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Division champion Cougars unfazed by changes

Published: Thursday, June 12, 2014 10:42 p.m. CDT
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(Sandy Bressner - sbressner@shawmedia.com)
Cougars manager Mark Johnson has credited the team's ability to adapt to a series of roster moves as one reason for its first-half Western Division title.

GENEVA – Champagne bottles popped and emptied en masse Saturday as the Cougars saluted clinching the Midwest League's first-half Western Division title.

Bubbly in June suits a minor league baseball culture that celebrates "Halfway to Halloween" and "Christmas In July." Still, shouldn't someone have offered a "See you in September"?

Considering the parent Cubs' past transaction patterns and the roster moves already in the books, the group that doused one another will have a different makeup than the one that begins the MWL playoffs Sept. 3.

The Cougars have slightly less than three months to embrace that reality. Or, in their case, to pretend it doesn't exist and keep playing ball.

"They don't think about that, really, and I really don't think about it too much, either, but I know that's usually how the game is at every level, you know, in the minor leagues," manager Mark Johnson said. "Injuries happen, the draft happens, there's always a revolving door at every level. And that's what makes good teams really good, is the teams, they can adapt. It doesn't matter whether a new guy comes in. They can stick with what they do and their routines."

As the season's first half concludes this weekend, the Cougars' resilience stands out alongside their league-leading ERA – 2.97 entering Thursday – and seventh-ranked team batting average (.256).

In the past five weeks, the bullpen has lost top relievers Zack Godley, Nathan Dorris and Justin Amlung to promotion to Advanced-A Daytona.

Godley led the league with seven saves at the time. On Wednesday, fellow righty Tyler Bremer passed Godley for the team lead after the Cougars scored four unanswered runs in the nightcap to earn a doubleheader split at Peoria.

Bremer, a 27th-round draft choice in 2012, lost his final college start at Baylor, 1-0, despite pitching nine scoreless innings. He's pegged as a reliever now, a distinction that, like the pressure, doesn't faze him.

"Your first year in pro ball, you're just getting your feet wet, you know. They don't really throw you out in the fire like that," Bremer said. "So it's kind of like getting comfortable again. Not so much a shock as just getting the mindset of, 'Hey, you're going to come into a game late. Hopefully, it's close and you can get your kind of pitches with your back up against the wall.' "

With the exception of those receiving treatment or getting a pregame lift, players usually rest their backs against chairs or the clubhouse couch before games.

Last season, in a bid to facilitiate more team discussion, Johnson pooled kangaroo court and fine money to bring a ping-pong table into the clubhouse. A year later, there's little concern in the socialization department. The Cougars went 28-7 at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in the first half and many players routinely arrive early to seek the next bit of tutelage to absorb.

"Everybody's just working well together," third baseman Jordan Hankins said. "Our pitching has just been phenomenal, and we're scoring runs for them. So we're just doing the little things, I guess, to win ballgames and finding ways to win."

Johnson, a Major League catcher for parts of eight seasons – including five with the White Sox – knows what that's about.

"The best teams I ever played on was a team that there was a revolving door," he said. "New guys game in, but you had the core guys that kept the same mentality and the same work ethic that kind of rubbed off on the new guys."

Eight Cougars have at least 20 RBIs, including All-Stars Hankins (28) and Will Remillard (25), suggesting a balanced lineup that shouldn't be prone to much plucking for awhile.

The pitching staff could be another story, with All-Star Paul Blackburn (5-2, 2.72) and fellow righty Tyler Skulina (4-3, 2.70) possible targets for promotion. In 2013, the Cubs elevated All-Star right-hander Pierce Johnson – like Blackburn a supplemental first-round pick – to Daytona after the All-Star break.

On Saturday, hours before staff safeguarded players' lockers from the impending champagne with plastic wrap, the Cougars welcomed two players making their American debuts.

Pitcher Alberto Diaz (Venezuela) and catcher Antonio Valerio (Dominican Republic), both undrafted free agents, played on the Cubs' affiliates in their respective homelands last season.

Leaning against a concourse rail as opposing Cedar Rapids took batting practice, Johnson outlined a simple plan for the newest Cougars.

"Yeah, you just get to the park and you've got 'em, and we roll with it," Johnson said. "It's like any other guy that comes in. Not much to say, and let's just go play. Then we'll talk and do what we need to do later on when we need to."

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