The 23rd season of Cougars baseball is up and running! Here’s a photo of my desk calendar. The date you will see on there (March 22) indicates how busy of a stretch it’s been for our staff.
These last couple of weeks have been moving at an exciting but accelerated pace as countless preparations for last Thursday’s home opener were made. Many of these preparations are operational and to the casual fan, would probably go unnoticed. Inside the ballpark alone, concessions stands, the press box, upstairs suites, clubhouse…the list goes on and on. There is just no magic button to push on Opening Night and have everything ready to roll. It’s definitely a testament to our staff and everyone who has helped us along the way in March and early April.
It was great to see such a supportive crowd on Opening Night. Just shy of 5,000 fans on a cool Thursday evening, fans were into the game from start to finish. There were certainly some cold and damp games this past homestand with “feels like” temperatures in the low 30’s for yesterday’s game. The team bused out this morning for Appleton, WI, where I can only assume it will NOT be sunny and 70 this week. As I put this blog together, tonight’s scheduled game has been postponed to tomorrow.
It was a fast-paced stretch last week for the team in addition to our staff. The guys arrived last Monday afternoon, April 1, from the Cubs’ spring training complex in Arizona. Equipment issuing, getting player and staff housing situated, meeting with the media, and two days of workouts kept the team busy in advance of last Thursday.
The team had a 2-5 season-opening homestand but there were certainly some bright spots. Rock Shoulders is batting .467 through 7 games and hit an Opening Night homer. Dan Vogelbach is batting .313. Pitcher Pierce Johnson, the Cubs’ 1st round supplemental pick last summer, went 5 innings in his second start of the season.
Around the horn: In addition to Cougars baseball, there are many updates to provide with former Cougars in Major League Baseball as well as across Minor League Baseball.
MLB: If you were at Fifth Third Bank Balllpark for our first homestand, chances are that you saw a new recognition wall behind our press box, listing the names of our 120 alumni who have played or are currently playing in the big leagues.
Through the early stretch of the big league season, a total of 26 former Cougars have appeared in a major league game.
Last year’s Triple Crown winner and AL MVP Miguel Cabrera (’01) is up to his familiar tricks again this season. So far, Cabrera is batting .394 with 13 hits in 33 at-bats for the Tigers. Texas outfielder Nelson Cruz (’03) is batting .353 and a pair of Dodgers and Cougars alums, Andre Ethier (’03) and Adrian Gonzalez (’01) are batting north of .300.
It’s been good to see Boston reliever and former AL Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey (’07) get off to a fast start. Bailey, who missed a good chunk of last season due to an injury, has pitched in 4 games and has yet to allow an earned run. Red Sox teammate Ryan Dempster (’96) has made 2 starts so far. Pittsburgh pitcher A.J. Burnett (’98) is a hard-luck 0-2 to open the season, but carries a 3.27 ERA. Oakland pitcher Dan Straily (’10), who made his major league debut last season, struck out 11 in his first start.
MiLB: Let’s start with the Kansas City Royals’ affiliates since there are so many familiar names from our past affiliation with the Royals in 2011-12. Lexington (Class-A) is managed by last year’s Cougars skipper Brian “Buck” Buchanan. Infielder Michael Antonio (’12) is batting .308 through 7 games. Pitcher Bryan Brickhouse (’12) has a 3.00 ERA in 2 starts while Scott Alexander (’12) has made 2 relief appearances. At Class-A Advanced Wilmington, led by ’11 Cougars manager Vance Wilson, Angel Baez (2012 Cougars Pitcher of the Year) has made one start, allowing 1 earned run in 4 innings. Vance’s rotation also includes Aaron Brooks (’12), Kyle Smith (’12) and last year’s first round pick Kyle Zimmer (’12). Zimmer went 5 innings in his first ’13 start, allowing 2 runs and fanning 8.
There are quite a few players at the Royals’ Double-A affiliate, Northwest Arkansas. Slow starts for both Orlando Calixte (’11-’12) and Brett Eibner (’11). Eibner is 0-for-20 to open the season with 10 strikeouts. Other former Cougars at Double-A include Brian Fletcher, Kane County Player of the Year in 2011, Juan Graterol (’11) and Angel Franco (’11). Pitcher Jason Adam (’11) is in the Naturals’ rotation, along with Sugar Ray Marimon (’11) and Yordano Ventura (’11). Ventura went 5 innings in his first start.
