CEDAR RAPIDS – You think you know the guys that will be part of the starting pitching rotation for the Cedar Rapids Kernels in their first playoff series in early September, but maybe you really don’t. Not after Wednesday night.
No one is making a bigger push to throw meaningful postseason innings than Tim Atherton. The Aussie was Auss-some in a 3-2 walk-off win over Beloit at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
“I’m trying not to worry about that at the moment,” Atherton said. “I’ve got three starts left in the regular season, and that’s my priority. Next week is Peoria. But if I get the ball for a start in the playoffs, it’d be an honor.”
Atherton was strictly a reliever for the Kernels (73-46, 33-18 second half) until finally getting his full-time rotation chance in early July. The 23-year-old right-hander has posted a 2.49 earned run average in eight starts, striking out 45 in 43.1 innings.
His fastball-slow curve-changeup mix helped him retire the final 16 Beloit hitters he faced and strike out a career-high 11. He allowed just three baserunners, one on an error.
The only mistake he made was leaving a cutter inner half that Daniel Robertson hit for a two-run home run in the third inning, the last hitter to reach against him. Tyler Grimes blooped a single to left-center with none out in the bottom of the ninth inning to score Jorge Polanco with the winner.
“That’s as good as I’ve ever seen him,” said Kernels pitching coach Gary Lucas. “He has taken to this starting role maybe better than a lot of people anticipated. The kid has done a lot for us in the organization and in this league. We threw him into that (starting) role to up his value even more. I think it has pushed him to throw more strikes. He’s attacking hitters real well. He put on a display tonight.”
For proof of that attacking thing, Atherton threw 87 pitches, a whopping 72 for strikes. As was written in a Gazette story earlier in the season, he originally signed with the Minnesota Twins as an outfielder, was released after an off-field incident, then re-signed two years later after reinventing himself as a pitcher and asking the Twins for a second chance.
His fastball is of average velocity (normally 87 to 91 miles per hour), but it plays up because of a high leg kick that helps him hide the baseball well in his delivery. His slow curve is truly slow, registering in the upper-60s.
“(Starting) means a lot to me because I feel like I fit the starting role pretty well,” said Atherton. “I feel like I love to work hard, love to go deep into games. I’m just so happy that they (put) me in the rotation and have decided to leave me there. I’ve had a blast.”
It’s assumed lefties Mason Melotakis and Brett Lee will be starters for Cedar Rapids in its best-of-three Midwest League first-round playoff series against an opponent to be determined. Righty Jose Berrios is the likely third guy.
But it’s great to have options, which Atherton is providing.
“I just thought ‘Well, I’m going to be a reliever,’” Atherton said. “I didn’t show a changeup very often in games, so I thought I’d just be kept in the pen. But I’ve been able to work on the changeup now that I’m in the rotation, which has been helpful. It was a surprise to get (this) chance, but I was definitely over the moon when it happened.”
The teams play again Thursday night at 6:35.
Here is video of Grimes’ winning hit and a copy of the game boxscore:
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