GENEVA – Packing pandemonium overtook the Cougars’ clubhouse after Monday’s season finale against Peoria.
Second baseman Giuseppe Papaccio was the reason players cleared their lockers in a good mood, yet no one really patted his back. They only brushed past his duffel bag.
Papaccio coaxed a bases-loaded, game-ending walk from Chiefs reliever Dixon Llorens just the same, capping a trying season on a good note with a 5-4 victory.
“Yeah, it was pretty cool,” said Papaccio, who’ll spend time at his offseason home in New Jersey before beginning instructional league ball in Arizona later this month. “I figured it’d be a little cooler to get a hit, but just winning it was pretty nice. A fun way to go out.”
The Cougars (55-80 overall, 22-44 second half) treated a crowd of 6,899 to one last dose of drama in the club’s first season as a Class-A Cubs affiliate, which also saw the team set a single-season franchise record for losses.
Peoria (68-69, 29-40) rallied for a pair of game-tying runs in the ninth inning, sticking around after grabbing an early lead against rehabbing Cubs righty Scott Baker.
Forget those sequences or the two errors earlier in the afternoon, though. Cougars manager Mark Johnson had a bad feeling about Monday before the game even started.
He figures his players will shape the same bittersweet perspective on season finales, too, once they gain more seasoning. A catcher selected by the White Sox in the first round in 1994, Johnson recalls standing and crouching in more naive shoes years ago.
“The guys are just ready to get home, get out of here. They don’t know each season is special and to get the opportunity to be in a minor league baseball season or a major league baseball season is a gift,” Johnson said. “When the season’s over, you’re thankful for being able to do it, but you know it can be taken away from you, you know.
“When I was their age, I didn’t think anything about it. Just, ‘OK. Be back next year.’ There’s just so many things I feel like we could [do]. It’s not finished, you know. And you feel like that every year. You should feel like that every year, because you’ve always got things to work on and get better at. I think that’s what makes it so hard to end the season. When I played, I was like, ‘Man, I wish I could have done this.’ It’s that competitiveness, and that’s what makes these players what they are.”
Five of them – Papaccio, infielder Gioskar Amaya, outfielder Jose Dore and pitchers Tyler Skulina and Rob Zastryzny – will play in the instructional league that begins later this month.
The Cougars also will be well-represented in the higher-tier Arizona Fall League. The Cubs named former Cougars outfielder Albert Almora and right-hander Armando Rivero to the Mesa Solar Sox roster last week.
Some Latin American teammates will play in parallel leagues in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, as well, making for a busy offseason across the board. Maybe that’s why the Cougars never succumbed to a familiar last-day gimmick this time around. The Chiefs? Not so much.
“Guys were talking about doing the one-bat thing, with the whole team using the same bat and the person who breaks it – blah, blah, blah,” Papaccio said. “But nope. Nothing special today.”
Papaccio and third baseman Jeimer Candelario both went 3 for 5 to spark a 13-hit attack. Every other starter had one hit, including center fielder Oliver Zapata, whose solo homer with one out in the second tied the game at 2-all.
Baker, in his sixth rehab start with the Cougars as he mends from April 2012 Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow, pitched 5⅔ innings of seven-hit, two-run ball. He was in line for the victory until Peoria’s late rally.
Fellow Cubs righty Rafael Dolis pitched to two batters in the seventh before leaving the game. Johnson said Dolis’ prognosis was unclear, but trainers appeared to be looking at the strained right forearm that has kept him out since late May.
The Cubs still have a little less than a month left in their season, but the organization’s Midwest League farmhands have left for home, some with a grip on their manager’s wisdom.
“Sometimes these seasons are the best ones, because you take so much away from them,” infielder Brad Zapenas said, channeling a Johnson speech from last week. “I think that was really, really good what he said.”