Tag Archives: Cedar Rapids Kernels

Righty Gaff pursuing baseball dreams with Minnesota Twins organization

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Tanner Gaff grew up in Whitley County, Ind., as a middle infielder who moved to the corners as he got older.
The right-hander doubled as a pitcher.
A 2016 graduate of Whitko Junior/Senior High School in South Whitley, Gaff went to the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne and was a two-way player until his last season — the extra year granted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I had a pretty good year,” says Gaff, who employed Driveline Baseball training methods and increased his velocity going into 2021.
As a pitcher-only in ’21, the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder made 14 mound appearances and went 8-2 with a 4.15 earned run average and 92 strikeouts in 92 1/3 innings. USF went 34-22, setting a school record for single-season victories.
Gaff, who earned a degree in Business Management with a Sports concentration in 2020, still wanted to see how far pitching could take him.
“I had heard nothing but good things about Tread (Athletics),” says Gaff of the business specializing in online performance coaching. He began training remotely with Tread in the summer of 2021.
When Connor Lawhead left the Saint Francis coaching staff and went back to his native Washington, the Cougars were in need of a pitching coach. Gaff filled that role and was part of a staff featuring head coach Dustin Butcher and assistant Kristian Gayday while still honing his own skills.
Then came the time to go to Charlotte, N.C., and train with Tread in-house, which he did from February to May of 2022.
“Butch was happy for me,” says Gaff of Butcher’s willingness to let him pursue his dreams. “He was all for me furthering my baseball career.”
With the help of Tread, Gaff posted videos of him pitching to social media and got the attention of the Minnesota Twins. On May 20, he signed with that organization and is now in Fort Myers gearing up for the Florida Complex League season which opens June 6. The next two steps up the minor league ladder are with the Low-A Florida State League’s Fort Myers Mighty Mussels and High-A Midwest League’s Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kernels.
Throwing from a high three-quarter arm slot, Gaff possesses a four-seam fastball, slider/cutter, curve and splitter (split-finger fastball).
“My four-seamer has ‘plus’ carry and sits at 91 to 94,” says Gaff, 24. “I’m always looking to gain mph.
When it’s right, his slider is delivered about 80 mph.
“My splitter is one of my most promising pitches,” says Gaff. “I get good swing-and-miss with it.
“I threw it in middle school though I didn’t know it was called a splitter at the time. I’ve always had it in my back pocket. The movement patterns are always consistent. Sometimes it’s left. Sometimes right.”
At Tread, Gaff used TrackMan cameras to learned how to manipulate his splitter and other pitches.
Born in Columbia City to James and Debra Gaff, Tanner spent his youth on a 40-acre farm (20 acres of farmland and 20 acres of wetlands) about 10 minutes from Columbia City, Larwill and South Whitley.
He played in the South Whitley youth league until about sixth grade then travel ball with a homegrown team later the Ken Jones-coached Flippin’ Frogs and Cam Brannock-coached Summit City Sluggers.
As a middle schooler, Gaff was on a Pony League travel team that was coached by then-Whitko head coach Erik Hisner (now at Eastern of Greentown).
“That helped us with high school,” says Gaff, who had some teammates go on to win the Wildcats’ first sectional title in 2017. “We kept our core together.”
Gaff played two years at USF for head coach Greg Roberts and then assistant Butcher took over the program.
“(Roberts) was a really nice guy,” says Gaff. “He cared about his players. Butch is a great coach, but an even better person.
“He changed the culture. Saint Francis wasn’t always typically known as a good baseball school.”
Tanner has two older married sisters — Starr Kane and Isis Ivy.

Tanner Gaff, a graduate of Whitko Junior/Senior High School and the University of Saint Francis (Ind.), signs with the Minnesota Twins. (Minnesota Twins Photo)
Former University of Saint Francis pitcher has signed to play professional baseball with the Minnesota Twins. He trained remotely and on-site with Tread Athletics of Charlotte, N.C. (Tread Athletics Image)

Penn grad Yoder assigned to D-III World Series as umpire

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Mark Yoder played for a state championship football team and was part of a competitive baseball program in high school. 

He was on a conference title-winning football team in college.

He served in the U.S. Army and is still attached as a civilian worker. 

Yoder knows about being part of a team. 

He also knows that there are more than two teams on the field or court for each game. 

There are the opponents and there are the game officials.

“Umpiring equates to playing sports and the military,” says Yoder. “On the field, you’re a team.”