Working our way backwards to our affiliation with the A’s, which ran through the 2010 season…infielder Jemile Weeks (’08) is batting .345 at Triple-A Sacramento, managed by ’09 Cougars skipper Steve Scarsone. Other position players on the River Cats roster include Conner Crumbliss (’09-’10), Michael Choice (’10) and Josh Horton (’07). Weeks made his big league debut with Oakland in 2011.
Could Travis Banwart (’07-’08) be the next player to make his big league debut? Coming off a strong 2012 season at Sacramento, the right-hander has a 3.18 ERA in 2 appearances.
Lots of good starts at Double-A Midland, managed by former Cougars skipper Aaron Nieckula. Anthony Aliotti (’10) is batting .450 through 6 games. Dusty Coleman (’09) is batting .368, and pitcher Murphy Smith (’09-’10) has a sparkling 0.82 ERA in 2 starts.
Elsewhere across Minor League Baseball, there are quite a few former Cougars within other major league farm systems that are worth passing along.
Let’s start with Javier Herrera. Remember that name? Herrera was a Cougar in 2005 – 8 seasons ago. After last playing professionally in 2009, Herrera bounced around the independent league circuit through last year before landing with the Richmond Flying Squirrels, the new Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.
It’s early, but Herrera is batting .250 through 7 games. Thinking back to 2005, Herrera was one of the most talented players on the roster that season, belting 13 home runs, driving in 62 runs, and earning a spot on the Midwest League All-Star team that summer.
It’s very rare to see a player eight years removed from Class-A ball, continuing his quest to reach the major leagues. But Herrera just turned 28 years old, and if he can showcase his talents this season at Double-A, it will be interesting to see where he goes from here.
Corey Brown (’08) is batting .320 at Triple-A Syracuse (Washington). Brown made his big league debut at Washington in 2011. Travis Buck (’05) is batting .429 at Triple-A Tucson (San Diego). A teammate from ’05, Gregorio Petit, is also on the Tucson roster. Petit made his big league debut with Oakland in 2008; Buck did the same in 2007. A pair of former Cougars hoping for a major league debut this season are at Triple-A Lehigh Valley (Philadelphia): pitcher Justin Friend (’08) and outfielder Jermaine Mitchell (’07). Infielder Stephen Parker (’09) is at Triple-A Nashville (Milwaukee).
You have to admire the determination by former Cougar John Suomi (’03). Now 32 years old, Suomi is attempting to make the major leagues and is currently at Double-A Reading (Philadelphia). Suomi has advanced as high as Triple-A several times. A total of 9 former Cougars from the ’03 squad have reached the bigs.
Pitcher Sam Demel (’07) has made 2 appearances for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Yankees); Vin Mazzaro (’06) has made 1 appearance at Triple-A Indianapolis (Pittsburgh). Both players are hoping to get back to the major leagues after debuting in 2010 and 2009, respectively. Pitcher Ian Krol (’10), the Chicagoland native who was traded from the A’s organization before this season, is off to a strong start at Double-A Harrisburg (Washington). Krol has a 1.93 ERA in 3 relief appearances. Pitcher Bo Schultz (’10), who was invited to big league camp by Arizona, has made appearances at Triple-A Reno and Double-A Mobile already this season. The Mobile roster includes an ’11 Cougar, outfielder Ryan Stovall.
Other former Cougars elsewhere in the minor leagues include Jason Christian (’08-’10) at Double-A New Britain (Minnesota), Mike Gilmartin (’10) at Double-A Pensacola (Cincinnati), Jeff Gray (’06; made his big league debut in ’08) with Triple-A Charlotte (White Sox), Max Peterson (’10) at Class-A Winston-Salem (White Sox), Nate Robertson (’00; made big league debut in ’02) at Triple-A Round Rock (Texas), and Mickey Storey (’09) at Triple-A Buffalo (Toronto).
Thanks to everyone for reading! We’re looking forward to seeing you at the ballpark soon!