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Cougars 3, Lugnuts 0: A Rehab, And The Future

The near future and the not-so-near future were both on display for the Cubs organization Thursday night.

Cubs reliever Kyuji Fujikawa on rehab assignment with the Kane County Cougars
Cubs reliever Kyuji Fujikawa on rehab assignment with the Kane County Cougars
Al Yellon

LANSING, Michigan -- There was plenty to like for any Cubs fan, or indeed, any baseball fan, in the Kane County Cougars' 3-0, 10-inning win over the Lansing Lugnuts on a beautiful summer evening in mid-Michigan. "Thirsty Thursday," a minor-league staple that in Lansing allows fans to buy beer for $2, brought out a crowd more than double the size of Wednesday night's -- 7,356. They were treated to a pitcher's duel that, if not for some bad baserunning, might have been finished in barely over two hours.

Let's start with the performance of Cougars starter Duane Underwood, the Cubs' second-round pick in 2012, the first draft of the current front office. Underwood was stellar in his six innings of work. He allowed just three singles and a walk, and two of the baserunners were erased on ground-ball double plays (and another trying to stretch a single into a double), thus Underwood faced only 19 batters, one over the minimum. Of the 18 outs he recorded, 14 were on ground balls. Underwood hit 93 on the stadium pitch meter several times, but also mixed up his pitches well and had excellent command, as the other three outs were all strikeouts. Thus the only baseballs that left the infield off him were the three singles, two on bouncing ground balls just out of the reach of Cougars infielders, one a soft line drive to center field.

Count me impressed. Underwood turns 20 this Sunday. He's had a solid year at Kane County and should be in line for promotion to Daytona, if not soon, certainly to start 2015.

Meanwhile, the Cougars were pretending to be the big-league Cubs, and by that I mean they were getting plenty of runners on base and failing to hit with RISP. The Cougars left RISP in the first, eighth and ninth innings and the ninth-inning failure deserves more extensive explanation. The game was still scoreless at this point and Cougars catcher Will Remillard led off the ninth with a double over the head of Lugnuts center fielder Chaz Frank. Manager Mark Johnson sent Shawon Dunston, Jr. in to run for Remillard.

Lugnuts reliever Alonzo Gonzalez balked Dunston to third. Great situation, right? Runner on third, nobody out, scoreless game in the top of the ninth. Excellent chance to score a run.

Carlos Penalver, the next hitter, sent an utterly routine ground ball to third base. As the throw was about halfway across the diamond, Dunston broke for the plate. After the runner was retired at first base, Lugnuts first baseman Matt Dean fired to the plate and Dunston was out, and it wasn't close.

I understand being aggressive on the basepaths, but really? Dunston had to be going on his own, because there's no way any third-base coach (and in the Midwest League, the managers are the third-base coaches) would send a runner in that situation. The Cougars should have still had a runner on third with one out; instead it was bases empty, two out, and the next hitter, Giuseppe Papaccio (man, I love that name!) meekly grounded to short.

Before I continue the chronological narrative, I'm going to back up to the seventh inning, when rehabbing Cubs reliever Kyuji Fujikawa was sent in to relieve Underwood. Scheduled to face the 2-3-4 hitters in the Lugnuts lineup, Fujikawa walked the first man he faced, but then retired the next three in order, two on strikeouts (one called). Fujikawa touched 90 several times on the ballpark pitch meter, changed speeds effectively, and looked completely recovered from the Tommy John surgery he had 13 months ago. Given the possibility of one or more trades happening involving Cubs relievers over the next 13 days before the non-waiver deadline, it would not surprise me at all to see Fujikawa back in the Cubs' bullpen before the end of the year. Fujikawa is making $4 million this year and the Cubs have a $5.5 million team option with a $500,000 buyout for 2015. If Fujikawa can pitch effectively for the last couple of months of 2014, the Cubs could exercise that buyout and bring him back for next year, perhaps for a bit less money.

Back to the game, and on to extra innings: the Cougars pounded Lugnuts reliever Brady Dragmire all over the park. He'd come into the game with two out in the eighth and allowed two singles before finishing off the inning. Then Remillard hit that double in the ninth, and the Cougars finally broke through off him in the 10th with four singles and a walk sandwiched around a sacrifice bunt. In all, Dragmire faced 13 batters and seven of them got hits. The Cougars' 3-0 lead proved insurmountable, and partly because of the efforts of the much-maligned Gerardo Concepcion. Concepcion threw the last three innings, issued a pair of walks, struck out three and generally looked quite good. His velocity was consistent at 93 and his command was better than it's previously been reported. He's still just 22, not old for the Midwest League; maybe there's potential for a big-league career (as a LOOGY, perhaps?) somewhere down the road.

I'll be at the series finale Friday night as the Cougars try to take the rubber game. Tyler Skulina, last year's fourth-round Cubs pick, will face Lansing's Chase De Jong.