Yoder, a 1985 graduate of Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind., who lives in Powhatan, Va., and works at Fort Lee, has earned the right to umpire at the 2021 NCAA Division III World Series June 4-9 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 

CWS games will be played at Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium — home of the Cedar Rapids Kernels of the High-A Central League (formerly known as the Midwest League).

Yoder has umpired NCAA Division I and Division III colleges along the East Coast from Pennsylvania to North Carolina for 16 years. He works Old Dominion Athletic ConferenceMid-Atlantic Conference, Colonial Athletic Association and Atlantic 10 Conference games and has worked out-of-league Atlantic Coast Conference contests. 

In 2016, Yoder was a D-III regional alternate. He made it onto the field in the postseason in 2017 and 2018 and was a regional and super regional crew chief in 2019 — the year that D-III adopted the D-I postseason model of regional, super regional and College World Series.

Yoder had noticed that super regional crew chiefs tend to be assigned to the D-III CWS the next year. The COVID-19 pandemic ended the 2020 regular season early and took away the postseason.

This past week it was confirmed that Yoder is part of the D-III College World Series crew.

The son of Mishawaka residents Keith (who was on the Penn-Harris-Madison school board) and Virginia Yoder (who was a teacher) and brother of Granger’s Kevin Yoder, Mark was a youngster traveling with his father to basketball referee gigs when he got his first taste for athletic officiating.

At Penn, Mark Yoder was a tight end for Indiana Football Hall of Fame coach Chris Geesman and a junior on the Kingmen’s first state champion in 1983.

A football assistant and head football coach at Penn was Chuck Wegner, also an Indiana Football Hall of Famer.

“I love Geez,” says Yoder. “As a kid you don’t realize what you learn from your coaches. They just instilled such a mentality of teamwork and counting on each other.

“(Geesman) was hard, but he was always fair. I got to play because I worked hard or didn’t get to play because I didn’t work hard.”

Yoder remembers Wegner’s policy with game officials.

“He would never let us mouth off to an umpire,” says Yoder. “That was a huge no-no. He would never tolerate that. 

“Occasionally he would chirp about a pitch. But I don’t ever remember Chuck getting silly with officials.”

Current Penn head coach and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Greg Dikos coached Yoder as a junior varsity player and then led the Kingsmen for much of his senior season while Wegner was away on medical leave.

Through it all, Yoder was able to apply criticism as an athlete and get better.

“It’s no different in umpiring,” says Yoder.

After graduating from Penn in 1985, Yoder played two football seasons at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., for RHIT Hall of Famer Scott Duncan

The Fightin’ Engineers won what is now the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference in 1986. 

When an injury ended his gridiron playing career, Yoder transferred to Indiana State University in Terre Haute and earned his degree.

On an ROTC scholarship and commissioned to the Army, Yoder was an intramural basketball official for $10 a game at Rose-Hulman and also worked other sports at Rose and ISU.

Yoder took a hiatus from officiating while focusing on his military career. The last few years of active duty, he found himself in Germany and served Department of Defense high school baseball, basketball and volleyball.

When he arrived back in the U.S. and the Richmond, Va., area Yoder aligned with the Old Dominion Umpires Association — a group that trains and supports baseball officials. 

He contacted ODUA commissioner Greg Walls and was invited to work a fall scrimmage at the University of Richmond in the fall of 2008.

“I had no umpire gear (it was still on a boat coming from Germany,” says Yoder. “I showed up in shorts and a collared shirt.

“They were running three-man. I had never worked in the three-man system. We never did that in Europe.”

Yoder was made the third base umpire.

“I was a fish out of water,” says Yoder, who soon learned three-man mechanics with the help of a veteran umpire.

He also got to polish his two-man techniques at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.

Yoder spent the winter of 2008-09 honing his skills and worked his first high school game in the spring at the Class 3A varsity level (the highest in Viriginia at the time).

He figured he has earned his way.

“If you have the skills, ability and game management you’re going to work,” says Yoder. “It’s not the good old boys club.

“You can’t hide a good umpire and you can’t hide a bad umpire. I had enough potential to keep an eye on.”

Walls was not only high school commissioner for the ODUA but supervisor of umpires for the D-III ODAC. 

In 2009 and 2010, Walls gave Yoder high school and American Legion ball assignments with umpires who did college baseball. At the same time, the Indiana native attended two-man camps as well as a three-man camp ran by Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Umpires.

Yoder worked junior college games in 2011 and 2012 and his first D-III game in 2013. By 2015 he was doing almost a full conference season. After that came some D-I assignments.

