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Toyota Road Report: September 6-11

Cubs get set for playoff preview in battle versus Kernels
September 6, 2022

It’s almost that time! The Midwest League Playoffs are just a week away, and the South Bend Cubs have clinched the 2nd Half West Division Championship. Amazing to do it at home in front of the Four Winds Field fans, and the Cubs will now embark on a journey to

It’s almost that time! The Midwest League Playoffs are just a week away, and the South Bend Cubs have clinched the 2nd Half West Division Championship. Amazing to do it at home in front of the Four Winds Field fans, and the Cubs will now embark on a journey to another Midwest League Championship after taking the crown in 2019.

In order to get to the top of the mountain, the Cubs will have to win two separate three-game series. Up first will be a clash against the Cedar Rapids Kernels. However, there is still a week to go in the regular season, meaning one more six-game series, also against the Kernels.

It could be by the time we get to the middle of September that the Cubs and Kernels might play nine straight games against one another. If it gets to that point, there could be no strategic advantage, right? The two clubs would know each other like the back of their hands.

Nonetheless, this week is an opportunity for Lance Rymel and company to gain some major momentum heading into the postseason. If you can back Cedar Rapids on their heels at their place, then come back home for Game 1 of the Division Series with all the pressure on the Kernels side, that’s an even bigger win for South Bend.

The Cubs are about as cohesive as a group as there is in Minor League Baseball. You would be hard-pressed to find a team that connects with each other more than South Bend. From top to bottom on this roster, everybody gets along. It’s all team love. Remember, that 2019 team was more than special. They were one of the best ever assembled. This team has the opportunity to be even greater with the amount of talent in that clubhouse.

For Cedar Rapids, they’re a ball-club who lost nearly everything after they clinched the 1st Half West Division Title many months ago. The Minnesota Twins were aggressive at the trade deadline, so many Kernels were sent packing and away elsewhere. Others were called up, and some have stayed. The big bats like Aaron Sabato and Christian Encarnacion-Strand are gone. It’s a very different looking lineup.

Interestingly, the Kernels are just seventh in the league in hitting, but they are the third best squad when it comes to OPS. They have also pitched well all season, with the top team ERA in the Midwest League at a minuscule 3.64.

Players to watch on Cedar Rapids…

Wander Javier, SS: With the big guns of Cedar Rapids either getting traded away or called up, that leaves Wander Javier as one of the last guys standing who has been in the Midwest League all season. Javier a tall and lanky shortstop with a ton of length to him, but he also has some pop. He’s only hitting .213 on the season, but has 12 home runs and 59 RBI in just over 100 games. Javier has also been a lot more reliable defensively in 2022. His errors are way down, and now has made 14 miscues in 819 innings of playing shortstop on the year. That error total was up more than 20 percent last season, and in a shorter period of time. If Javier gets hot in this last series of the season before the playoffs, that can spell trouble. He is due to heat back up at some point after having a blazing July with a .295 average. In August, he really struggled and that month’s batting average was only .154. If Cedar Rapids is going to sniff any success in the postseason, they need their guys who have been with the team since April to step up their game. Relying too much on guys who have not adjusted to High-A yet is risky. So Javier should be one of their crucial guys. The good news is the Cubs have seen him

Matt Mullenbach, RHP: It’s hard to believe that Matt Mullenbach at one point was demoted from High-A Cedar Rapids to Low-A Fort Myers after beginning the year with the Kernels. There could have been some other factors, of course, but Mullenbach pitched in five games to begin the season in the Midwest League, gave up two earned runs in that time, and got sent down. At that point, a guy can either feel bad about himself and sink down a path, or they can rally back, pitch well, and find their stuff again. For Mullenbach, he accomplished the latter. Mullenbach posted a 2.12 ERA at Low-A and was back with Cedar Rapids on July 2. Since that point, he stock has completely jumped over the roof as he has become arguably Cedar Rapids’ best reliever. In the last two months, batters hit .174 in July and .189 in August against Mullenbach. He’s a big guy at 6’4’’ and 195 pounds, and the Twins got him in MiLB free agency with no draft choice required. Mullenbach is coming off one of his shortest outings of the season at Dayton where he only went 0.1 innings and gave up two run on three hits. If that trend continues, hopefully the Cubs can catch him in the middle of a struggle period and get past this big righty.

