GENEVA – A revolving door of roster moves greeted the Cougars’ clubhouse during the recent Midwest League All-Star break.
While much of the position player talent from the parent Cubs’ organization remains intact, the pitching staff has absorbed the biggest hits, increasing the challenge of improving a unit that is 15th in the 16-team Midwest League with a 4.51 team ERA.
“We’re building on a bunch of our failures. We’re building on some success,” pitching coach Ron Villone said. “But we’ve got to get better at understanding what inside the game is.”
Though he wasn’t tabbed as one of the Cougars’ six All-Stars, righty Pierce Johnson arguably showed the best aptitude for conquering the learning curve of his first full professional season.
A first-round sandwich pick of the Cubs in 2012, Johnson was 5-5 with a 3.10 ERA when the Cubs promoted him to Advanced-A Daytona during the break. Couple Johnson’s departure with that of All-Star left-handed reliever Jeffry Antigua (Triple-A Iowa) and the second-half struggles of All-Stars Tayler Scott (0-2, 6.00), and Nathan Dorris (1-1, 4.91) and the rest of the staff senses added urgency.
That’s where the risk of pressing comes in.
“Our talent is only going to get us so far,” Villone said. “You’ve got to progress by paying attention, learning hitters, understanding what your strengths and weaknesses are. Not just saying, ‘All right, I’ve got a great arm and talent, you know’. For most [guys] being their first year, it’s a little bit hard. It takes a little time to get their feet wet. But now that their feet are wet, I expect a lot more out of them.”
Newcomers Sheldon McDonald and Michael Hamann have proved solid solutions since joining the club in recent weeks. McDonald, a situational lefty, entered Wednesday’s series opener at South Bend unscored upon in four appearances covering 10 innings after being demoted from Daytona.
Hamann, injured while playing with several of his current teammates with Short-A Boise last season, has contributed 21/3 scoreless innings in two games.
He’s familiar with the players in the clubhouse and knows he’s not the only one who can produce.
“The makeup of the pitching staff is good,” Hamann said. “It seems like everybody’s attacking hitters early, pounding the zone, throwing strikes and affording the team an opportunity to go out there and win every day.”
The Cougars are 13-16 in one-run games, so there’s some backbone to that claim. As the team works to play its way back in to the hunt for a second-half playoff spot, however, that’s another attribute the team wants to turn around.
• Kevin Druley is a sportswriter for the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5347 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kevindruley.
IN THE COUGARS' DEN
Shortstop Marco Hernandez entered Wednesday’s series opener at South Bend batting .314 (11 for 35) in his past 10 starts.
Since closing June going 4 for 7, outfielder Reggie Golden has just one hit in 18 at-bats this month, a .056 average.
The Cougars should feel fortunate to miss South Bend left-hander Daniel Watts during the first leg of a six-game Eastern Division road trip. A 32nd-round pick of the parent Arizona Diamondbacks out of Jacksonville State (Ala.) in 2012, Watts leads the Midwest League in wins (10) and innings (101 1/3) while compiling a 3.38 ERA in 16 starts. He limited Dayton to three hits and one run in 72/3 innings Monday.
Four players who either opened the season or spent time with the Cougars started for Advanced-A Daytona on Monday when Cubs farmhand Matt Loosen pitched a no-hitter against Dunedin: Yaniel Cabezas (catcher), Wes Darvill (second base), Pin-Chieh Chen (left field) and Bijan Rademacher (right field). ...The Midwest League’s aggregate Independence Day attendance of 68,243 fans over eight games last week was nearly 12,000 more than the previous record, set in 2010. ... Lefty Michael Heesch, a Prairie Ridge product whose family now resides in Bartlett, leads the Cougars with eight “quality starts.” ... The Cougars are 21-16 when scoring first this season.
– Kevin Druley, firstname.lastname@example.org
LEADERS IN THE KANE COUNTY COUGARS CLUBHOUSE (THROUGH TUESDAY)
Albert Almora, .353
Dan Vogelbach, .280
Rock Shoulders, .267
Rock Shoulders, 15
Dan Vogelbach, 13
Willson Contreras, 6
Dan Vogelbach, 56
Rock Shoulders, 44
Oliver Zapata, 34
Marco Hernandez, 10
Oliver Zapata, 9
Gioskar Amaya, 8
Nathan Dorris, 3.22
Felix Pena, 3.41
Michael Heesch, 3.69
Tayler Scott, 4
Four players tied with 3