Yoder has four children all living in northern Indiana — Andrew (Southwest), Sarah (New Paris), Zac South Bend) and Matthew (Elkhart). Matthew Yoder just enlisted in the U.S. Army.

Umpires at the 2019 NCAA Division III Super Regional baseball tournament staged at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md.: Greg Kiewitt (Baltimore), Jerry Buresh (Quinton, Va.), Dan Miller (Sebring, Fla.) and Mark Yoder (Powhatan, Va.). Yoder is a graduate of Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind., and Indiana State University in Terre Haute and a U.S. Army veteran and current civilian worker
Mark Yoder, a graduate of Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind., and Indiana State University in Terre Haute and a U.S. Army veteran, has been assigned as a baseball umpire at the 2021 NCAA Division III College World Series June 4-9 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Fort Wayne native Reith sharing knowledge as pitching coach in Rays system

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Brian Reith played professional baseball for 13 seasons with parts of three in the majors (2001, 2003 and 2004 Cincinnati Reds).

Reith, a 1996 Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran High School graduate, has plenty to impart to young players as pitching coach for the Low Class-A Midwest League’s Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods.

But it’s not just about what goes on between the white lines.

“This is about more than just baseball for me,” says Reith. “It’s about young men. The game’s going to be over at some point and, hopefully, they can have a sound future somewhere else.”

Reith, 40, encourages players to approach him about anything.

“They can come to about off-the-field stuff and on-the-field stuff,” says Reith. “I try to be stern, but I try to be a friend to them as well.”

With his young pitchers on the mound, he emphasizes something that helped him during his pro playing career.

“What I focus on mostly is fastball command and getting them to understand the four quadrants of the (strike) zone, how effective that can be and how it sets up their other pitches,” says Reith. “By doing this, starters can also help relievers later in the game.”

Reith says it’s a matter of mechanics for some pitchers and — for others — confidence in their fastball.

“Fastball command was extremely important for me,” says Reith, a 6-foot-5 right-hander who graduated from Concordia in 1996 and was selected in the sixth round of that years’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the New York Yankees. “I first learned that in the (High Class-A) Florida State League. In Double-A, I had catchers who forced me to use my fastball. It really opened up a lot of doors for me.”

In the majors, his first manager was former big league catcher Bob Boone. Former MLB pitcher Don Gullett was the pitching coach.

“I had a lot of conversations with Bob Boone about pitch selection and different hitters and what to look for,” says Reith. “(Don Gullett) taught me a lot about work ethic.”

Dave Miley later took over as Reds manager. He ended up as head coach at Franklin County High School in Brockville, Ind.

Reith pitched for the Indianapolis Indians in 2005. Trent Jewett was the manager and Darold Knowles, who won 66 games and save 143 in 765 big league appearances, the pitching coach.

From 2007 to 2009, he played independent ball — first with the Somerset (Mass.) Patriots and then the Camden (N.J.) Riversharks and Joliet (Ill.) Jackhammers.

Sparky Lyle, who pitched in 899 big league games with 99 wins and 238 saves, was the manager and Brett Jodie, who made eight MLB appearances in 2001 with the Yankees and San Diego Padres, the pitching coach his first season in Somerset.

“(Sparky Lyle) stayed back and let us do our thing,” says Reith. “I was pitching pretty well while I was there.

“Brett Jodie helped me out quite a bit. I played with Jodie in the Yankees organization.”

The 2018 season marks Reith’s fourth in the Tampa Bay Rays system. He spent the past three years as pitching coaches with the Short Season Class-A New York-Penn League’s Hudson Valley (N.Y.) Renegades.

There are many former Hudson Valley pitchers on the current Bowling Green staff and Reith sees the value in the continuity.

“It’s always good to have a base and knowledge of how they learn and what they’re working on to start a season off,” says Reith. “It’s definitely helped.”

Reith recalls his time in the Midwest League with Dayton in 2000 and relates those experiences to his Hot Rods.

“It wasn’t that long ago I was in their same shoes,” says Reith. “I try to remember what I was going through and what my mind was like.”

Everyone shares in the grind.

“Travel is pretty brutal for us,” says Reith. “But the guys deal well with it.”

According to Google Maps, the distance between the stadium in Bowling Green and MWL sites are as follows: Beloit (Wis.) Snappers 510; Burlington (Iowa) Bees 494; Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kernels 561; Clinton (Iowa) LumberKings 530; Dayton (Ohio) Dragons 279; Fort Wayne (Ind.) TinCaps 389; Great Lakes Loons (Midland, Mich.) 616; Kane County Cougars (Geneva, Ill.) 479; Lake County Captains (Eastlake, Ohio) 477; Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts 524; Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs 436; Quad Cities River Bandits (Davenport, Iowa) 512; South Bend (Ind.) Cubs 392; West Michigan Whitecaps (Comstock Park, Mich.) 493; Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Appleton, Wis.) 621.

