Where do we start with summing up the 2014 season of Cougars baseball?
Whether you’re a fan, coach, player or front office staff member, a season such as the one we just witnessed in 2014 doesn’t happen very often. It might not ever happen. That said, this might be the most fun, yet challenging, blog entry to piece together because simply put, there’s no way to put into words what Cougars fans were treated to this season. But we’ll try. And of course, I’ll look for your feedback as well on what parts of this year’s team were most enjoyable for you. We’ll start chronologically when the team arrived from spring training camp in April and take you through September when the Cougars left eastern Ohio with the Midwest League Championship trophy in hand.
I’ll say this: the announcement of the Cougars’ 2014 Opening Day roster just didn’t have the same level of excitement as the previous season’s Opening Day roster did.
Let’s go back to April 2013 when our initial roster was announced. That squad had name after name after name of Cubs prospects that fans were clamoring to see: Dan Vogelbach, Pierce Johnson, Jeimer Candelario, Marco Hernandez, and Gioskar Amaya were just several of the big-name Cubs prospects who broke camp that spring as Cougars. And by May that season, Cougars fans were treated to 2012 Cubs first round pick Albert Almora who joined the squad. But that team, for whatever reason, could not find their way through a 55-80 season – the worst in Cougars history.
Fast-forward to this past April and the list wasn’t as large as far as the big-name Opening Day roster prospects: Paul Blackburn, Jake Hannemann, Tyler Skulina were a few of the Baseball America Top 30 prospects who were sent to Kane County in April. Aside from that, there wasn’t too much of an early-season buzz as the ’14 season began.
Lesson learned? A successful season as a team in no way correlates to the quantity of prospects on a roster.
The Cougars’ 8-4 win over Quad Cities to open the season was a sign of things to come. Sprinting out of the gates, the Cougars’ 18-7 month of April was, by winning percentage (.720) the finest April in franchise history. It was also among the top 3 records across all classification levels of Minor League Baseball, which would be a familiar vantage point for Kane County for the remainder of the season.
Catcher Will Remillard was named Cubs Minor League Player of the Month for April, setting off a streak of four straight months in which a Cougars player received a monthly organizational award by the Cubs. Remillard toughed it out for much of the season with back discomfort before his season ended prematurely.
On May 17, the Cougars re-opened the record book when pitchers Tyler Skulina and Nathan Dorris combined for the 8th no-hitter in franchise history. Skulina worked 7.1 innings while Dorris, a left-handed reliever who pitched with the Cougars in 2013, worked the final 1.2 innings to preserve the feat. It was the first no-hitter thrown at home for the Cougars since a tandem effort by Craig Italiano and Branden Dewing in 2008.
On May 26, Cougars infielder Jordan Hankins saw one pitch in the 11th inning and that was enough, as the left-hander launched a walk-off home run in a see-saw contest against Peoria. For me, that was the game where at that point, you had a feeling that this could be a special season.
By early June, a total of four Cougars (just four?) were named Midwest League All-Stars – Paul Blackburn, Jordan Hankins, Will Remillard and Jose Arias.
On June 7, the Cougars clinched the Western Division first half title. It was the first time the Cougars clinched a first half division championship since 2009 but most importantly, it meant that the Cougars were back in the postseason since 2011 after a two-year absence.
When the season’s midway point was reached by late June, the Cougars’ first half record was a remarkable 45-25. Only the 2001 Cougars team, which included present-day Major League superstars such as Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Gonzalez, won more first half games with 47 that season.
On top of that, the team amassed an amazing first half home record of 28-7, and the team’s ERA was a remarkable 3.07. These attributes were consistent throughout the rest of the season, too.
The byproduct of a successful team was the reality that many contributors to the first half success would be promoted to High-A Daytona. The promotions were plentiful. Players such as Jordan Hankins, Justin Amlung, Nathan Dorris were out the door and were moving upwards in their minor league careers.
