Tournaments : : Story
Sunday, September 29, 2013

Kendall sets pace at Kernels

Patrick Ebert        
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – The Reds Midwest Scout Team has been one of the favorites to win the annual WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship in almost every year of the tournament's existence. The team finished as the runner-up a year ago, and won the event in both 2009 and 2011 to earn a paid invitation to the WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. They also finished as the runner-up in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010.

Head Coach Andy Stack, who also serves as the Reds Midwest area scout in the upper Midwest, knows what kind of team is necessary to win the four-day event, putting together rosters with pitchers that throw strikes and a lineup that receives productive contributions from top to bottom.

With 11 players on the roster that have already committed to notable Division I programs, and seven players listed among the top 500 players in PG's most recent ranking of the top prospects in the class of 2014, this year's Reds squad is no different than year's past.

However, it is the depth of the team's pitching staff that truly sets them apart, even if there's no distinctive staff ace.

We don't have that big arm again,” Stack said of his pitchers prior to his game on Saturday night at Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium, home of the Cedar Rapids Kernels. “(We have) a lot of guys that throw strikes in the mid- to upper-80s. The guys we have left will all compete and will all end up at a D-I somewhere. A lot of them are already committed.”

Through the team's three pool play-in games, seven pitchers combined to strike out 29 batters in 19 collective innings of work. Squeezing into bracket play with a 2-0-1 record, the Reds were firing on all cylinders in the first game of the playoffs. Sam Hentges, ranked 244th in the class of 2014, fired five innings of no-hit ball in a 10-0 run-rule shortened game over Cangelosi Baseball Silver. Evan Skoug hit a grand slam, Simeon Lucas a pair of doubles and Jeren Kendall scored a pair of runs.

As for the Reds' lineup, four of the team's most productive hitters are all catchers, including Skoug and Lucas, a good problem for Coach Stack to have given the versatility all four offer in finding ways to get them on the field.

We have four (catchers), all of them are committed to D-Is, they all do a nice job behind the plate (and) they all swing the bat,” Stack said of his catching quartet. “It makes it tough when you're making out the lineup. It's nice that Mark Skonieczny is able to play over in left, Mitch Trees and Evan Skoug can both fill in at third and Simeon Lucas can play first base. They all do a nice job, they all have different strengths.

Evan Skoug has unbelievable power. Mitch Trees is just a good all-around athlete (and) all-around player. Simeon Lucas may be the most projectable of the four of them, and Mark Skonieczny is going to be a really good college player, he's going to contribute right away at Illinois.”

However, it's the presence of Jeren Kendall and his dynamic collection of tools, highlighted by his game-changing speed, that ignites the Reds' offense.

The Reds Midwest Scout Team has boasted several, prominent position players the past few years that have helped set the tone offensively. Nathan Mikolas and Josh VanMeter, who were named the Kernels Championship MVPs each of the last two years, both played for the Reds, as did 2011 PG All-American MVP Ryan Boldt. Mikolas and VanMeter used the success at the Kernels tournament to propel themselves to be selected in the third and fifth rounds by the Yankees and Padres respectively in the last two drafts.

Kendall could be next in line to join them as a premium draft pick.

Jeren is very exciting to watch,” Stack said of his star centerfielder. “You kind of hold your breath when he's at the plate because you don't know what he's going to do. He may hit it on the ground to short on a one-hop and beat it out, steal second, steal third and now you have instant offense. He has surprising power, his hands work really well.”

With three very good tools in his speed, arm strength–Kendall threw 93 mph from the outfield at the National Showcase at the Metordome in mid-June–and defensive abilities, Kendall can also make a difference with his bat when he's locked in.

He goes up there sometimes and leads off the game with a triple or a home run,” Stack said. “We played a game in Minnesota and he hit a ball of the scoreboard in the new Siebert Field. He's exciting to watch, to me he's maybe like a Ben Revere, can do a little bit of everything, really good in the outfield, and I just love having him.

You add in the fact that he's an above average to maybe plus centerfielder defensively and that's where the Revere comparison comes from. He's stronger than people realize. When you get on him he's put together. He plays well with (his speed) because he's arrogant on the bases, he doesn't think anyone can throw him out. He can steal any base in any count at any time. We've had to back him off a little because he wants to run not necessarily in a great count, or maybe when we got our three-hole guy up and we want him to see a couple of pitches. I've given him the green light pretty much to run whenever he wants, and occasionally I'll put up the hand and give him the stop. He hasn't been thrown out too often thus far.”

Kendall himself is quick to point to his speed as his most obvious natural attribute.

When I'm in a slump, speed's the one thing that always helps me out,” Kendall said. “In the field too, I use my speed to get to the gaps. When I'm in a slump, like I am right now, if I hit the ball in the ground my speed helps out a ton. So I always have that to rely on because I'll never lose that.

That's what I did today, and it brought up my confidence. I can always use my speed, I got that from my dad, I always have that with me. I base my game off my speed, balls on the ground, line drives, trying to make things happen.”

