GENEVA – Peoria and Clinton keep clinging closely to the Cougars, the Midwest League’s first club to 31 victories this season.
Counting Thursday’s 6-1 home win against Clinton, the Cougars will play their nearest pursuers for the Western Division’s first-half title 18 times in 21 games.
That stretch sets up as challenge either way, but takes on added difficulty considering the recent promotions of bullpen stalwarts Nathan Dorris and Zack Godley to Advanced-A Daytona.
At least it should.
Survey a perpetually confident clubhouse and the biggest concern is who has the remote control and which game of cards represents the dealer’s choice.
“It’s fun getting put in pressure situations and stuff like that, and we’re winning, you know,” right-handed reliever Tyler Bremer said. “Even if you’re not having the best season individually, which maybe some guys aren’t, it’s still fun because we’re winning.
“And at the end of the day, that’s what’s important. To this team, at least. It’s not the personal goals of getting called up or making this team, making an All-Star team or having this ERA, it’s just winning ballgames.”
Righty Paul Blackburn helped assure the Cougars (31-16) didn’t stray from that path in the opener of a six-game homestand against the LumberKings and Chiefs, who now sit a respective six and 3˝ games behind Kane County in the standings.
Blackburn cruised through seven scoreless innings, spacing four hits, six strikeouts and one hit batsman.
“Bam, bam bam,” Cougars manager Mark Johnson said. “Just attacked the hitters and mixed his off-speed accordingly and really gave us seven ... great innings.”
As usual, Blackburn (5-1)worked quickly, taking the ball, firing, then taking the ball again. The approach matched the Cougars’ don’t-think-twice attitude toward their pitching staff, namely the relief corps.
“We’re not worried. We have a lot of arms and our bullpen has been our strength this year and will continue to be,” third baseman/catcher Ben Carhart said. “So we’re not worried at all in that aspect.”
For as surely as they carry themselves, the Cougars realize they’re likely in for a fight until the first-half finale June 15 at Beloit.
One LumberKing already took the liberty of making himself at home at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark. Clinton designated hitter Jeff Zimmerman, an Andrew and Northern Illinois product, fielded about 20 ticket requests for friends and family for each game of the series.
He lunched at the St. Charles Portillo’s near the team hotel Thursday afternoon, completing the circle of his return to the region.
“Chicago dog, cheeseburger,” Zimmerman said before going 0 for 4. “Probably not the healthiest meal, but I had a water with it.”
Zimmerman, who saw more of the independent, Crestwood-based Windy City ThunderBolts than the Cougars as a child, recalled playing a couple dreary midweek games here with the Huskies.
This time, the setting brightened considerably weather-wise. As for the game, Clinton (24-21) couldn’t quite match the Cougars’ persistent and efficent attack. The Cougars were out-hit, 8-7.
Kane County got the only runs it needed in the fourth. Carhart’s ground-ball single up the middle scored Jake Hannemann one batter before Carlos Penalver scored on Yasiel Balaguert’s double-play groundout.
Balaguert added a solo homer in the eighth, which eventually prompted the ejection of protesting Clinton manager Scott Steinmann, who wasn’t certain the ball left the park.
Jose Arias finished the game with two innings of one-run, two strikeout relief. He entered in a non-save situation as Johnson uses a late innings by committee approach. Godley’s seven saves still are tied for the league lead even though he hasn’t pitched in the MWL since May 5.
“Things happen above us. You have to move guys, and it’s always that shuffle up and down,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s guys coming down or guys going up, it’s part of the game and part of the business.”
For the season’s first seven weeks, winning has followed suit.
Cougars (RHP Tyler Skulina, 2-1, 3.19 ERA) vs. Clinton (RHP Carlos Missell, 5-2, 3.13 ERA), 6:30 p.m. today, AM-1280
Short memory for Skulina
Righty Tyler Skulina pitched the first 7⅓ innings of the Cougars’ eighth all-time no-hitter in his most recent outing Saturday.
He knows he can’t afford to have thoughts of the feat too close at hand when he starts against Clinton tonight.
“I mean, it was definitely a good experience, but you’ve just got to move onto the next one,” said Skulina, a fourth-round pick of the parent Cubs in 2013. “You can’t really think about that one too much. It was good while it lasted, but I mean, it’s onto the next one and trying to get this team a win against a pretty good team with Clinton.”
Left-hander Nathan Dorris finished the no-hitter, and since has been promoted to Advanced-A Daytona. Sugar Ray Marimon and Chas Byrne collaborated on the club’s most recent no-no before Saturday, defeating Cedar Rapids on May 18, 2011.
Another Seager played Fifth Third Bank Ballpark on Thursday night in a ritual that might just be starting to feel like musical lineups for Cougars public address announcer Kevin Sullivan.
Clinton corner infielder Justin Seager, the younger brother of Kyle Seager of the parent Seattle Mariners, became the latest member of the family to pass through Geneva.
A third brother, Corey, is a shortstop in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization and visited Fifth Third with the Great Lakes Loons in 2013.
The older Seagers had plenty of positive feedback about Kane County when they filled their younger brother in.
“Nice field. Really nice,” Justin Seager said. “It’s pretty cool that it’s the Cubs [affiliate], too. They get a lot of following around here.”
Seager, a native of Kannapolis, N.C., hails from the home of the White Sox Class-A affiliate. Are there lots of Pale Hose enthusiasts in that corner of the Tar Heel State?
“I probably wouldn’t guess too many,” Seager said.
Caps been crunched
Minor League Baseball on Thursday released the results of its “Clash of the Caps” fan voting for the best cap in the minors.
The Cougars, with their familiar jungle cat head/baseball design finished 88th among 160 hats in the contest. Midwest League brethren Quad Cities (fourth), Fort Wayne (eighth), Burlington (16th), West Michigan (20th) and Wisconsin (23rd) ranked in the top 25.