Baseball: Cougars coming home for six-game stretch with playoffs in mind

As the Cougars return Wednesday to Kane County for a six-game homestand, the playoffs are in view.

The runaway Midwest League Western Division first-half champions are already guaranteed a playoff berth in early September. But that hasn’t stopped them from being the best team in the division in the second half as well.

Despite dropping all three games at Great Lakes over the weekend, the Cougars are 19-11 in the second half, two games ahead of Peoria. They won the first half by 6½ games over Burlington. Overall, the Cougars are 9½ games better than Burlington this season, so they are on cruise control.

There are 40 games left in the regular season, but the Cougars want to win it all. They have only won the MWL title once, led by league MVP Adrian Gonzalez in 2001.

“Outside of the development part, that’s the goal,” starting pitcher Duane Underwood said. “We saw Daytona win (the Florida State League title) last year, and we want to keep the winning attitude in the organization.”

The only question is what team will the Cougars be fielding come September? Of the initial 26 players on the opening day roster and disabled list, 18 are still in Kane County. That number shrank Monday when key starting pitcher Juan Paniagua was promoted to high-Class A Daytona.

He joins a number of players in Daytona who started the year on the Cougars’ roster, including infielder Jordan Hankins and relievers Justin Amlung, Tyler Bremer, Nathan Dorris and Zack Godley. That’s not including the Cubs’ 2014 first-round pick Kyle Schwarber, who was recently promoted after a dominant 23-game run with the Cougars.

But despite the roster turnover, the Cougars continue to win.

“It’s an exciting group to be a part of,” catcher Cael Brockmeyer said. “We feed off of each other’s success when things get going. We pull for each other. It’s exciting to see.”

The current three-game slide is only the third this season for the Cougars. The longest losing streak is four games. That has contributed to a 64-36 record.

“It makes it more relaxed, having that winning mentality,” outfielder Jake Hannemann said. “We keep the losing streaks to a minimum.”

Infielder Danny Lockhart and outfielder Yasiel Balaguert figure to be back from injury by early August, keeping the everyday lineup intact nearly the entire season.

But questions remain. Injuries and promotions could continue to hit the core. And the starting pitching, which has been instrumental to the success, could change as well. Paniagua is now gone, and several other pitchers are carrying their heaviest workload.

Daury Torrez leads the staff with 104 1/3 innings, nearly 30 more than his previous career high. Paul Blackburn is in his first full season, and already has nearly doubled the 46 innings he logged at short-season Class A Boise last year. Tyler Skulina has more than tripled his workload from last year, and Jen-Ho Tseng is in his first year of professional ball in the United States.

But no matter what has faced the team all season, they have continued to win.

“It’s been a really great team effort, season-long,” Cougars manager Mark Johnson said. “We’re in a pretty good position.”

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