The Kane County Cougars may not have been flashy or explosive or even prospect-laden. They were champions, however. And now they can add a Best Team MiLBY to their resume.
The Cougars, a Cubs affiliate for the 2014 season, breezed through the season, leading the Minor Leagues with 91 wins and finishing with a higher winning percentage than any other full-season team. They were hot right out of the gate, going 18-7 in April. They ended even hotter, compiling a 24-6 record in August including a 13-game winning streak.
Along the way the team got a combined no-hitter from Tyler Skulina and Nate Dorris on May 17 and a cycle by Cael Brockmeyer on June 29.
You might expect a team with these kinds of credentials to have been preseason favorites and to have wowed their manager in Spring Training, but that was not the case, according to manager Mark Johnson.
"Going into the year, we knew we had some good young starting pitching and we didn't know what we were going to get out of them because of the lack of experience," he said. "Anytime a team has a lot of players in their first full year, you never know what you're gonna get out of them."
"[A championship] didn't even cross anybody's mind, not in the slightest bit. It was one of those 'let's see what we got and go and get them.' You play for today and play for this pitch and whatever happens, happens. Get after it again and just try and win it that day."
Kane County followed up a dominant regular season by sweeping to the Midwest League title, going 7-0 in the playoffs to win just the second title in franchise history and first as a Cubs affiliate. Given the Cougars' dominance in the regular season, it shouldn't have come as a surprise the way the Cougars rolled through the playoffs, but it did to Johnson.
"That's very hard to do," the former Major Leaguer said. "You play a lot of good teams in the playoffs. I think after the second game in Cedar Rapids, just being around the team and the guys -- the way they were thinking and playing after we got past the second game -- it seemed like they were not going to lose. That's the way they played all year -- they had that air about them."
In the end, Kane County wasn't just the best team in the Midwest League, they were the best team in the Minors, earning the club both the MiLBY fan vote (narrowly over Jacksonville) and MiLB.com staff nod.
"Anytime you play for five straight months and you're trying to be the best you can be, just to be in consideration...," Johnson said. "Granted we had an incredible year, we had 98 wins, had a no-hitter, a guy hit for the cycle and a 13-game winning streak at the end of the season. It was just really fun to watch these guys go about their business every day and never give up. I can't remember one game where they gave up and said, 'We'll get them tomorrow.' It was a special year and a really fun one to be around."
The offensive numbers were good for the Cougars, but nothing that screamed powerhouse. They tied for second in the league with a .261 average, tied for fifth with a .703 OPS, ranked fourth with 647 runs scored and finished 11th with 74 homers.
"Offensively, it was just one of those years where one night somebody did it and the next night somebody else did it," Johnson said. "Nobody really went out and dominated."
Kane County often got a boost from its pitching staff, which led the circuit with a 2.85 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and tied for second with 12 shutouts.
"The pitching staff, the starters, they were solid all year," Johnson said. "They were young, but they were out there every fifth or sixth day, and they gave us five or six innings every day, it seemed like. They had a couple of hiccups here and there, but they were really consistent."
Jen-Ho Tseng and Paul Blackburn, two of the Cubs' Top 20 prospects, could take a lot of the credit. Tseng's 2.40 ERA would have placed him third in the Midwest League had he enough innings to qualify for the league lead, while Blackburn finished 10th with a 3.23 mark.
It was Daury Torrez, however, who was the ace of the staff, leading the way with 11 wins and a 2.74 ERA while leading the circuit with a 1.00 WHIP.
"Daury's just a strike thrower who has a tremendous sinker," Johnson said. "He's extremely strong. He's a physically mature guy that has to mature mentally. He took the ball every single time and competed his [butt] off every single time. As a coach, you have to tip your hat to that."
Another ingredient in the club's success was its play in the field. Kane County tied with Great Lakes for fewest errors in the league, despite playing one more game than its counterparts.
"As far as defense, you can't ask for much better defense up the middle with Carlos Penalver at short and Danny Lockhart at second, Jacob Hannemann and Trey Martin throughout the season playing center field. Jacob Rogers is one on the best first baseman, defensively, that I've seen in a long time."
In addition to his play at first, where his .993 fielding percentage was tops in the league, Rogers provided a solid bat in the middle of the lineup, tying for sixth in the league with 16 homers while driving in a team-leading 67 runs.
"His presence in the lineup is always a threat because he does work the count and he does some special things with his power," Johnson said. "He was huge in the middle of our lineup."
More than that was the cohesiveness of the club, though, indicated Johnson, who was in his second season managing the club. Without a big-name prospect or a player putting up gaudy numbers, it fell to all 25 players to bring the team to the promised land.
"It was just having each other's backs," said Johnson, who played for the White Sox, the Athletics, the Brewers and the Cardinals over an eight-year big league career. "Really playing for the team and playing for each other and not making mistakes and learning from mistakes.
Perhaps the biggest proof of the totality of the team effort came on Aug. 25, when the league announced its postseason All-Stars. Despite having eight more wins than their nearest competition, not one Cougar appeared on the list save for Johnson as manager.
"It was a team full of aptitude and a team willing to work," he said. "Everybody just meshed and everybody had each other's backs from the first pitch to the last pitch. The results kind of speak for themselves. For whatever reason, they did it, they bought in and it shows how powerful that it -- to not worry about personal goals so much."
Johnson found it difficult to sum up his team.
"You can't put a word on it. It's just one of those teams and one of those summers that everything clicked, everything went right. It was just a perfect summer as far as winning ballgames. Unbelievably resilient, hard-working, very consistent, routine-based team. They just came to work every single day and they weren't going to get beat. They had the confidence and they knew they had each other's backs."