LANSING, Michigan — I spent the weekend (Saturday through Monday, to be precise) in Michigan’s capital city watching the South Bend Cubs in their series against the Lansing Lugnuts (the Midwest League affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays). Rather than recap all three games, I thought I’d summarize what I saw in a single article.
Unlike other times when I saw the SB Cubs play, there wasn’t one single player who really stood out as “This guy’s going to make the big leagues for sure and maybe be a star.” When I saw them play in Lansing in 2015, Gleyber Torres was on that ballclub and even at age 18, you could tell he was far above the talent level for the league.
Nevertheless, there are some players at South Bend who might eventually be good enough to get to the major leagues, even if as a relief pitcher or bench player.
Here are some of the highlights from the weekend.
The SB Cubs swept the series and outscored the Lugnuts 36-12. This isn’t as much a reflection of the SB Cubs talent as it is a commentary on the Lugnuts pitching staff, which is... well, let’s charitably say it was overstressed on the weekend, to the point where the third day’s starter, Juan De Paula, had to throw into the fourth inning even though he was getting pounded. More on him later.
Brendon Little, one of the Cubs’ two No. 1 draft picks in 2017, was the starting pitcher for South Bend. Little missed a good deal of this season with a lat injury, and this was just his fifth start for South Bend this season. He was really good. He couldn’t quite finish the fifth inning for the “win,” lifted one out short of that at 89 pitches (53 strikes), but he allowed just three hits and three walks and hit 95 on the pitch speed meter at the stadium. (I was told, though, to not always believe what I saw on that pitch speed meter.) Casey Ryan (2⅓ innings) and Sean Barry (two innings) completed the five-hit shutout.
Little was impressive. The injury this year set him back, but I think he does have a shot at a big-league career. He turns 23 in a couple of weeks, and he’ll likely wind up at Myrtle Beach to start 2020.
South Bend’s offense was keyed by shortstop Andy Weber, the Cubs’ 2018 fifth-round pick out of the University of Virginia, who went 2-for-3 with a pair of walks, two runs scored and two RBI. Overall the SB Cubs drew 10 walks, again, more a commentary on Lansing’s pitchers than on the SB Cubs’ ability to coax walks.
As the big-league Cubs were thrashing the Brewers 11-4, their Midwest League counterparts were going them a couple runs better in Lansing.
The 14-hit, six-walk offense was spread around a whole bunch of players, but again Andy Weber led the way, going 4-for-6 with two runs scored and three RBI. Fidel Mejia went 3-for-5.
SB Cubs pitching had a “piggyback” day. Cam Sanders started and allowed one run on two hits and three walks in five innings. He was relieved by Derek Casey, who finished up allowing three runs (one earned) on four hits and two walks in the remaining four innings.
This was by far the most interesting of the three games, and not just because of the score.
I mentioned Juan De Paula was the starting pitcher. The Lugnuts starters for the next game or two sit in the press box charting pitches each day, so I got a chance to look at De Paula close up. He’s a tall, skinny dude (6-3, 165) from the Dominican Republic. The Blue Jays are his fourth organization; he’s already been involved in three trades for significant MLB players. Originally signed by the Mariners, he was traded to the Yankees in 2016 for Ben Gamel (who’s now with the Brewers). The Yankees included him in the deal to the Giants last year for Andrew McCutchen and then De Paula was sent to the Jays right after the 2019 season began for Kevin Pillar.
Pitching-wise... De Paula has work to do. The SB Cubs absolutely pounded him; as I noted above he had to “take one for the team” and stay in the game until one out in the fourth, allowing 11 hits, four walks and 11 runs. The SB Cubs had a 13-1 lead going into the bottom of the fourth.
In the bottom of the seventh with the score 13-4, it began raining and the game was delayed about half an hour. When it resumed, there were more baseball players in the dugout than fans in the stands; for a noon start on Monday, there were a lot of kids groups at the game, but all of them departed by the time the game resumed.