But guess who was coming in through the other door? That would be Cubs’ 2014 first round pick Kyle Schwarber. Schwarber’s arrival brought some of the largest anticipation for a Cougars player in franchise history, as you’ll see in the below photo when he met with the media for the first time. Schwarber was the 4th overall pick in the June draft and was the highest draft selection to play for the Cougars since Adrian Gonzalez, who was the #1 overall pick in 2000.
On June 20, Schwarber swatted his first home run as a Cougar, sending the pitch well over the batter’s eye in centerfield, 400 feet away from home plate. Fans were treated to seeing a polished hitter and solid catcher, but it was unfortunately short-lived. Schwarber was promoted to Daytona within a month of arriving here, giving Cougars fans a taste, albeit a small taste, of a potential future Major Leaguer.
Towards the end of June, a pair of notable events took place. On June 24, outfielder Trey Martin stole 5 bases which set a franchise record. The old mark of 4 swipes was held by ’08 Cougar Michael Richard. And on June 29, catcher Cael Brockmeyer completed the cycle, the first Cougars cycle since Tommy Everidge in 2005.
As June turned into July, the Cougars had reached the 50-win mark and by early July, the team had actually equaled last season’s squad for total wins.
Dominant pitching – starters and bullpen – were seemingly taking the Cougars to a new ascent that rivaled the ’01 championship squad. At one point in July, each of the Cougars’ SIX starting pitchers – Paul Blackburn, Tyler Skulina, Duane Underwood, Juan Paniagua, Jen-Ho Tseng and Daury Torrez – held ERA’s of under 3.00.
Transactions continued to saddle the Cougars, particularly when Jake Hannemann was promoted to Daytona in late July. All of a sudden, the Cougars lost their lead-off hitter, everyday centerfielder and top base stealer.
Enter Shawon Dunston, Jr.
Dunston, who was part of the Cougars’ Opening Day roster, was placed into Hannemann’s spot and he never looked back. Dunston was as instrumental as any other player in terms of the Cougars making their late season push into the playoffs and all the way to the championship.
Manager Mark Johnson continued to see key contributors leave the team because of promotions, injuries, and even trades. Roster promotions included Skulina and Paniagua in the starting rotation as well as reliever Gerardo Concepcion. Bullpen arms Jose Arias and Tyler Bremer were dealt to the Marlins and the Cougars endured extended absences from Yasiel Balaguert, Danny Lockhart and Will Remillard due to injuries.
The Cougars did receive a pair of highly-regarded prospects through big league trades as pitcher Jonathan Martinez came to Kane County through a trade involving Darwin Barney, while catcher Victor Caratini joined the Cougars via a trade with Atlanta. While both players were out of the mix come playoff time, each player made an impact in the during the dog days of summer.
One of the Cougars’ biggest clubhouse leaders, catcher Ben Carhart, was promoted to Daytona on August 13. Losing Carhart was a big blow but the Cougars received Mark Zagunis, the Cubs’ 2014 3rd round draft pick who was a key contributor in the postseason. Zagunis, along with Chesny Young, added stability to Johnson’s lineup as the roster shuffle continued.
By the final week of the season, the Cougars received good news as Johnson was named Midwest League Manager of the Year, a deserving honor for the Cougars second-year skipper. Some more important news hung in the balance, though as the Cougars had yet to learn of their first round opponent in the playoffs. Wisconsin finally clinched the second half wild card spot with just two days remaining in the regular season, meaning the Timber Rattlers would meet Kane County in an opening round best-of-three series.
By the time the regular season ended, the Cougars’ 91-49 record was a franchise best, eclipsing the ’01 team which won 88 regular season games. The team not only won the first half Western Division championship, but won the second half division title as well with a 46-24 second half mark. The team’s 54 home wins was a club record, as well as a 13-game win streak and a team ERA of 2.85.
