The Clinton Lumberkings and Cedar Rapids Kernels met in game three of their Midwest League Division Championship Series with a chance to move to the Midwest League Finals on the line. The Kernels won game one 9-3. It was an uncharacteristic lopsided loss for the Lumberkings, who allowed the fewest runs in the Midwest League this season. The Lumberkings bounced back and won game 2 by a score of 6-1. Game three ended up being a low-scoring battle, which is more like what I had expected from these two teams.
Innings 1 Through 7
Nineteen-year-old Nick Neidert got the start for the Lumberkings. He was coming off of a win over the Peoria Chiefs where he threw 7 shutout innings in the Lumberkings’ first playoff game. Recent Harvard graduate Sean Poppen got the ball for the Kernels. Poppen had earned the win over the Lumberkings on the last day of the regular season by throwing 3 shutout innings in relief.
Both pitchers were superb. Poppen grinded through five scoreless innings. He only had 3 strikeouts but he pitched around 3 hits and 1 error. He was replaced after 87 pitches. Neidert was a bit more efficient, throwing seven shutout innings on 89 pitches. Neidert had 9 strikeouts and no walks and only allowed 3 hits.
Neidert got some big help from shortstop Rayder Ascanio. In the fifth inning, Travis
Blankenhorn led off with a double. He advanced to third on a wild pitch. The infield was brought in for a play at the plate. J.J. Fernandez hit a hard grounder in the hole between second and third base. Ascanio made a diving catch, jumped up and looked the runner back to third before throwing out Fernandez at first. The infield stayed in for the next batter. Nelson Molina then hit a line drive to Ascanio’s left, and he made a running catch for the second out. Neidert got Jaylin Davis to strike out looking to end the inning.
The Lumberkings threatened to score in the bottom of the seventh. James Alfonso drew a walk with one out. Then Ricky Eusebio singled. Ascanio grounded out to the second baseman for the second out, but the runners advanced to second and third. Michael Cederoth then struck out Chris Mariscal to end the inning. Neither team could get a hit with a runner in scoring position.
Had I Seen This Game Before?
It was around this time that I started having déjà vu. The game started to remind me of last year’s Midwest League playoff series between the Kernels and the Quad Cities River Bandits. In 2015, the River Bandits had the best record in the Midwest League. This season, it was the Lumberkings that had the best record. The Kernels eliminated the River Bandits in a very similar game to this one. That game (which I wrote about here) went 11 innings. The score was tied 1-1 all the way until the 11th, when the Kernels broke through on some extremely well-placed ground balls and fielding miscues and by the River Bandits. All game, both teams got outstanding pitching and struggled to get a hit with runners in scoring position. The Kernels ultimately won that game 3-1 and ended up going to the finals before being eliminated. It felt like we could be heading towards another improbable Kernels win.
The 9th Inning and Extras
The Kernels mounted a scoring threat in the top of the 9th inning. Casey Scoggins led off with a single. Luis Arraez walked between flyouts by Christian Ibarra and Zander Weil. With two outs and two on, Matt Walker replaced Joey Strain on the mound for the Lumberkings. Walker threw a wild pitch and the runners advanced to second and third. Walker then intentionally walked Blankenhorn to load the bases. Walker finally got Fernandez to fly out and strand the bases loaded.
Alex Jackson led off the bottom of the 9th with a double for the Lumberkings. Rafael Fernandez then pinch hit for Ibarra. Fernandez laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt. The winning run was now on third base with 1 out. The Kernels brought in the infield. Alfonso grounded out to the second baseman for the second out. Ascanio popped out to the shortstop to end the threat. The game moved into extra innings.
In the top of the 10th, Ascanio made another outstanding play. Nelson Molina hit a bloop into shallow left field. Ascanio sprinted back and made a diving catch to rob Molina of a leadoff single. Walker did allow 1 walk in the inning but that was all.
The Lumberkings were retired in order in the bottom of the 10th. In the top of the 11th, Walker got two outs before allowing a walk. With Blankenhorn coming up, manager Mitch Canham opted to relieve Walker with Ronald Dominguez. Dominguez threw one pitch and got Blankenhorn to flyout to center field.
In the bottom of the 11th, the Lumberkings finally broke through. Logan Taylor led off with a single. Alex Jackson then crushed a line drive right at the center fielder for the first out. Rafael Fernandez then hit a well-placed ground ball through the left side for a single. The winning run was at second base with 1 out. Alfonso fouled out for the second out. It was now Eusebio’s turn. He fell behind in the count 1-2 before ripping a ball into the left-center field gap to win the game. He was only credited with a single because I think he was mobbed by his teammates before he could touch second base. Here was the celebration moments after the game-winning hit (Ascanio is the one running with the flag):
This was a great baseball game with very few mistakes on either side. Anyone who looks down at baseball in the low minors should take a peek at the box score of this game. Some of the better prospects for both the Twins and Mariners were going head to head. At this point in the season, most of the players have the equivalent of a full season of pro baseball experience, too.
Both managers did a great job. Jake Mauer and Canham both changed pitchers at the right times. Field positioning also played a big role in this game with shifts coming into play more than once. Bunting and knowing when to send runners were also critical at different times. The difference in the game was that one team finally got a hit with a runner in scoring position. On the game, the Kernels were 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position, and the Lumberkings were 1 for 9. There were 343 pitches thrown in this game. The one pitch that Dominguez threw earned him the win.
In the Eastern Division, the Great Lakes Loons and West Michigan Whitecaps are tied at 1-1 in their series. They play game 3 tonight to determine who will face the Lumberkings. Game 1 of the Midwest League Finals will be Wednesday in Clinton.
Here are some more pictures from the Kernels @ Lumberkings Game 3: