On a brilliant Sunday morning, one of the Cedar Rapids players brought out a football to toss around the outfield turf a couple of hours before first pitch. Kernels infielder Travis Blankenhorn ran a deep post route and hauled in the ball with a spectacular one-handed grab.
It was a glimpse of the exceptional athletic ability that has Blankenhorn ranked as the No. 11 prospect in the Twins organization, according to MLB.com.
Blankenhorn, a 6-foot-2, 208-pound left-handed hitter, was taken in the third round of the 2015 Draft. This season with Cedar Rapids, he's hitting .235 with eight homers and 52 RBIs while splitting time between second and third base.
Blankenhorn showed his athleticism with a stunning steal of home against Clinton on June 17. His theft, coming in the eighth inning of a home game against the LumberKings, was the winning run in a crucial game that helped the Kernels clinch a playoff berth.
With the a 1-2 count on Brandon Lopez, Blankenhorn took advantage of Clinton submariner Jack Anderson to sprint home from third.
Video: Blankenhorn Steals Home
"That was definitely a first for me," Blankenhorn said of the steal of home. "It was more, we weren't really hitting that game and we needed somehow to get a run. We had a right-hander at bat, and Clinton had a kid who was throwing submarine style. That's a tough at-bat for a righty."
Tommy Watkins, Cedar Rapids' manager and third-base coach, looked at Blankenhorn and said, "What do you think? Do you want to go?"
"I was like, 'All right,'" Blankenhorn recalled. "I just kept creeping and creeping toward home. The third baseman really didn't say anything, so when the pitcher set and looked down, I just took off. The pitcher really didn't see me until I was close to home. I was pumped. It was a big crowd and a big game for us that we needed to win to make the playoffs."
Minnesota is counting more on Blankenhorn to develop his hitting for average and play multiple positions.
"It's not easy to play different positions, but I think I can play anywhere," Blankenhorn said. "It doesn't matter to me that I don't have just one position as long as it gets me into the lineup. Most of the time, I play second and third. At second, it's up the middle and you have to worry about turning double plays and a lot of other different things. Third base is the hot corner. You're going to get balls hit at you pretty hard. All you have to do is go left for a double play or to first.
"I played shortstop in high school, and I knew most likely I wasn't going to play shortstop in pro ball," Blankenhorn said. "I played some third and first in travel ball. I've played a bunch of positions. I wasn't upset about a position switch in pro ball, just as long as I'm playing. I think it's valuable to play more than one position. You never know what could happen to someone. It's a plus if you have someone who can fill that spot."
Video: Kernels' Blankenhorn caps inning with two-run homer
Cedar Rapids manager Tommy Watkins spent 10 years in pro ball and carved out a niche as a utility player. In 2003 with Fort Myers, Watkins played at first base (eight times), second base (nine times), shortstop (17 times), third base (28 times), and all three outfield positions (38 times).
"Travis can help a team a lot of different ways," Blankenhorn said. "He can run. He can steal bases. He's got pop, so he's going to hit extra-base hits. He can move around. I think he can play shortstop and outfield, as well. He's just a tremendous athlete, and that showed when he stole home.
"I think it's very valuable for a guy to play multiple positions," Watkins said. "That's one thing that helped myself and our hitting coach, Brian Dinkelman, stick around as long as we did, because we were able to play multiple positions and do it halfway decent. It's tough to play more than one position, but it's not as tough as you think. An outfielder coming to the infield would be a lot tougher than an infielder moving around the infield, and then going to the outfield."
Baez-ball dominance: Fort Wayne's Michel Baez, a 6-foot-8 right-handed pitcher from Cuba who signed with the Padres for $3 million, continues to torment Midwest League hitters. Baez set a Parkview Field record with 14 strikeouts in a 4-3 win against Dayton on Monday. LaTroy Hawkins set the franchise record with 15 strikeouts in 1993. Baez is 4-0 with a 0.91 ERA (three runs in 29 2/3 innings). He's struck out 47 and walked three while giving up only 15 hits.
Rough debut: Shortstop Isaac Paredes, who was traded by the Cubs to the Tigers organization, suffered a rough debut Monday with West Michigan. Paredes, an 18-year old who hit .264 with South Bend and was ranked as the No. 5 prospect in the Cubs organization, was struck above his left eye by a ball that ricocheted off the turf on a throw from right field. Paredes left the game but was able to play Tuesday.
Power record: Quad Cities only needs one home run to tie a franchise record. The River Bandits have 113 homers, one shy of the franchise record of 114 set in 2010. This season marks the eighth time in the history of the 58-year-old franchise that the team has surpassed the 100-homer plateau. Interestingly, none of the River Bandits players are in the Midwest League's top 10 for homers, but seven River Bandits have seven or more.