Against Wisconsin in Round 1, solid pitching, clutch hitting and consistent defense were the ingredients to victories as they often were during the regular season. The Cougars swept Wisconsin, with the clinching win being a 13-inning walk-off celebration courtesy of infielder Jeimer Candelario, who laced a single up the middle. A timely big league rehabilitation appearance by Cubs infielder Mike Olt added some pop to the Cougars’ offense in those two games.
The Cougars’ second round opponent was a stern one in Cedar Rapids, as going into that series, six of the last seven games between both clubs were decided by one run. With Game 1 on the road, the Cougars rode the bat of Mark Zagunis, who tripled and homered in a 5-2 victory.
The following evening at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark, the Cougars found an unlikely offensive hero in shortstop Carlos Penalver. Penalver, who had only connected on one home run in 478 regular season at-bats, ripped a two-run smash in the seventh inning to put the Cougars on top for good, 3-2.
With that, the Cougars were in the Midwest League Championship Series for the first time since 2006, and they would face the Lake County Captains, an unlikely Eastern Division champion who, despite a sub-.500 regular season record, brought some second half momentum into the playoffs and into the league’s championship round.
With home field advantage in the LCS alternating between the West and East Division winners each season, the Cougars opened the best-of-five series at home for Games 1 and 2.
Cougars starter Jen-Ho Tseng allowed three runs to begin Game 1, but the 19-year old settled down and went on to strike out 8 Captains batters as the Cougars eeked out a 4-3 win.
The following night, the Cougars carried a no-hitter into the 8th inning with starter Duane Underwood and reliever Tyler Ihrig silencing Lake County’s bats. With a 6-0 win, the Cougars completed the season with an overall home record of 58-17 and traveled to Ohio in high spirits, needing just 1 win in 3 games to win the championship.
Following a travel-day of more than 400 miles to get from Geneva to Eastlake, the Cougars and Captains squared off in Game 3 on a chilly Saturday evening in eastern Ohio.
The Captains broke a 16-inning scoreless streak by jumping out to a 1-0 lead. But the Cougars, as they did in so many games this season, immediately responded and calmly, methodically began the offensive attack. Infielder Jacob Rogers belted a two-run homer as the Cougars took the lead. Then the Cougars started to pull away and used a pair of Lake County errors to open up a 7-1 lead. The Cougars leaned on one of their aces, pitcher Daury Torrez, for a big-time performance and turned it over to Michael Heesch in the bullpen.
Closer Francisco Carrillo recorded the final 3 outs to begin the mob scene on the infield with players running to the middle of the field from the bullpen and the dugout to join in on the celebration.
The Game 3 win gave the Cougars not only the Midwest League Championship, but a perfect 7-0 postseason record and an overall record of 98-49. In the past decade, only 3 other Minor League Baseball teams had won more than 98 games. Talk about a dream season.
As best I can tell, some of the key attributes from the Cougars’ historic season were the following.
Filling the holes. More than 50 players filled the Cougars’ roster at one point or another during the season, offering daily challenges for Mark Johnson and his staff to find the right pieces and keep the momentum throughout the season.
Leadership. You can’t say enough about the leadership from some of the Cougars this season, such as Jordan Hankins, Jacob Rogers, Ben Carhart, Cael Brockmeyer and so many more. Rogers was one of the best feel-good stories of the season. A 40th round pick by the Cubs in 2012, Rogers was the Cougars’ everyday first baseman and belted 18 home runs in the regular season and postseason combined.
Pitching. Simply put, the Cougars’ pitching corps put on a full-season display of excellence that you won’t have the privilege of seeing very often. Dominant starting pitching and effective relief was the name of the game from April to September. Consider that the Cougars were forced, time and time again, to re-discover who their closer would be as pitchers such as Zack Godley, Tyler Bremer, Nathan Dorris and Jose Arias were all effective 9th inning pitchers, but were eventually shuttled from Kane County to other destinations. The one closer the Cougars had at the end was Francisco Carrillo, who joined the club in early August and from that moment on, was the go-to stopper out of the bullpen.