Toward the end of his playing career, Reith earned on online degree in business management from the University of Phoenix. When he retired as a player, he went to work in the corporate world and landed with Champs Sports in Bradenton, Fla.

At the same time, Reith was coaching 14- to 18-year-olds in Sam Marsonek’s SCORE International program — combination travel baseball organization and ministry.

“I really enjoyed teaching the young kids,” says Reith. “That really sparked my interest in what I could do at a different level.”

When the Rays came calling, he started coaching professionals.

Reith’s early diamond days were spent at Wallen Baseball League in Fort Wayne, where teams played by American Amateur Baseball Congress rules and runners could lead off at a younger age the Little League. The league turned 50 in 2008.

He played travel ball for the Fort Wayne Seminoles and Fort Wayne Warriors and four years as a pitcher and outfielder at Concordia for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Jack Massucci.

“He’s an extremely hard worker and a very knowledgeable guy,” says Reith of Massucci. “I didn’t know too much about situational baseball and he taught me a lot.”

Massucci is well-known around Fort Wayne for his long-time association with the Wildcat Baseball League.

Brian is the son of Steve and Nancy Reith, who live in the Fort Wayne area along with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Brian’s sister, Stacey, resides in Fishers, Ind.

Bowling Green has made two visits to Fort Wayne this season and is due for another July 6-9.

Brian, wife Kellie and their children reside in the Bradenton/Sarasota area in Florida. The family — parents, son Dixon (7) and daughter Kinsie (6) — have been together most of the season in Bowling Green. Recently, Kellie went back to Florida to ready to give birth to a second daughter in about two weeks.

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Brian Reith makes a mound visit as pitching coach for the Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods. The Fort Wayne native is in his fourth season of coaching in the Tampa Bay Rays system. (Bowling Green Hot Rods Photo)

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Brian Reith signals his approval as pitching coach for the Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods. He is a 1996 graduate of Fort Wayne (Ind.) Concordia Lutheran High School and played 13 professional baseball seasons, including parts of three in the majors. (Bowling Green Hot Rods Photo)

 

Pitching to contact helps South Bend lefty Rondon earn 10th victory

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Manuel Rondon averages more than seven strikeouts per nine innings and the left-handed pitcher in the Chicago Cubs organization still likes to blow hitters away.

But the 22-year-old Venezuelan is beginning to appreciate what pitching to contact can do for him.

Rondon, a fourth-year professional, went a season-best 6 2/3 innings and pushed his 2017 record to 10-3 Monday, July 17 in helping the South Bend Cubs best the visiting Cedar Rapids Kernels 2-1 in Midwest League play.

His 10 wins are twice as many as any other South Bend pitcher has amassed so far this season.

After issuing a leadoff walk and seeing Cedar Rapids score a first-inning run without a hit, Rondon went on to put up zeroes.

The lefty would yield four hits (two doubles) with three strikeouts and three walks while getting five groundouts and six flyouts. He benefitted from double plays in the second and third innings.

South Bend pitching coach Brian Lawrence chalked up Rondon’s successful outing to “attacking the hitters and not being predictable.”

Lawrence watched the southpaw command his fastball and mix in his other pitches and throwing different pitches and different ball-strike counts to keep the Kernels off-balance.

“He’s done that well for the last couple starts,” said Lawrence of a player who was purchased in a trade with the Los Angeles Angels in 2015 and was named the Northwest League Pitcher of the Year in 2016. “(Early in the season) he had some games where he was missing up in the zone and got hit around a little bit. It just took him a little bit of time to get his rhythm again. Now, it comes down to keeping the ball down and changing speeds.”

Getting ahead of hitters allows Rondon to effectively use his change-up.

Rondon, whose native language is Spanish, spoke through South Bend teammate Alberto Mineo after Monday’s start.

“He said he honestly loves striking out guys, but there are situations where you have to pitch to contact, if you want to go longer in the game and keep your pitch count low,” said Mineo. “Today was his longest game (of the season) and he was pitching to contact.”

Mineo, who singled in both South Bend runs Monday, related that Rondon liked how his curve ball was working. With more experience, he is gaining confidence in his ability to get hitters out.

Rondon also expressed his appreciation for the Cubs coaching staff to cheer up players during good days and bad days and how the South Bend fans support the team.