Again, Andy Weber had a big day at the plate. He came to bat in the ninth inning with a chance to go 6-for-6, but he flied to left. He wound up 5-for-6 with four singles, a double, a run scored and two RBI. Clayton Daniel, the Cubs’ 31st round pick last year, also had five hits, with three RBI and three runs scored.
Brennen Davis, the Cubs’ 2018 second-round pick, had been on the injured list but returned for Monday’s game. In a game when the SB Cubs pounded out 16 hits and scored 13 runs over the first eight innings, Davis had gone 0-for-5 (though was robbed on a nice catch in center field in the fifth). He came up in the ninth with a runner on base and hit a 402-foot home run. Davis is just 19, but looks more mature than that. It’ll be interesting to watch him climb the ladder in the system.
As I did in 2015 in Lansing, I served as the official scorer for this game. The process is a bit different from four years ago, when I was on a phone line to someone in New York to relate play-by-play. Now, the official scorer in a MiLB game is joined in the press box by someone inputting data for Gameday, so they run a pitch-by-pitch similar to what you see for a MLB game.
This game went smoothly. There were only a couple of plays that were in the “could have gone either way” category. One pitch I originally called a passed ball, I changed to a wild pitch after looking at video — this is something MLB scorers do all the time, when you see “scoring change” on the board at Wrigley Field, for example.
After the game the Gameday person runs the boxscores to the team managers, who can request changes. There were a couple of errors I charged to SB Cubs center fielder Cole Roederer that were questioned by the managers. The first was on a ball hit by Lugnuts right fielder Griffin Conine (yes, son of Jeff). The Lansing manager wanted a hit for Conine; it was clearly an error, as Roederer simply dropped the ball.
The other was on a fly ball that both Roederer and left fielder Rafael Narea converged on and Roederer clearly called (you can hear that from the press box when the ballpark is empty!), but it dropped in front of them. Neither touched it, but I used the “ordinary effort” standard to charge the error. The ball should have been caught.
And if you’ve ever wondered what the writers, etc. who are in the press box do during a rain delay... well, they sit around waiting just like everyone else. Here’s the view from the Lansing press box:
The building beyond the outfield is exactly what it looks like: apartments. It’s called the “Outfield Lofts,” and you can see distance markers placed there — 483 feet in center field, 507 in right. I was told that when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. played in Lansing, they brought his grandmother in to live in one of the apartments to make sure Vladdy Jr. ate properly. It’s a nice ballpark, originally built in 1996 and renovated in 2014, with very good press facilities and a capacity of about 7,500 (plus about 2,000 patio, standing room and lawn).
Again, the offensive outburst by the South Bend Cubs over the weekend was at least partly due to the Lansing pitching staff — and also, weirdly, Lansing has been almost totally unable to win in their home park, particularly in the second half of the Midwest League’s split season. They are just 5-13 in the second half at home, while going 12-6 on the road. No one connected with the Lugnuts can figure this out at all.
Scoring a game in an official capacity is great fun, but you really have to be on your toes, even though there’s video that you can review. You have to make sure you don’t miss a play, and stick to your convictions. As I noted in the 2015 article above... I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Here are a few final notes about the South Bend Cubs.
First, congratulations to South Bend manager Buddy Bailey:
BUDDY TRACKER: With today's win, #SBCubs Manager Buddy Bailey has passed Bill Clymer to become the 7th winningest @MiLB manager of all-time with 2,123 career victories. Congrats Skip! pic.twitter.com/WImU1SAoWf— South Bend Cubs (@SBCubs) July 29, 2019
Bailey is in his 31st year as a minor-league manager and 14th in the Cubs organization.
Roederer, the Cubs’ 2018 second-round pick, hit well in the Arizona League last year. He’s struggled against Midwest League pitching, although he did hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning Monday, and also drew three walks and scored four runs in the 17-8 blowout.
Weber, though, looks like a keeper. He’s smooth at shortstop, went 11-for-15 with seven RBI in the series, and I recall him playing in more than one major-league spring training game last March. He’s one to watch as he climbs up the ladder, still only 22 years old.
Many thanks to Tim Zeko, Lugnuts official scorer, and Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, Lugnuts media relations director and radio broadcaster, for their help and kindness.