Lead-off man. As mentioned earlier, Jake Hannemann’s departure was an opportunity for Shawon Dunston, Jr. Dunston was a table setter on offense and all too often, opponents during the game encountered Trey Martin in the 9-spot followed by Dunston at the top of the order. Both of those players, when on the basepaths, set the table for hitters such as Rogers and Balaguert, among others. It was an explosive lineup and for much of the summer, Dunston was the catalyst.
For all of the regular season success the Cougars team experience this season, the collective thought was that the playoffs, more than anything, would define this team’s story years from now.
That said, the team’s unblemished 7-0 record in the postseason when the stakes were highest was incredible to see. It’s safe to say that the Cougars were the consensus to win the Midwest League championship, based on their regular season merits. But strange things can happen in the postseason. Usually, the hottest team for the 10 day-length of the playoffs is the team that holds the trophy.
To me, the championship series held quite a few of those moments that you’ll want to latch onto for a long time. The Cougars’ dominance at home during the regular season was evident in the championship round as the Cougars decisively took Games 1 and 2 to seize the series momentum.
Cougars fans and staff enthusiastically sent the team eastward on the travel off-day between games, complete with a police squad escort down Kirk Road. It was a small-town, sending the high school team to state-type of moment that was special for everyone involved.
Saturday evening’s game in eastern Ohio had a very small amount of Cougars fans who made the long trek across Indiana and much of Ohio. By the 7th inning, there was a quiet anticipation at Lake County as you could tell that tonight would be the night for the clincher. Lake County’s backs seemed broken and it was obvious. By the 8th inning, I grabbed the championship t-shirts out of my car that would be distributed to the team and staff on the field following the win. And by the 9th inning, our video staff, along with myself, were at field level to record the final 3 outs.
An unassisted putout by Jacob Rogers at first base set off a jubilant scene that you see all the time on TV, but rarely feel a true connection with.
Soon after, manager Mark Johnson accepted the league championship trophy and banner at home plate before passing them onto the team. T-shirts were distributed and a team photo was taken. Smiles were seen everywhere. And at that point, it was a mad dash into the Captains’ visiting team clubhouse, in which all lockers were covered in plastic.
Once my game duties subsided, I walked into the clubhouse. Nearly 30 minutes had passed and the celebration was in full force. All too often, the visions of reaching the major leagues and celebrating a division title or better yet, a championship, simply do not come to fruition. Baseball is a numbers game and many times, is a cruel numbers games. For these players, wherever their career goes, this season, and that evening in particular in Eastlake, Ohio, will remain in their memory banks forever, as it will be with those of us who were there to see it in person.
My only regret? That more Cougars fans, staff, and media were not able to be part of the final game due to the far-reaching geography in the championship round.
The team returned to Geneva the following morning and had a supportive crowd welcoming them back to town outside the ballpark. Jacob Rogers carried the trophy off the bus and was very much deserving, as fans posed for photos with the hardware while the team unloaded the bus for the final time in 2014. Inside the clubhouse, executive chef Jon Williams fired up a celebratory dinner that included prime rib, potatoes, and a dessert cart that would infuriate any dentist or dietitian.
The celebration continued on Monday as the team took their charter bus to Wrigley Field to watch batting practice and be recognized on the field before the evening game. And by Tuesday morning, players and staff were headed to their respective homes, all baseball equipment was turned in, and the clubhouse was stone-cold silent for the off-season.
Cougars fans, be sure to enjoy this one. Whether you were at 1 game or more than 70 home games this season, you were given a treat as this year’s Cougars squad put it all together in an unforgettable season that re-wrote countless records in our 24-year history. Thanks to the following players and staff who wrote the story.
2014 Kane County Cougars
Shawon Dunston, Jr.