Mikey Perez, INF: With Cedar Rapids losing so much of their 1st Half West Division Championship roster, you would expect the Twins to slowly replenish what had been lost. The Kernels did get some help when former UCLA Bruin Mikey Perez arrived in the state of Iowa. A former college teammate of former South Bend Cub Chase Strumpf, Perez had a terrific career at UCLA where he led the Bruins in home runs in 2021 before being selected by Minnesota in the 15th round of the 2021 MLB Draft. Perez finished with a career collegiate slash line of .243/.366/.443 over 83 games (68 starts). Minnesota has been very aggressive with him and his development as well. Perez is a college bat draftee so he has gotten the confidence of the Twins to play at Triple-A St. Paul this season. His only at-bat was one to remember with the Saints. On August 3, in his first and only at-bat at AAA, Perez came in to pinch-hit for David Bañuelos, and he clubbed a three-run homer to help lead St. Paul to a massive win over Omaha. There’s just something about UCLA players and big home runs in the limelight. He can also run very well along with his power, as between Low-A, High-A and Triple-A, he has swiped 48 bases out of 54 tries.

Players to watch on South Bend…

Luis Devers, RHP: It is not yet known what the South Bend Cubs are going to do when it comes to building their playoff rotation, but you have to figure that guys like Luis Devers, Daniel Palencia, Kohl Franklin and others are going to get some serious run as the Cubs go for another championship. Devers has simply been magnificent. You know that you’ve done something right on the season when you have had four straight starts of at least five innings and only one run allowed and your ERA goes UP. Devers almost makes it look easy with how efficient he is with his three-pitch mix. The sinking fastball int he mid-90s, vanishing changeup and wicked slider have teamed up to completely fool Midwest League hitters all year. Devers, the Chicago Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Month for May, should be competing easily for the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Whatever happens with that will have a very deserving player taking home the award, but Devers has done what he has needed to do in that sense. He had 16 straight scoreless innings from his last two starts of July into his first outing in August, and batters keep guessing on what pitch is coming next. Hitters only raked in a .149 batting average in July. Devers will also attack you with all kinds of different motions and movement in his delivery. Everything about him screams talent, eliteness, and finesse.

Yeison Santana, 2B: If one thing is for sure on a playoff run and chase, you must have a solid bench available to you in guys that can come into a game at a moment’s notice to help you out. In 2019, the bench consisted of guys like Darius Hill, Yonathan Perlaza, and Caleb Knight. That’s scary when you look at what each of those guys have done in the Cubs organization. This season, the bench is headline by names like Jonathan Sierra, Casey Opitz, Knight, and Yeison Santana. Remember, when Santana was called up to South Bend, it was shortly after the Ed Howard injury, so Santana was playing almost everyday. Since Kevin Made arrived in the 574, that has slightly cut into Santana’s time. Still, Santana has stayed ready, and with credit to him, he picked up one fo the biggest hits of his season on Saturday night. In a wild, back-and-forth game that ended with a score of 10-8 on Saturday, the Cubs clawed their way back to even be put in position to win that game They were trailing 8-1, and they came back to put the winnings run up at the plate. Santana got them to that point with a huge two-run single down the left field line. The native of the Dominican Republic had a nice bounce back month in August too, and hit .273 during the last bit of summer.

Michael McAvene, RHP: Down the stretch of the campaign, the South Bend Cubs bullpen has been fabulous as of late. Guys are stepping up to shut down games including Sheldon Reed, Jake Reindl, and Michael McAvene. For McAvene, the late summer has provided him with the opportunity to get back to 100% after injuries shifted the beginning of his career. Now with 20 High-A outing sunder his belt and a 3.03 ERA, Mac could really settle into that closer role fo the postseason. Reed has shared a lot of those save opportunities with McAvene. However, there are decisions to be made on who will transition into trying to close out a championship. McAvene has batters hitting only .210 against him, and the closer role is nothing new to him as he split time with being a starter and a closer at Louisville. By the way, I want to nominate McAvene of the greatest walk-out song in the Midwest League. Daniel Palencia's 'Narco' is fire, but that of course is all Edwin Diaz. Mac's is original, sick, and head-banging. 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' by Metallica is an outstanding walk-out. Nice work Mac.

Schedule…

Tuesday, September 6 - 7:35 PM ET: RHP Chris Kachmar vs. RHP Orlando Rodriguez

Wednesday, September 7 - 7:35 PM ET: RHP Luis Devers vs. RHP David Festa

Thursday, September 8 - 7:35 PM ET: RHP Porter Hodge vs. RHP Travis Adams

Friday, September 9 - 7:35 PM ET: RHP Daniel Palencia vs. TBD

Saturday, September 10 - 7:35 PM ET: RHP Kohl Franklin vs. LHP Jaylen Nowlin

Sunday, September 11 - 3:05 PM ET: RHP Richard Gallardo vs. TBD

Catch the entire six-game series in Cedar Rapids on Sports Radio 960 AM WSBT, online at wsbtradio.com, or on MiLB.com with Max Thoma on the call.