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An early look at the River Bandits

The pipe runs dry

Over the past few years, I’ve come to find that I enjoy watching minor league baseball as much or more than their major league brethren. For a very reasonable ticket price, we set just a few rows behind home plate. The food and drink choices are ample and reasonably priced. I can almost always park within fifty yards of the entrance and the short walk is much appreciated by my aching, arthritic knees. I’ve also found that I love the pitch clock. It keeps the game moving and gives it some flow. The players don’t seem to mind the clock either. The batters stay in the box, prepped to hit, which is a welcome relief from seeing their big-league counterparts step out after every pitch to adjust their batting gloves and personal effects. The pitcher gets the ball, takes the sign, winds up and lets it fly.

Recently, we took in a game between the Royals Class A team, the Quad City River Bandits and the Minnesota Twins Class A squad, the Cedar Rapids Kernels. In 2021, the Bandits were a powerhouse. This year, not so much. Most of the 2021 Bandit squad has graduated to NW Arkansas. QC came into the game at 11 and 14, while the Kernels were off to a blazing 17-8 start. A group of local second graders delivered a heartfelt and touching National Anthem. You got to love minor league baseball. Every half-inning brings another promotion or stunt.

The Kernels started Cade Povich, a 3rd round pick in the 2021 draft out of the University of Nebraska, and a native of Bellevue, Nebraska. Young Mr. Povich had it going this night, hitting 95 on the gun while mixing in a variety of mid-80s breaking stuff. He worked quickly, mowing through the Quad Cities lineup. He scattered four hits over five innings of work, striking out 8 while not giving up a walk. Did I mention that I love the pitch clock? If he continues to pitch like this, I expect to see Povich in Minneapolis soon.

The baby Royals countered with 6’6 Patrick Halligan, a 13th round pick in 2021. Halligan’s fastball was topping out around 87 MPH and with a strong breeze blowing out to left, the Kernels didn’t miss much. Leadoff batter Anthony Prato hit the 3rd pitch of the game into the left field picnic area and the rout was on. Halligan’s first inning went: home run, single, strike out, hit by pitch, walk, a double high off the center field wall and finally, mercifully, a ground out. Halligan was saved on the double by a sweet relay from centerfielder Peyton Wilson to shortstop Tyler Tolbert to catcher Kale Emshoff, who applied a nice tag for the second out.

Things didn’t get much better for Halligan in the second. Cedar Rapids eviscerated him in a near replay of the first: home run, groundout, walk, single, home run, single, double play. Whew. Despite all that, Quad City manager Brooks Conrad had no one up in the pen. The last home run was a three-run shot off the bat of the Twins 2020 first round pick, Aaron Sabato, which cleared the 407 mark in left-center. There wasn’t much doubt that the dong was leaving the park, it was just a question of would any birds lose their lives to this blast. I saw Sabato in his debut with Cedar Rapids last season and he looked a bit overmatched. He looks much more comfortable at the plate this season, but still has a lot of swing and miss in his game. Sabato won’t be 23 until June and he could continue to develop. If not, I don’t see a big-league paycheck in his future.

Much has been made about the Royals' slow start at the plate this season. Maybe it’s the cold weather. Maybe it’s an organizational thing. A quick look at the scorecard shows that only four of the Bandit starters have a batting average better than .200, led by Tyler Gentry at .417. The next closest is Tolbert, who came in sporting a .263 average. As David Spade would say: Daaanng.

Quad City finally went to the pen in the third inning, first with Chase Wallace, followed by Anthony Simonelli. Both pitched well, holding the Kernels scoreless for the remaining 7 innings. Both young men were hitting 93 on the radar and had several 1-2-3 innings. Did I mention that I love the pitch clock?

After the Kernals sent Povich to a well-deserved shower, they brought in Bobby Milacki, the 25-year-old son of former major league pitcher Bob Milacki. The elder Milacki fashioned an 8-year career with three teams, including a 1994 stint with the Royals, where in 10 appearances he went 0 and 5 with a 6.14 ERA. The younger Milacki pitched two solid innings and I got the feeling that someday, somehow, a grinder like him will find a place on a major league roster.

For Quad City, I had hoped to see Kasey Kalich pitch, but the early spanking of Halligan ended that possibility. Kalich was the player Kansas City received in the Jorge Soler trade.

The two teams meet again later this summer and I’ll be there. The weather will be warmer, and the beer will be colder. If you’re close to a minor league park, take in a game this summer. You won’t regret it.