GENEVA – The Cougars’ latest clubhouse pastime features more back-and-forth than the second half of their season to date.
Could a ping-pong table really spark a clubhouse that’s absorbed five losses in as many games since the All-Star break?
It couldn’t hurt, players and manager Mark Johnson say.
Infielder Brad Zapenas addressed the Cougars about the recently-added accessory before Tuesday’s 9-5 loss to Beloit, speaking of its potential to lighten the mood during the skid. Zapenas, for one, would have appreciated getting his Stiga on while recovering from a torn labrum for much of last season.
“Guys, I think, are getting so down on themselves when they make an error and strike out,” Zapenas said. “When I was out for a year, just getting back to this level and playing and being able to throw again was huge for me. So I told them to have fun with it and don’t take anything for granted. Just have fun and hustle.”
Johnson opted for some spontaneous clubhouse redecorating before the break, as the Cougars (30-41, 0-5 second half) have now lost 16 of 22 games overall.
A rainout prompted the move, which also included rearranging the clubhouse couch and putting part of it in Johnson’s office. The table – which has seen coach Kenny Socorro and trainer Shane Nelson be most successful – is the crown jewel and the fruit of a natural fundraiser.
“Kangaroo court money and a little bit of fine money,” Johnson said. “Just wanted to see if I could get them off phones and off their gadgets a little bit. Get them to do something instead of just sitting around and texting and social media-ing it.”
Beloit (47-28, 4-1) struck for a tweet-worthy feat en route to five unearned runs in the first inning.
Capitalizing on a throwing error by Cougars third baseman Jeimer Candelario, the Snappers got back-to-back home runs from designated hitter Ryan Mathews (two-run) and catcher Nick Rickles (solo) to punctuate the rally.
Left-hander Brian Smith – the Cougars’ youngest pitcher at 20 – surrendered three hits in the inning and was pulled in favor of righty Lendy Castillo, a Rule 5 pick of the parent Cubs and a converted infielder.
A long reliever earlier in the year who collaborated with Eddie Orozco and Jeffry Antigua on seven-inning, two-hit home shutout of Peoria on May 16, Smith is expected to work in the starting rotation after the midseason promotion of righty Pierce Johnson to Advanced-A Daytona.
One of the corresponding roster moves landed hard-throwing Cuban righty Armando Rivero, who was called up from extended spring training. The Cubs signed Rivero, an undrafted free agent, for $3.1 million on March 18. He has not pitched profesionally since 2011.
“It’s hard to put a barometer on it right away, but, I mean, the arm’s there. There’s no doubt,” Cougars pitching coach Ron Villone said. “And I know he’s a bright young man. He’s eager to learn. He’s eager to get out there and play. He’s trying to speak English. He’s trying everything.
“You see a guy who’s all in, it’s great to see, you know. As a coach, it’s great, but it’s also good for the players. Good for them to see somebody who has hunger. Hunger is very contagious sometimes. So the short time I’ve been around him, it’s good to see.”
The Cougars trailed, 8-1, after five innings but crept closer behind catcher Willson Contreras’ RBI double. They were down, 8-3, with the bases loaded and no outs in the eighth but managed only Conteras’ run-scoring groundout.
Albert Almora, Dan Vogelbach, Rock Shoulders and Candelario had two hits apiece.
As expected, there was no ping-pong to be played after the final out, but that doesn’t marginalize the table as a potential aid for bouncing back.
“I’ve been in clubhouses where you had a table or guys played cards, you know,” said Johnson, a former major league catcher. “But nowadays, they don’t do anything except sit on their phones and text or tweet and do all that stuff.
“I think it can’t hurt. It can’t hurt as long as they’re doing their work before the game and they’re not worried about getting in here and playing. I’ve got no problem with it. I think anything they can do away from that kind of stuff is good, you know.”
COUGARS SHORT HOPS
Beloit (RHP Derek DeYoung, 4-3, 4.31 ERA) at Cougars (RHP Jose Rosario, 0-3, 5.47 ERA), noon today, kccougars.com
Tuesday’s crowd of 2,669 pushed the Cougars’ season total to 179,948 fans in 33 home games. Kane County attracted 157,967 fans through the same span last season.
Oakland Athletics director of player development Keith Liepmann was on hand in his former stomping grounds. The Cougars finished an eight-season affiliation with the A’s after the 2010 season. Oakland now is aligned with Beloit.
Cubs brass will be excited because
Left-hander Nathan Dorris, one of the Cougars’ six Midwest League All-Stars, kept the club afloat after a shoddy start with 31/3 innings of three-hit, one-run relief.
Cubs brass will cringe because
The defense struggled once more, committing two errors, including a Jeimer Candelario throwing gaffe that paved the way for Beloit’s five-run first inning. The Cougars have committed 12 errors in five games in the second half.
A team that lost four straight games to begin the season is 0-5 in the second half. The Cougars are loaded with talent, but keep telling themselves that only goes so far. They know it’s time to produce.