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Druley: Incumbents give Cougars staying power

Published: Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 10:13 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Aug. 29, 2014 8:23 a.m. CDT

Cougars fans continually chart the remarkable statistics surrounding the team with the best record in minor league baseball.

One reason those numbers are climbing is manager Mark Johnson’s ability to count on this team’s next closest thing to a usual suspect.

Considering the wave of roster moves this season – including 11 player promotions from Class-A Kane County to Advanced-A Daytona – that would seem a misnomer. But yes, there still are a few Cougars remaining from the Opening Day roster, and fewer still who spent parts of 2013 with the club.

Here’s a glance at some of the incumbents’ more notable stretch-run accomplishments. Entering Friday, the Cougars have four regular season games remaining. They will open the Midwest League playoffs on the road Wednesday night.

• Barring a possible bullpen game during this weekend’s three-game series against visiting Peoria, left-hander Michael Heesch will finish 2014 without making one start.

Heesch started 20 games in 22 appearances last season, compiling a 3.78 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 119 innings, but has enjoyed considerably more success as a reliever.

Shifting to the bullpen this season has allowed Heesch to conserve his velocity while also limiting hitters’ look at his slider. He credits his consistency with that pitch for his 2014 surge – a 3-1 record with a 2.34 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 42 1⁄3 innings.

“It’s been good,” Heesch said. “It’s always moved a lot. Just figuring out what it’s doing and then figuring out where to throw it and location and stuff, getting that down.”

Heesch is unscored upon in his past five games and has made 23 appearances overall.

• Center fielder Trey Martin homered in consecutive games in the middle of August, smacking a three-run shot to key a sweep of Quad Cities before lining an inside-the-park home run at Wisconsin.

Martin flashed a big grin when asked a hypothetical question about which type of home run was more satisfying. Playing what-if is much better this way as opposed to last season, when he appeared in just 11 games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.

Martin also stole three bases in the inside-the-park game, and led the club with 28 steals in 135 games entering Friday. His speed and defense remain constants when his bat isn’t clicking – he’s hitting just .244 – although he has located his power stroke of late.

As for that hypothetical homer answer?

“Definitely hit one out,” Martin said. “That [trot] from home to home goes long, and it is very hard to do.”

• Comparing minor league seasons gets tricky considering the built-in roster turnover. At any rate, the fact is Cougars manager Mark Johnson presided over the worst season in franchise history in 2013 (55-80) and now has guided the club to a single-season franchise record for wins, 89.

The soft-spoken Johnson, called “MJ” by most in the clubhouse and the parent Cubs organization, has been effectively low-key while earning Midwest League Manager of the Year honors earlier this week.

A first-round draft pick of the White Sox in 1994, the former catcher preaches personal accountability to mastering the game’s many routines.

“That’s the way you’ve got to think about baseball, because it’s such a daily, everyday thing,” Johnson said. “If you get your mind off track, then all of a sudden, things, they’re imbalanced. So it’s all about sending the right messages, sending the consistent messages, and being consistent every day with your work and what you do, what you say. So these guys have been outstanding.”

• Kevin Druley is a sportswriter for the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5347 or kdruley@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kevindruley.

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