It's the start of a brand new homestand for the Lansing Lugnuts, welcoming in the Kane County Cougars and then the Clinton LumberKings for three-game series at Cooley Law School Stadium.
Who are these Kane County Cougars, partnered up with the Chicago Cubs? We'll discuss, but first a side note.
It's perfectly fine in baseball circles for Adam Wainwright to give Derek Jeter a "pipe shot," meaning a hittable fastball in the sweet spot of the zone (albeit one at 91 mph). But Wainwright, being an honest person, answered honestly in the middle of the game about what he had done, and this blew up in his face.
Oh, sure, this tests the integrity of the game -- even an exhibition -- for a pitcher to let a batter have a good swing. But heaven knows it's occurred many, many times before, for whatever the reason. Color me unbothered by the drama. (Also, two batters later, Miguel Cabrera proceeded to slug a two-run homer off a fastball that was off the inside corner. That pitch was no pipe shot.)
I do wish that a moment of silence had been paid to the passings of Tony Gwynn, Don Zimmer, Jim Fregosi, et al. Wasted opportunity for MLB on a night they have to themselves every year.
The Kane County Cougars came about in 1991. That same year, they introduced this logo:
However you feel about the tan cougar head, it remains their logo to this very day (although they did try to update it at one point).
The best players in franchise history make a pretty good list: Charles Johnson, Edgar Renteria, Randy Winn, Mark Kotsay, Ryan Dempster, Scott Podsednik, A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett, Josh Willingham, Dontrelle Willis, Nelson Cruz, Joe Blanton, Huston Street, Andrew Bailey, Sean Doolittle, Dan Straily, Yordano Ventura... Former Lugnuts (and current Marlins) manager Mike Redmond stopped by in 1993 and 1994. 18-year-old Miguel Cabrera and 19-year-old Adrian Gonzalez were the Cougars' corner infielders in 2001.
Last season, the Cougars were terrible: 30-36 in the first half, 25-44 in the second half, 55-80 for the year.
The 2014 Cougars are awesome. They were 20 games above .500 in the first half, and they're now 10 games above .500 in the second half. They've promoted Jordan Hankins (.322/.361/.461), Kyle Schwarber (.361/.448/.602), relief aces Tyler Bremer (10 saves) and Zack Godley (7 saves), dominant Justin Amlung (1.54 ERA in 12 G/4 GS), and they just keep on motoring right along.
Their overall record is 62-32. Their winning percentage, .660, is #1 overall among all full-season MiLB teams.
What do they do well? Quite frankly, they defend their home field -- a ridiculous 38-12 record at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in contrast to a fair 24-20 mark at home. And they pitch; their team ERA is 2.97, tops in the Midwest League.
One of the Cougs' top hitters last year was 19-year-old switch-hitter Jeimer Candelario, who bashed 35 doubles and 11 homers while drawing 68 walks. This year, he began his season with Daytona and bombed out with a .193 average. Sent back to Kane County to regain his mojo, he went 6 for his first 45, a meager .133 average through 13 games. Then the light bulb came back on, and he's been hitting 14-for-34 (.412) with five doubles and three homers since, taking in the Midwest League Hitter of the Week honors in the process. Scary.
In the rotation, Kane County is throwing three starters at the Lugs with ERAs under 3.00. The top prospect might just be Thursday night's starter, 19-year-old Duane Underwood, who was drafted in the 2nd round in 2012. Then again, Friday night's starter, 22-year-old Tyler Skulina, isn't a slouch himself. The reliever to worry about is 21-year-old James Pugliese, with a 1.22 ERA and 50 strikeouts against just nine walks in 44.1 innings.
The curious thing with Midwest League interdivision play: These are three games, quickly finished. On Saturday, the Clinton LumberKings (Seattle) arrive into town for three meetings of their own, which will also soon be completed and passed by.
At the lower levels, the Cubs' and Mariners' farmhands get into a bitter rivalries with the Blue Jays' farmhands. The 2013 Appalachian League, for instance, pitted the talented Bluefield Blue Jays against the eventual league champion Pulaski Mariners. The 2013 Northwest League title saw the Jay-affiliated Vancouver Canadians battle past the Cub-affiliated Boise Hawks to hoist the NWL crown.
But because they are separated in the Eastern Division (Lansing) and Western Division (Kane County and Clinton) in the MWL, these are solely cameo series -- fleeting challenges, nothing more. Soon, the Lugnuts will be taking on the Loons, TinCaps, Whitecaps, Dragons, Silver Hawks and Captains again, and these Kane County Cougars (and shortly the Clinton LumberKings) will be nothing more than memories from a long season of baseball.