Cubs System Sonogram On Vacation, Part 1

Sue Skowronski

In the first of a four-part series, here's a look at a recent Kane County Cougars game in Beloit.

This game in Beloit last week, June 28, ended up as a laugher. It was a one-sided game by the end, and it ended up being effectively an audition tape for Kane County Cougars catcher Kyle Schwarber. That said, there were other positives to review, and it was a nice beginning to my vacation.

To start with, though, I want to talk about pitching. I have now seen four Cougars starting pitchers this season. I've been impressed with all four of them. Paul Blackburn was selected in the 2012 draft as the compensation for Carlos Pena leaving via free agency after 2011. Blackburn works quickly, throws strikes, and is Kyle Hendricks-like when it comes to having eight pitch innings. Jen-Ho Tseng has the flashiest repertoire I've seen of the four. Tyler Skulina is the most experienced, and has a No-Hitter on his credentials. Duane Underwood was Saturday night's starter, and he has the best fastball I've seen of the four.

Staked to a two-run lead before he hit the bump, Underwood has a trait he follows with an odd consistency. He is the first player out of the dugout in the half-innings that he pitches. He followed form all five times. it isn't specifically a good or bad thing, but a bit unorthodox. Most pitchers seem to be hanging around in the dugout, wanting to get that last word to the pitching coach, or moment to themselves. Underwood is quickly off the bench, to the mound, and taking his eight practice tosses without delay.

The home plate umpire didn't seem interested in giving anyone strikes low in the zone. This seems to be where Underwood does his damage much of the time. That would indicate that Underwood would struggle on Saturday. He didn't. At least, not for most of the time. He flashed about three really nice curveballs, but he was mostly throwing fastballs and maybe some sliders and change-ups.

When it got to be two strikes, he seemed to like to go with a 94ish mile per hour fastball (no in-house radar gun, so my 94 is a guess) away, and it was usually successful. The opening hitter blooped the second pitch of the night for a double that landed about 15 feet from the third base coach. He didn't run immediately, in part since he thought it was probably foul. Other than that, Underwood have up three walks (a bit larger than usual with the home plate ump squeezing all the pitchers low in the zone) and a solo homer on a fastball he left up in the zone with a 6-0 lead.

Michael Heesch was the first Cougars reliever, and he's good enough to start in this league. He started 20 games for the Cougars last year, but the six-man rotation this season is all better than he is. Waves and waves of pitching. Heesch flashed some nice off-speed stuff, and was only hurt by a solo blast. Half of Beloit's four hits were solo homers. Zak Hermans closed the game out getting the last four outs.

What you clicked to read about was the offense. Jake Hannemann had three hits. I really enjoy seeing his average creep up. His defense and base running. (he stole a base on a pitchout -- at least, the catcher thought it was a pitchout) are certainly better than the Midwest League level. The Beloit starter had thrown a pick-off attempt twice before he faced the second hitter. In Hannemann's second safety, he really wanted to turn on the jets and turn a one-hopper off the left-center field wall into a triple. He stopped at second.

The early score came on a two-run blast by Yasiel Balaguert, which Boise Hawks announcer Mike Safford would call a Bala Bomb. It might have been the best hit ball of the night. That gave Underwood his 2-0 lead, driving in Schwarber, who had singled on the infield after Hannemann was gunned trying to steal third. In the third, Schwarber batted with two outs and nobody on.

I'm starting to think Jim Thome with the bat. Schwarber is shorter than Thome, Both take their offensive opportunities very seriously. In the homer in the third, perhaps in a different park, it's a double to right-center, a well-earned double. The pitch was designed to be hit there, and he mashed it. That it happened to clear the fence was very fun and memorable. However, Schwarber didn't get cheated on his swing. That is something that is becoming a readily apparent trend.

Behind the plate, Schwarber was solid enough. Only one ball got away from him. One player (Matt Chapman, Beloit's third baseman) stole second on what appeared to be a delayed steal. I saw nothing to get me to doubt Schwarber could catch at a much higher level. He won't be a Gold Glover, but if he hits well enough, that won't be essential. Boise pitchers pitched well with Schwarber calling pitches. Kane County pitchers have pitched well with Schwarber calling pitches.

In his third trip, Schwarber was a strikeout victim when the pitcher jumped out in front 0-2. The catcher had feigned the 'glove out' motion for intentionally walking Schwarber, before the AB started. I was none-too-amused.

In the seventh. second baseman and ninth hitter Davis Bote drew a five pitch walk. Hannemann singled to center with Bote taking second. What I didn't want to see with Ben Carhart up next was a grounder to second, moving both runners up. That would have almost guaranteed a deliberate walk to Schwarber.

Carhart bounced a dribbler up the middle that neither the shortstop nor second baseman could make a play on, The ball was stopped though, and there was no place to put Schwarber in a 6-1 game. (Along with Schwarber's solo blast, and Balaguert's two-run shot in the first, Jacob Rogers had a two-run homer in the third inning as well. Another run scored when Balaguert scored Hannemann with a double.) The first pitch was called a ball. It might have been a bit low, but everything low was a ball, all night long. After a second pitch in the dirt, Schwarber was owning the zone.

The game was still within reach, and the pitcher had to challenge Schwarber. He did. It didn't come back. It was a mimic of Balaguert's shot to left in the first. Both were no-doubters.

In his last trip, the outfielders were all playing Schwarber deep. After two close-to-the-zone balls, his top-spin liner that made it through the infield kept rolling to right-center. And rolling. And rolling. Schwarber had a 4-for-5 night, and I was sold on him as a catcher. I missed.the game the next afternoon, as the game was sold-out, which never happens in Beloit. My next game would be on July third, in Des Moines. That report will follow soon.

This Cougars team is fun to watch, especially with Schwarber providing the potential for more 10-2 wins. Blowout wins are fun, and I sense more blowout wins will be coming for the home team in Wrigley starting rather soon. Maybe I shouldn't have been so upset about the Schwarber selection. Congrats to those of you who saw it as what it appears to be: A low-budget buy on a hitter who can flat-out rake, and might be able to catch.

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