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Manuel Rondon is a left-handed pitcher with the South Bend Cubs. (South Bend Cubs Photo)

 

Homestead graduate Jernigan enjoying experience as second-year pro

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Andre Jernigan grew up in Fort Wayne watching young baseball players chase their professional dreams in the Midwest League.

Jernigan, 23, is now doing the same as an infielder with the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

A Homestead High School graduate in 2012 and Louisville Slugger All-American at Xavier University in 2016, Jernigan was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the 14th round of the ’16 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft after being named Big East Conference Player of the Year.

At spring training this year, Jernigan enjoyed picking the brains of former Minnesota Twins who were Fort Wayne Wizards coming through the minors — LaTroy Hawkins (with Fort Wayne in 1993) and Torii Hunter (1994).

“It’s incredible to play on the same fields and in the same league as them,” says Jernigan, who played 36 games for Elizabethton (Rookie-level Appalachian League) after the draft and four contests for the E-Twins in ’17 before being assigned to Cedar Rapids June 29.

“We’re lucky to come out here and just play,” says Jernigan. “I just like to take it day by day and enjoy the experience. It’s that fun and excitement you had when you were a kid that made you want to become a professional baseball player.

“It’s very easy once you get out there to lose sight of that. You start to think of it as a job. My main goal is to come out and learn something new and get better each and everyday.”

Playing so many games, pro baseball can become a mental and physical grind. But Jernigan chooses not to see it that way.

“You don’t think I have to play today, I get to play today,” says Jernigan. “It’s really just a blessing to be out here.”

Jernigan grew up playing shortstop and accept for being moved to third base by then-Homestead head coach Steve Sotir during his sophomore year, he was an everyday shortstop until he became a pro. The Twins have used him at second base, third base, shortstop and even one game at catcher.

“A ground ball’s a ground ball though the ball gets too you faster at third base,” says Jernigan. “The Twins talk about (playing multiple positions). I’ve always been told the more versatile you are, teams can get you more playing time.”

Jernigan is thankful for a foundation laid by Sotir, who now works at The Base in El Paso, Texas, and current Homestead head coach Nick Byall.

“They run a great program,” says Jernigan of Sotir and Byall. “I look back on the drills and some of the things we did. I can’t thank them enough with helping me with my development.”

Scott Googins, who became head coach at the University of Cincinnati after the ’17 season, was head coach at Xavier during Jernigan’s days as a Musketeer.

“Coach Googins made sure that we put together a tough schedule and faced the Vanderbilts and the Arizona States and some high-power arms,” says Jernigan. “Playing those teams in those series definitely helped in the sense that I’ve seen the velocity and the breaking balls.

“I seen some of that electric stuff. The biggest thing (in the minors), everyone you face now is a Friday night guy.”

The key is to hit the pitcher’s mistakes.

“I want to find a pitch and drive it,” says Jernigan. “You must be ready for the fastball at all times. You can adjust to the off-speed after that.”

Andre was born to Frankie and Stacey Jernigan in Muncie and the family landed in Fort Wayne around the time Andre was starting school.

Frankie Jernigan graduated from Muncie Central High School and earned a baseball letter at the University of Nebraska (1989). He passed along his knowledge and love of the game to sons Andre and Austin (who played baseball at Homestead and is now a senior student at Ball State University).

“I can’t thank him enough for all those days when he threw us BP and hit us ground balls,” says Andre of his father.

Andre played travel in younger days with the Mavericks and then with the Fort Wayne Cubs (now the Fort Wayne Diamondbacks).

In one of those small world phenomenons, The Diamond Baseball and Softball Academy owner/senior baseball instructor and director of player development Manny Lopez was a minor league teammate of Ramon Borrego when both played in the Twins organization. Borrego is now manager of the Gulf Coast League Twins.

Jernigan graduated from Xavier with a degree in finance.

“I’ve always been good with numbers,” says Jernigan. “It’s one of those things that I find interesting.”

Another interesting family connection is former NBA standout Bonzi Wells. He is connected in Andre’s mother’s side.

Wells shined on the hardwood at Muncie Central and Ball State and then played with the Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Hornets before stints in China and Puerto Rico.

At 40, Wells now plays in the new BIG3 pro 3-on-3 league.

Jernigan says Wells recently talked with youngsters at Muncie Central.

“He has that inner drive that keeps you going,” says Jernigan.

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Andre Jernigan, a graduate of Homestead High School and Xavier University, is in the Minnesota Twins organization with the Cedar Rapids Kernels. (Steve Krah Photo)