapids downed Clinton, 5-2, before 5,161 fans Saturday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium. “I think it’s my personality to have fun and get your work done.”

Watkins, 33, has overseen a potent Kernels’ hitting attack this season, one which leads the Midwest League in runs scored by an even 100 over Bowling Green. Cedar Rapids also leads in batting average, hits, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage. Watkins deflects the credit to his players.

“Very talented group,” Watkins said. “These guys are unbelievable to work with. They work hard, they listen, they try to apply what we talk about.”

His pupils, both past and present, agree that Watkins is a player’s coach.

“Great person, likes to have fun, great coach, anything you need he’ll do it for you,” star Byron Buxton said before being promoted to high-A Fort Myers (Fla.).

“Tommy tries to keep it simple, doesn’t try to complicate the hitting approach…see the ball, hit the ball,” Niko Goodrum said. “Tommy likes to have fun, he keeps it loose. It’s great working with him.”

Kernels Manager Jake Mauer has known Watkins since 2001 when they were each aspiring Twins’ minor leaguers. They were teammates from 2003-05 and Watkins joined Mauer’s Gulf Coast Twins coaching staff midway through the 2009 season. The two forged a close friendship on and off the field, so much so that Watkins was a groomsman in Mauer’s wedding.

“I think he never forgot how hard it is to play this game,” Mauer said. “He doesn’t try to cram everybody into one type of hitter. He takes what they do good, tries to make them even better, and I think that’s the key to being a good coach.”

A native of Fort Myers, Fla., Watkins was in his 10th year of minor-league ball when his 2007 promotion from Triple-A Rochester (N.Y.) to the Twins set off an emotional clubhouse celebration representative of their admiration for Watkins.

“That meant a lot, all the guys were happy for me,” said Watkins, who was 10-for-28 in nine games with the Twins. “The place went crazy, they wanted me to say a speech but I was speechless. I was kind of terrified, actually.”

Watkins’ hitters were silenced early by Clinton starter Charles Kaalekahi (4-3), but scored two runs in both the seventh and eighth innings to improve to 23-11 in the second half and 63-39 overall. Max Kepler drove in two runs, including his fifth home run this season, and Adam Brett Walker increased his league-lead in RBIs to 91 with an eighth-inning double.

Hudson Boyd pitched two scoreless innings to improve to 3-4 in relief of starter Tim Atherton, who used a curveball in the low 60’s to strike out eight LumberKings.

The teams play again Sunday at 2.

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