Through May 21, the Cedar Rapids Kernels had built up an impressive 30-13 record and held a five game lead over their closest competition in the Western Division of the Midwest League.
They then left town for a quick three-game road trip to Beloit after taking three out of four from Kane County. They had no clue at that time that they not only would get swept by the second place Snappers, but would return home and drop all three games of a series against the last place Burlington Bees. But that's exactly what happened to the Kernels as almost every part of their game seemed to fall apart at the same time over the past week.
The defense not only started committing more errors than usual, but those errors seemed to come at precisely the worst possible time.
The timely hitting that had almost become a trademark of the team through the first six weeks of the season disappeared as they hit safely just 13 times in 54 opportunities with runners in scoring position during their losing streak and scored just three runs in four of the six games.
Perhaps most concerning, the Kernels' starting pitching rotation averaged less than five innings of work per game over the six losses. The rotation arms gave up a whopping 45 hits and 33 runs (28 of them earned) in 29 2/3 innings during that stretch of games.
Kernels pitching coach Gary Lucas was asked what had gone wrong with the team's starting pitching.
“I don't know. These teams that begin with the letter B, Beloit and Burlington, took it to us,” conceded Lucas, after Tuesday night's 9-4 win over Clinton. “I can't explain it. It's been a little bit of everything here. It's a bump in the road that all teams have, good and bad. Burlington's turning some things around, Beloit's turning some things around. We've got to overcome a losing streak and get back to our winning ways and hopefully this starts that process.”
Tuesday's starting pitcher, Mason Melotakis, gave his team seven strong innings of work. That's the first game a Kernels starting pitcher has worked seven innings since Tyler Duffey went 7 2/3 innings in a May 18 extra-inning win over Kane County.
Melotakis and Duffey are two of the Twins organization's “conversion projects” this summer. Both were relief pitchers in college, but the Twins want to see if they are capable of playing a starting pitching role in the professional ranks.
To be successful, both pitchers will need to refine their secondary pitches – their breaking balls and change ups - rather than just rely on their ability to throw fastballs over 90 miles per hour.
Melotakis feels the key for him is not letting hitters dig in against him. “I like to work in and out and make the hitters uncomfortable. I try to keep them uncomfortable and off balance in the box.”
Lucas feels that Melotakis is making progress in that area. “He is always going to attack with his fastball and he's learning how to use it on both sides of the plate. The change-up and the breaking ball are still works in progress.”
“I think the fact that he's using them over longer stretches, being a starter now and not a reliever, he's got to do different things with those pitches,” Lucas added.
“He probably didn't use a change up much as a reliever. In fact, I know when he was with us last year he didn't. I think just staying on top of these kids and just developing touch/feel with their pitches. It's a little inconsistent right now, but hopefully with innings, it'll come. He (Melotakis) shows flashes of really being a consistent competitor with that fastball on both sides of the plate.”
In addition to developing other pitches, Duffey and Melotakis will also have to throw a lot more innings over the course of a season than they have in the past.
The Kernels are utilizing a six-man rotation that they hope will allow their starting pitchers to get through an entire season of rotation work without putting excessive wear and tear on their arms. It's also hoped that doing so will make the conversion process easier for pitchers like Duffey and Melotakis.
But with the Kernels starting pitching struggling of late, could it be that some of these pitchers are tiring a bit as the team nears the half-way point of their season?
“It's a good point. We should watch that to see at some point how they react and how their strength and how their stamina and their endurance (hold up).” Lucas said.
But Lucas isn't ready to buy in to the theory already.
“Both Melotakis and Duffey, the key guys that used to be relievers and now are starters, they've got durability on their side. They're strong. They're hard workers. So I think they'll be fine over the long haul. And they're on a six man rotation so they usually get an extra day. We're hoping that pays dividends as we move along.”
The Kernels added Hein Robb, a lefty from South Africa who just turned 21 on May 12, to their rotation this week. Robb replaced Matt Tomshaw, who was promoted to the Fort Myers Miracle.
Lucas indicated Robb would be inserted in to the rotation after Duffey, who is scheduled to pitch for the Kernels Wednesday night. That would mean Robb should make his Midwest League debut against Clinton on Thursday in Cedar Rapids.
SD Buhr covers the Kernels for MetroSportsReport.com in Cedar Rapids.