GENEVA – Cougars reliever Zak Hermans fielded a call from manager Mark Johnson Tuesday morning and braced for close to the worst.
Moments later, Hermans embarked on his biggest whirlwind day in professional baseball yet.
Instead of the demotion to Short-A Boise he initially feared, Hermans ascended to Triple-A to make a spot start for Iowa in the second game of a doubleheader. The right-hander kept the I-Cubs in a game they eventually won, even after arriving about an hour before he delivered his first pitch.
"There wasn't really any downtime, which might have been a good thing," Hermans said. "I couldn't really psyche myself out or anything. Just went with it."
Hermans gladly told teammates about his adventure before the Cougars' 7-5 loss to Peoria Wednesday night.
The game was delayed about 40 minutes by rain at the start, widening the window for storytime.
Hermans' tale featured characters such as Kyle Hendricks – the Iowa righty who won the opener and offered a crash-course scouting report on the Storm Chasers – as well as Manny Ramirez. Iowa's high-profile player/coach, a former Major League slugger, greeted Hermans when he arrived in the clubhouse and wished him luck after Hermans scattered two runs, four hits, two walks and two strikeouts in 3 1/3 innings.
"The biggest thing I just noticed was the bigger size guys," said Hermans, a Princeton product drafted in the 13th round last season. "The guys were bigger, a little older. They laid off breaking stuff in the dirt a lot more than they would here, but otherwise just felt like I was pitching again. Just like I was here. Felt good about it."
Waiting for a late-afternoon flight from O'Hare to Des Moines provided Hermans with plenty of time to ponder what was ahead of him. The more he thought, the more it made sense that he'd be available to help the Iowa pitching staff.
He hadn't pitched with the Cougars since striking out a batter in 1 1/3 scoreless innings Saturday at Beloit, lowering his Midwest League ERA to 4.76 in nine appearances covering 17 innings.
His Class-A teammates could have used him against the Chiefs, who struck for three runs in both the first and second innings Wednesday. Starter Tyler Skulina lasted only 2/3 of an inning, exiting after exceeding his first-inning pitch limit.
The Cougars, who clinched the Western Division first-half title last month, were bidding for their 55th victory, which would match the 2013 club's season total. The team has not lost a home series in 2014.
"I think we expect to win. That's what we like to do best," righty Duane Underwood said. "Winning feels good, and it's kind of contagious, so just keep it going."
Chiefs righty Alex Reyes made things difficult in an effectively wild night, spacing two hits, seven walks and 10 strikeouts in five shutout innings. Left fielder Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs' first round draft pick last month, notched the Cougars' first hit of the night, a two-out single to center in the third. Yasiel Balaguert had the other.
For Hermans, the game offered a return to normalcy. He flew back to Chicago Wednesday morning, knowing he was only packing his bags for Triple-A for one night.
Cameo or not, the appearance drew Hermans almost level with a handful of former Princeton athletes playing in the major leagues, including San Diego Padres outfielder Will Venable and right-handers Chris Young (Seattle Mariners), Ross Oehlendorf (Washington Nationals) and David Hale (Atlanta Braves).
Hermans also rattled off a few Princeton-bred players in the minors, an Ivy Leaguer aspiring to reach the ivy of Wrigley Field.
"It's not like you'd expect a ton of draft guys to come out of there," he said. "That's probably one of the best, if not the best [Ivy League] baseball … programs for getting guys drafted."
That contention brought Hermans to one last story, from his sophomore year. Princeton visited another team of Tigers for a weekend series at Lousiana State.
A story in a student newspaper featured a quote from one LSU player that the team wasn't worried about its opponents considering the game was baseball, not quiz bowl.
"Yeah, par for the course. And then we beat them on Sunday," said Hermans, who pitched in that game. "So we all joke about it lightheartedly. We know that's how people view us. But we play some ball, too."
Up next Cougars (RHP Daury Torrez, 8-3, 3.14 ERA) vs. Peoria (LHP Chase Brookshire (2-3, 4.92 ERA), 6:30 p.m. today, AM-1280
Sitting at attention
As part of their Military Appreciation Night program, the Cougars dedicated the box seat located in Section 106, Row G, Seat 17 in memoriam for all POW/MIA individuals. The seat, painted black with the familiar POW/MIA logo, will not be used again.
Pleading the second Ben Carhart started for the second successive night at second base, a position he hasn't played since high school but one he is growing increasingly familiar with as Danny Lockhart remains on the disabled list.
The parent Cubs shifted Carhart from Advanced-A Daytona to the Cougars before the season so he could learn the basics at catcher. The 5-foot-9, 200-pound also has played third base.
"Once Lockhart went down, we kind of joked that oh, you know, you might be our emergency second baseman," Carhart said. "I was like, 'That's fine with me.'
"It's kind of fun. I just roll with it. Try to do the best I can out there."
Sign him up Right-hander Duane Underwood still beamed Wednesday after participating in Tuesday's postgame autograph session in the Cougars' team store.
"It's fun," Underwood said. "Signing for little kids, all of them smiling, happy."
While Underwood doesn't recall being an autograph hound as a child, he said his dad still has a ball signed by former Atlanta Braves co-ace Tom Glavine.
– Kevin Druley, email@example.com