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Almonte, 'Kings ready for All-Star Game06/22/2009 2:09 PM ET
By Benjamin Hill and Matthew Lindner / Special to MLB.com
The Clinton LumberKings just missed out on a first-half Midwest League playoff berth, finishing one game off the pace in the Western Division. Nonetheless, the team -- and its fans -- still have plenty of reasons to celebrate this week.
The LumberKings, who play in 72-year-old Alliant Energy Ballpark, will host the 2009 Midwest League All-Star Game. Festivities kick off this evening, with the game taking place on Tuesday. For the second straight season, the LumberKings lead the MWL in All-Star Game participants -- and this time the club's premier players will have the honor of suiting up in front of a hometown crowd.
Nine LumberKings grace the Western Division roster, including just-added reliever Cheyne Hann. The dominant right-hander replaces teammate (and current strikeout leader) Brett Lorin, who has been sent to the disabled list with a groin injury. But despite Clinton's preponderance of All-Stars, just one will be in the starting lineup: Denny Almonte.
Almonte, who will also represent the LumberKings in Monday's Home Run Derby, is certainly a deserving selection. The still raw 20-year-old Miami native is tied for the third in the league in home runs (12), while his 44 RBIs rank eighth. Almonte and his LumberKings mates will be joined at their home ballpark by some familiar names. Dee Gordon of the Eastern squad and Jeremy Barfield from the Western both have fathers -- Tom and Jesse, respectively -- who spent time in the big leagues. The presence of Gordon on the roster is especially notable, as his father pitched for Appleton in the 1988 MWL All-Star Game. That contest was also held in Clinton.
And if history is any indication, fans at this year's game will soon see many of these players in the big leagues. Twenty-one prospects who played in the 1998 game in Clinton have spent time in the big leagues, most notably current Twins right-fielder Michael Cuddyer. Cardinals OF Rick Ankiel was also selected to participate in that game as a pitcher, but was promoted by the organization beforehand and did not play.
Two other big names at this year's game are Cougars RHP Kenny Smalley and Peoria 3B Josh Vitters. The former comes into the break as one of the league's biggest surprises, having started eight games for Kane County after spending 2008 as a reliever. The former 24th-rounder led the Cougars to the first-half MWL West title by going 6-3 with a 2.26 ERA in 16 games, and enters the break having allowed only one earned run over his past 20 1/3 innings pitched.
Vitters, meanwhile, is the highest rated prospect in this game (he is currently at No. 30 on MiLB.com's Top 50 list). The Eastern Division's starting third baseman, Vitters has terrorized opposing hurlers to the tune of a .308 average, 13 homers, and 42 RBIs -- not bad for someone who still has a few months to go before turning 20.
Swinging for the Fences
But That's Not All!
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.