Hello Cougars fans,
It’s been a fast season – time to take a breath as we’re officially at the midway point of the 2014 Midwest League season!
And it’s been a very fun one so far. Despite a series sweep at the hands of Beloit to close the first half, the Cougars lead the 16-team league with a 45-25 record. Kane County actually went into the final weekend of the first half with an opportunity to break the franchise mark for most wins in one half of a season, which is 47 first half wins by the 2001 Midwest League champion Cougars squad. The total of 45 wins is good for second-best in the 24-year history of the franchise.
Perhaps even more impressive was the team’s home record in the season’s first half. At the friendly confines of Fifth Third Bank Ballpark, the Cougars were 28-7 (.800 winning percentage).
Back to the 2001 team for a second, which included present-day big league stars such as Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Willingham. The ’01 team blazed through a 50-20 home record during that season. So, while this year’s team is on pace to contend for that record as well as the ’01 team’s franchise high of 88 wins, time will tell if this year’s team can come close to matching or even breaking these records.
The Cougars clinched the first half Western Division title on June 7 – their most recent first half division title since the ’09 squad, which was led by then-Cougars manager Steve Scarsone. Kane County will be in the playoffs this fall with the opening round best-of-three series beginning Wednesday, September 3. The Cougars will hit the road for that evening’s game against a to-be-determined opponent (it will be the second half Western Division wild card winner). Kane County will host Game 2 on Thursday, September 4 at 6 p.m. and if necessary, Game 3 on Friday, September 5.
Season ticket holders had the first opportunity for playoff tickets, with tickets going on sale to the general public this Thursday, June 19 beginning at 9 AM.
When a team such as the Cougars clinches a first half division title, you can find great storylines up and down the roster. I’ll start with the team’s cohesiveness as a determining factor in what has transpired so far this season. Needless to say, this year’s team is a very tight-knit bunch. From my vantage point, it’s noticeable everyday in the locker room and on the field.
The team’s pitching has been consistently strong through the season’s first 70 games. The Cougars’ team ERA of 3.07 ranks second among all 16 Midwest League clubs and is on pace to surpass the ’03 Cougars squad, which posted a franchise-best 3.22 ERA.
Notable starting pitchers who have made solid contributions in the rotation include Paul Blackburn (2.78 ERA), Tyler Skulina (2.70), Jen-Ho Tseng (2.48), Juan Paniagua (3.25), Duane Underwood (2.32) and Daury Torrez (3.74). Pitcher Tyler Bremer has inherited the closer’s role since the promotion of Zack Godley in May. Bremer has 8 saves in 10 chances. Middle relief has come in the way of James Pugliese (1.05 ERA) and Jose Arias (2.16), among several other bullpen arms who have also contributed.
The Cougars have lost some solid arms so far due to promotions such as the aforementioned Godley, Nathan Dorris (who combined with Skulina on a no-hitter last month), and Justin Amlung. But the pitching corps, both starters and relievers, have maintained what has been a strong group of arms in 2014.
Defensively, the Cougars have committed 67 errors, the third-cleanest defense in the Midwest League and just three errors behind West Michigan for the top spot. If you’ve been at some Cougars games this season, you’ve likely noticed the crisp defensive play, particularly around the infield.
Offensively, the Cougars’ theme has been a balanced offensive attack in which 8 players have driven in 20 or more runs this season. With the Cougars, each win seems to feature a different player coming through, whether it’s a Jordan Hankins walk-off home run on May 26 or the following day’s game, where Trey Martin’s grand slam catapulted the team to a win.
Two Cougars players, Will Remillard in April and Paul Blackburn in May, were recognized as a Cubs organizational player or pitcher of the month. In May, a pair of Cougars pitchers, Tyler Skulina and Nathan Dorris combined for the 8th no-hitter in franchise history. A quartet of Cougars (Remillard, Blackburn, Jose Arias and Jordan Hankins) were selected to participate in the Midwest League All-Star Game, to be held this evening in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Needless to say, it’s been a fun first half of Cougars baseball. Inevitably, the question comes up: How many of the current Cougars will still be on the roster come September 3 when the postseason begins? Obviously, there is no rhyme or reason for the promotions as the ebb and flow of the team’s roster changes in the second half. But you have to think if this core group of players remains at Kane County, there’s every reason to believe that the Cougars will be in the mix for a season that culminates in a Midwest League championship. 70 games in, we’ve seen the definitive proof.
ELSEWHERE ON THE FARM
In year 2 of our affiliation with the Cubs, it’s been fun to follow some of the other teams in the system, including players from last year’s Cougars team.
Let’s start with Class-A Advanced Daytona which naturally, has the largest amount of ’13 Cougars due to them being one rung above the Cougars on the ladder.
Daytona struggled through a brutal April. Despite a 25-41 record currently, there’s been some success stories on their roster.
The names I’ll lead with might surprise you, but they deserve mentioning. Outfielder Bijan Rademacher was named a Florida State League All-Star (he was also a Midwest League All-Star last season) and is batting .288 with an OBP of .392. A pair of young infielders, Gioskar Amaya and Marco Hernandez, are each batting .275. Starter Felix Pena (another MWL All-Star with us last season) is 1-6, but has a 2.59 ERA in 12 starts. Reliever Andrew McKirahan has posted a 0.95 ERA in 18 appearances.
Outfielder Albert Almora is batting .241 with 2 home runs and 30 RBI, infielder Dan Vogelbach is batting .259 and Rock Shoulders is batting .201. It’s been a tough go for Jeimer Candelario, who is batting just .195. One half doesn’t make a season and it will be interesting to see how the rest of the season goes for the above players.
At Double-A Tennessee, the story has been all-everything prospect Kris Bryant, who is currently batting .355 with 22 home runs and 58 RBI. While Bryant skipped Kane County and went directly from Short-A Boise to Daytona last season, he’s a name at the forefront of every Cubs/Cougars fan.
Some Cougars names to throw at you include pitcher Armando Rivero, who was named a Southern League All-Star. The Cuban pitcher is 2-1 with a 1.56 ERA in 26 appearances. I still think he’ll be the first Cougar as part of our Cubs affiliation to make the big leagues.
Pitcher Pierce Johnson has battled a few injuries that has slowed down his 2014 campaign. At the present, Johnson is 1-1 with a 4.39 ERA in 5 starts for the Smokies.
Just below us, Short-A Boise kicked off their season last week. There’s quite a few familiar names who have landed on the Hawks’ roster including some of this year’s team. David Bote, Danny Canella, Josh Davis and Scott Frazier are several players that are trying to work their way back up to Kane County. You might remember Giuseppe Papaccio and Oliver Zapata, a pair of ’13 Cougars who are currently at Boise.
With the most interest among fans is catcher and 2014 Cubs first round pick, Kyle Schwarber. The calls to have him join Kane County are already coming in as Schwarber is batting .563 through 4 games. Be patient, Cougars fans. Hopefully you’ll see him soon enough.
Pitcher Jeff Antigua deserves a shout-out as the left-hander is the lone ’13 Cougar currently at Triple-A Iowa. Antigua has appeared in 10 games and has a solid 3.06 ERA. This season, there’s also been a fun connection between the Cougars and Cubs in ’03 Cougar John Baker, who has been starting catcher Welington Castillo’s back-up.
As always, thanks for reading! We hope to see you at one or more games starting this Thursday as the Cougars open up the 2nd half of the season.