Cougars enjoying remarkable turnaround
Before I begin looking ahead to the upcoming high school football season -- which kicks off Friday night at a prep stadium near you -- I want to take one last look back at the summer of 2014.
Boys of summer
Winning has become the norm at Fifth Third Ballpark this season.
After suffering through a disappointing 55-80 campaign in their first season as a Class A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs one year ago, the Kane County Cougars have turned things around in 2014.
Perhaps I should have sensed the positive vibes coming just prior to the season opener in early April.
"It seems like we've got a real good team," said Cougars vice president/general manager Curtis Haug on Opening Night nearly 5 months ago.
"It's a totally different team (from 2013)," said Cougars manager Mark Johnson. "We've got guys who are going to move the ball around. There are going to be a lot of runners in motion on the bases. It's going to be a lot more fun for me to coach."
"Hopefully we'll have a team that is exciting to watch and hopefully the fans will be happy with our play this season," said Shawon Dunston, Jr. prior to the season opener.
Happy would be an understatement.
A year after setting the dubious distinction for the most single-season losses in team history (80), the Cougars are closing in on the team record for most wins in a single season -- they're just 2 shy of tying the mark set by the 2001 club (88) -- and have already surpassed the previous record (50) for home victories with 53.
How dominant have the Cougars (86-46) been at home?
Led by starting pitchers Daury Torrez, Paul Blackburn and Jen-Ho Tseng, Kane County has won 19 of their 21 home series and currently own a remarkable 53-15 record for a .779 winning percentage.
They've won games in seemingly all ways and fashions, including 9 via the walk-off variety.
They've also displayed amazing consistency considering the fact that the roster has undergone wholesale changes throughout the season.
Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs' first-round selection (4th overall) in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft this past June, made a brief stop in Kane County earlier this summer before his promotion to high-Class A Daytona.
The left-handed hitting slugger flexed his muscles with a tape-measure home run that sailed high over the center-field fence during the Cougars' 6-4 victory over Cedar Rapids on June 20. The Indiana University product batted .361 with 4 home runs and 15 RBI in 23 games for the Cougars.
First baseman Jacob Rogers leads the team in several offensive categories, including home runs (16), RBI (65) and runs scored (73) while Daytona call-up Jake Hannemann tops the club in stolen bases (32) just ahead of current Cougars Trey Martin (27) and Dunston, Jr. (25).
Kane County, which saw its 13-game winning streak end following Sunday's 2-1 loss at Burlington, will put its 12-game home winning streak on the line Saturday night against the Peoria Chiefs.
The Cougars, who clinched a Midwest League playoff bid by winning the Western Division first-half title (45-25), begin divisional quarterfinal postseason action with a road game on Sept. 3 before returning home for Game 2 in the best-of-3 series at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 4. If necessary, Game 3 will be Friday, Sept. 4 at Fifth Third Ballpark.
The best-of-3 Western Divisional Championship (Sept. 6-8) and best-of-5 Midwest League Championship (Sept. 10-11, 13-15) will follow.
No matter what happens in the playoffs, the 2014 season already has been a highly successful one for the Cougars.
Down on the farm
It has been a learning experience this season for several local minor league baseball players, including St. Charles North graduates Zach Hirsch and Jeff Holm, former Geneva standout Brad Allen, St. Charles East graduate Wes Benjamin and one-time Kaneland ace Casey Crosby.
Hirsch, a 6-4, 220-pound pitcher and 19th-round selection of the Milwaukee Brewers in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft this past June, owns a 1-1 record for the Helena Brewers (Class A-short season).
The 24-year-old left-hander has appeared in 13 games -- 3 as a starter -- and has compiled a 4.50 ERA. Hirsch, who played at Nebraska, has struck out 26 and walked just 4 in 30 innings.
His season highlight came during a 5-inning scoreless start against Ogden on Aug. 10 for his first professional victory.
Holm, 25, is batting .259 with 10 home runs and 44 RBI for the West Michigan Whitecaps (Class A). Holm, who was a 12th-round selection of the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, has 70 base hits, including 11 doubles, and 7 stolen bases to go along with a .419 slugging percentage.
The left-handed hitter played collegiately at Michigan State.
Allen, 25, has compiled a 6-5 record as a starting pitcher for South Bend (Class A) and Lansing (Class A) this season.
The right-hander has won his last 3 starts for the Lansing Lugnuts (Toronto Blue Jays), including last Sunday's 5-4 victory over Lake County. Allen, who played collegiately at Arkansas State, allowed 3 runs on 4 hits in 6 innings.
Benjamin, selected in the fifth round of the Major League First-Year Player Draft by the Texas Rangers this past June, is on rehabilitation assignment after undergoing Tommy John surgery (elbow) in April.
The left-handed pitcher, who went 4-0 with a 4.22 ERA for the University of Kansas this season, recently began some light throwing at the Rangers' spring training facility in Surprise, Arizona.
Benjamin expects to return to the mound in 2015.
I have to admit that it has been fun watching friends and family participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (yes, I was dumped on as well).
But it also got me thinking -- here is a way to make it even more challenging.
I want to see someone take on the challenge around here in January.
You can reach Craig Brueske at firstname.lastname@example.org