GENEVA – Right-hander Pierce Johnson breezed through the first inning of the Cougars’ first season as a Low-A Cubs affiliate in 10 pitches Thursday.
He struck out two Quad Cities River Bandits to boot, and looked exactly like a 2012 Cubs supplemental first-round draft pick.
The Cougars batted in the bottom half and the first inning turned into the second, which was when one fan murmured, “Welcome to A-ball.” A five-hit, one-error, 31-pitch encore in the top of the second will do that.
While it’s much too soon to evaluate Johnson or any of the teammates who leaned against the first-base dugout railing in blue Cubs jackets, parroting that “A-ball” salutation remains a safe bet. Even as this seemingly perfect Cubs-Cougars marriage finishes its prep classes and goes legit, that’s precisely the simple truth.
Seeing the future, per the Cougars’ marketing slogan, will still include some road bumps.
“That’s our job is to get these guys better and develop them and get them out of here as soon as possible,” Cougars manager Mark Johnson said this week. “But you have cases where it doesn’t matter how good they do at this level, they’re going to stay here and there’s nowhere to go. So you just continue to develop and create and build with the personalities. Not so much just on the field, but also building character and things like that.”
Losing builds character, the saying goes, and the Cougars absorbed a 7-2 defeat in their opener. There were throwing errors, two-strike swings at pitches above the neck and other no-nos.
That figures to be the case in spots all season, though perhaps gaffes will be more tolerable – or at least relatable – to fans because the guys on the field are vying to be future Cubs. Either way, players know they won’t be babied or have things sugarcoated.
Why should they? Mark Johnson, a former major league catcher, and pitching coach Ron Villone, a former big league lefty, have earned organizational plaudits through their blend of honesty and accessibility.
“They tell us what it’s really like up there, no lies or no fairy tales, stuff like that. Tell us what’s real and what really happens up there,” Cougars outfielder Bijan Rademacher said before the game.
“So it helps us out because we want to prepare ourselves just to be in that moment, and they tell us all the time. It really helps, because if we get out of line either in the locker room, away from the field or even on the field, they’re right there on us. But we know in the next moment, they’re just looking out for our best interests.”
A survey of the crowd revealed a diverse cross-section of spectators. Some fans knew Baseball America touts Pierce Johnson, first baseman Dan Vogelbach and third baseman Jeimer Candelario among the Cubs’ top organizational prospects. Some just wanted to add to their collection of free Opening Day hats.
The crowds, the giveaways and the scope of what this season could mean to the 23-year-old Cougars franchise will grow as the calendar approaches summer.
The Cougars hope the losses don’t, but know they’re equipped to handle the ups and downs of most players’ first full seasons either way.
• Kevin Druley is a sports writer for the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5347 or firstname.lastname@example.org.