Kepler suffered a severe gash on the middle finger of his right hand in a freak accident before the Kernels' 9-1 victory against Peoria and was taken to St. Luke's for treatment. A teammate was taking swings in the indoor batting cage when the bat slipped out of his hands and struck Kepler, who was standing outside the net.
The doctor originally planned to close the gash with five stitches, but decided to use 11 tightly spaced stitches instead when he learned Kepler is a professional baseball player. The extra stitches could make it easier for Kepler to play again this season, because they are less likely to pop loose during physical activity.
The stitches will not be removed by a doctor for 10 to 14 days, but the Midwest League playoffs begin Sept. 4 and Kepler is determined to play again. He's listed as day-to-day and would like to play Monday night when the Kernels host Peoria.
"We'll see tomorrow," said Kepler. "I'll move it around and see if I can function with it. I hate being out."
The net on the indoor batting cage protects people on the outside from being hit by batted balls and other objects. Somehow, the flying bat poked through the net and struck Kepler.
"Somebody let go of the bat, the bat got through the net and the cup (at the end) of the bat hit me right on the finger, straight on," said Kepler, who saw the bat coming. "If I wouldn't have braced myself it probably would have hit me in the bread basket and my stomach, but I did."
Kepler had just finished taking a few cuts in the cage himself. He declined to identify the teammate who had the bat slip out of his hands, but it clearly was an accident.
Kepler was supposed to play first base and bat third for the Kernels, but that changed quickly. Cedar Rapids Manager Jake Mauer was sitting in his office when he heard a commotion. This happened at about 1:45 p.m., with the game scheduled to start at 2:05.
"I was sitting here getting ready to go out to the field with my lineup cards and Kepler comes running in here with Tommy (hitting coach Tommy Watkins)," said Mauer. "I looked up and there was a trail of blood on the carpet. This is 20 minutes before game time."
Kepler's hand was wrapped in a towel, which by then had turned red with dark blood. Kepler was taken to the hospital and Mauer had to adjust his lineup. Michael Quesada, one of three catchers on the team, was supposed to have the day off, but he was pressed into action as the emergency first baseman.
Quesada has only limited experience at first base and had little warning. "About five minutes," he said.
Quesada borrowed a first baseman's mitt from Mike Gonzales and did a nice job on the field. Gonzales could have played first base, but he has a sore wrist and Mauer preferred to let him serve as the designated hitter. Quesada takes ground balls at first base on a regular basis in practice and was the right man for the job.
"I had to make sure I was prepared every pitch for every situation out there," he said.
The Kernels had all three of their catchers in the game. Bo Altobelli worked behind the plate, Quesada manned first base and Tyler Grimes played second base. Grimes, a former infielder, has been playing quite a bit at second base the past two weeks (and one game at shortstop) with middle infielders Niko Goodrum and Jorge Polanco on the disabled list with groin injuries.
"It feels good. It feels like I'm back at home," said Grimes, who played the middle infield for the Beloit Snappers in the Midwest League last year. "It feels good to get out there. As long as I'm on the field, that's all that matters.
"It's been kind of weird the last week-and-a-half or so," said Grimes. "People have been going down like flies."
Ryan Walker, recently promoted from the Elizabethton Twins, played his third straight game at shortstop for the Kernels and went 3-for-5 with two RBIs, which means the new double-play combination of Walker and Grimes went 6-for-10 with three RBIs.
Walker was drafted in the 18th round this year by the Minnesota Twins from the University of Texas-Arlington and figured he'd spend the whole season with Elizabethton in the Appalachian League. He's hitting .364 for the Kernels and enjoying himself in Cedar Rapids.
"It's awesome," he said. "You can't beat 5,000 people. That's what makes the game fun."
The Kernels drew 5,039 fans Saturday night and enjoyed another nice crowd of 3,845 on a warm Sunday afternoon, raising their season attendance to 170,735 with five home dates remaining in the regular season.
The Kernels hope to get Polanco and Goodrum back soon, so Walker doesn't know if he'll be around for the playoffs next week or not. "I have no clue," he said. "I wasn't expecting the call-up. Hopefully it lasts, but it's not in my hands."
Tim Shibuya (3-0, 1.26 ERA) continued his strong pitching for Cedar Rapids Sunday. He allowed only three hits in seven innings and was touched for one unearned run. He struck out two batters and walked one. Brett Lee, resting his arm for the playoffs, pitched one inning. So did Alex Muren.
Mauer said Altobelli probably will first base Monday night, assuming Kepler needs some time to recover. Kepler is left-handed (the injury was to his right hand), so presumably he would be able to fit his first baseman's mitt over his wounded hand and be able to catch the ball. The harder part could be swinging a bat. Kepler also is one of the Kernels' top outfielders.
Kepler had a splint on his right hand when he left the ballpark Sunday evening, but said the splint will be removed Monday. He put a plastic bag over his right hand so he could take a shower after the game and not dampen the stitches and bandage.
Mauer hopes Kepler is truly day-to-day and not sidelined for an extended period of time. Kepler, from Germany, is hitting .241 with eight homers and 37 RBIs.
"I know you need your fingers to play this game, so I hope it's not for the rest of the year," said Mauer. "We'll see how it looks tomorrow."
PEORIA (1): McElroy, cf, 3 0 0 0, Herrera, ss, 4 0 1 0, Valera, lf, 3 0 0 1, Martin, dh, 4 0 2 0, Walton, 1b/rf, 4 0 0 0, Martini, rf, 1 0 0 0, Schaffer, 1b, 3 0 0 0, Vargas, 3b, 3 0 0 0, Caldwell, 2b, 2 1 1 0, Keener, c, 3 0 1 0. Totals 30 1 5 1.
KERNELS (9): Murphy, cf, 4 1 0 0, Grimes, 2b, 5 1 3 1, A.Walker, rf, 3 2 1 0, Gonzales, dh, 2 2 1 2, Harrison, 3b, 4 1 2 1, Altobelli, c, 4 0 1 2, Quesada, 1b, 5 0 1 0, R.Walker, ss, 5 1 3 2, Pineda, lf, 4 1 2 0. Totals 36 9 14 8.
Peoria 000 001 000 - 1 5 1
Kernels 201 303 00x - 9 14 1
Jones, Voss (4), Scanio (5), Adamek (7), Velazco (8) and Keener. Shibuya, Lee (8), Muren (9) and Altobelli. W - Shibuya (3-0). L - Jones (7-2). 2B - Herrera (2), Altobelli (2), Gonzales (7), R.Walker (1), Quesada (10). 3B - Martin (2). E - Walton (10), Harrison (25). T - 2:34. A - 3,845.
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