Kendall attributes most of his success, and his talents, to his father, Jeremy, who played baseball collegiately at Winona State and was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 26th round of the 1992 draft. Jeremy stole 149 bases in five minor league seasons, finishing his professional career after the 1996 season reaching as high as the AA level.

He taught me my batting, my swing, it's all from him,” Jeren Kendall said of his father. “He always tells me he took bits and pieces from different coaches when he played, and he brought them to me. He actually has a little hitting place where we live. He does lessons with people, so he's big around our place with lessons. Everything that I have right now is from him.”

Somewhat of an obscure talent from Holmen, Wis., a small town near the Wisconsin-Minnesota border and not far from where Jeremy Kendall played his college ball, Jeren drew attention to himself when he committed to SEC power Vanderbilt during his junior year in high school. His success led to him being invited to participate at the 2013 Perfect Game National Showcase, where he backed up his reputation with a strong showing under the roof of the Metrodome.

That was one of the biggest showcases I've ever been to,” Kendall said of his experience at the PG National. “Just to be around the good players was a totally different world for me. I took a lot from that, just the way everything came together, what I need to do to show my stuff, the mental part too. I don't really like to compare myself to anybody, it's hard to when you have guys competing against you trying to be better than you, but just that experience built my confidence. It helped a lot, I felt like I belonged.”

As the summer progressed, Kendall continued to impress at high profile events. He participated in the Area Code Games in early August, where he routinely found himself on base proving to be a disruptive force on the basepaths.

Honestly I didn't get that many hits,” Kendall said. “It's my speed. That my No. 1 right there. I had a triple and I beat out some infield ground balls and then I got walked and stole bases.”

As much as speed is an evident part of his game, as good of a hitter as Kendall could become, it's the one tool that needs the most polish as he continues to progress.

At the National Showcase PG scouts pointed to his need to incorporate his lower half more. He appeared to do a better job of this at the Area Code Games, but how much he improves in this area ultimately will determine if he reaches his lofty ceiling.

He's working on it,” Stack said of Kendall's hitting mechanics. “At times I think he gets a little bit narrow with his base and gets a little handsy with his swing. But we work on it a lot in BP and he does a nice job really working the other way and getting his legs into his swing. He's a kid from Holmen, Wisconsin, he hasn't done a lot of this travel baseball. He's a hockey player, so this is kind of his first extended taste of playing really good competition. He's doing a really good job, he's working on it, and I think the results are going to come sooner than later.”

Although hockey paired with baseball seems like an odd combination, it shouldn't be too surprising that an athlete from Wisconsin takes to the ice during the winter months.

My cousins got me into hockey, and I tried it one year, made the A team and I was like “I kind of like this,”” Kendall said of his second sport. “I'm not going to play this year because I'm going to stick to baseball. That would be my second choice for sure if I didn't play baseball. It taught me a lot to be tough, and my balance, because I'm good with my feet on the ice, so that helps a lot.”

With a hard-nosed approach and a game that revolves around speed from a smaller, 5-foot-10, 175-pound stature, Vanderbilt fans may not have to look any further than to find an appropriate comparison of what they can expect from Kendall, when, and if, he steps on campus, than Tony Kemp, the 2013 SEC Player of the Year.

I think he's that kind of player for wherever he ends up, whether it's pro ball or college, he's going to be a spark-plug guy,” Stack said of Kendall's future. “He has multiple ways to beat you. If he's struggling with the bat he may lay down a bunt, or get himself on base with a walk. He's a walking double when he gets on base.”

Kendall recognizes how good of a position he's in with his surging talents.

It's the greatest thing ever,” Kendall said of his commitment to play for Vanderbilt. “I understand the whole draft thing is coming up, but I have nothing to lose right now because if I don't get drafted I go to Vanderbilt. It's either one or the other. I'm actually going on my official (visit) next weekend. I'm pumped to get down there and I just want to start playing at that level, get on that field and get around all those guys.”

The stats reflect Kendall's impact. Through the team's three pool play games, Kendall had gone 3-for-8 while drawing a walk, reaching on an error and was hit by a hit by a pitch twice. Once he reached base, he made his presence felt, as evidence by the four runs he scored prior to the playoffs.

With pool play, and the team's first playoff win, behind them, it's time for Kendall, Stack and the entire Reds Midwest Scout Team to focus on the reason they're there–to win the tournament and the paid invitation to Jupiter.

We'll be in really good shape, depth-wise, come Monday, if we make it to Monday that is,” Stack said of his pitching staff hoping to make the playoffs. “We have a couple of kids that can't make it until (Sunday) and even into Monday. We'll use the guys we have here in this game and tomorrow morning, and then have some reinforcements if we make the playoff round and beyond.”

I know there's going to be better competition down there for sure,” Kendall added of the opportunity to compete in Jupiter. “They're going to hit strikes, they're going to do this and do that. To back that up is going to be hitting for sure, and once we get on the same page we're going to be pretty good.”

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