For the second time in three seasons, the South Bend Cubs are Midwest League Champions. With their decisive Game 3 victory over the Lake County Captains in Eastlake, Ohio on September 21, the Cubs celebrated another championship banner heading home to Four Winds Field.
The lead-up to yet another ring for the South Bend Cubs organization was a long and winding road that featured many arrivals and departures in which 61 different players suited up for Lance Rymel’s team.
For nearly all of this year, the South Bend Cubs had at least 10 of the top-30 Chicago Cubs prospects on their roster. Early on, those names included Ed Howard, Alexander Canario, Jordan Wicks, and DJ Herz. Towards the back end of the campaign, Pete Crow-Armstrong, Porter Hodge, and Luis Devers all packed the dugout. 20-year-olds Owen Caissie and Yohendrick Pinango spent the entire campaign with the Cubs.
With two of the bigger names on roster in the early season being Howard and Canario, there was plenty of hype built around South Bend’s Opening Day roster that had plenty with an exciting feeling both in South Bend and Chicago.
Playing under 100 miles from where he grew up, Howard was the Cubs first-round pick in 2020 out of Mount Carmel High School in Chicagoland. What was intriguing about Howard, unlike other star South Bend shortstops who came before him, was that his defensive ability did not take a step back with the early season cold weather. He shined with his glove, and his bat was coming along too until a season ending injury ended his 2022 campaign in May. Even though he only played 23 games in a South Bend uniform, thousands of fans early in the season came out to watch Howard as he is still just embarking on his Chicago Cubs journey.
Following the trade of Kris Bryant to the San Francisco Giants in 2021, Canario arrived in South Bend last season and got a taste of the Cubs organization. His arrival with the South Bend Cubs in 2022 was much more so about quality over quantity. It was just a matter of time before he would pack his bags for Double-A Tennessee, and ultimately Triple-A Iowa. However, with South Bend, Canario showed off the raw power that has scouts, fans, and coaches gushing about his potential. Canario hammered seven homers with the Cubs in 24 games, which included a multi-home run day in Quad Cities on April 14, and three straight games with a home run from May 1 through May 4.
A name that will always be remembered from this year is Matt Mervis. The former Duke Blue Devil was an undrafted free agent signing of the Cubs in 2020, and was not a top-ranked prospect coming into the season. That certainly changed after he hit .350 with South Bend, .300 with Double-A Tennessee, and is now with Triple-A Iowa. He hammered 36 total home runs in 2022, and his 119 combined RBI’s are the most by a Minor Leaguer since Pete Alonso in 2018.
Two players on the South Bend Opening Day Roster went on to play for the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field in 2022. Right-hander Jeremiah Estrada finished the season in the Big Leagues, while righty Nicholas Padilla made his Major League debut with Chicago before being claimed off waivers.
Both Estrada and Padilla were out of the South Bend bullpen onto higher levels by the time the South Bend summer rolled along. That’s when hurlers like Sheldon Reed, Michael McAvene, Adam Laskey, and Gabriel Jaramillo touched down in the State of Indiana. All four pitchers would ultimately take the bullpen reigns and play key parts in the playoff run down the stretch.
When you think about what led the Cubs to their second ring in three seasons, you must take into account the arrival of the spark plug of the team, a guy known as ‘PCA’.
Crow-Armstrong, the Chicago Cubs number-one prospect, was traded to the organization from the New York Mets for Javier Baez in 2021. Since that point, PCA has electrified the fan base with his diverse game that features power, speed, charisma, and a dynamite glove. He was called up to South Bend from Low-A Myrtle Beach on May 31.
From that moment forward, Rymel could nearly pencil in the same outfield everyday straight across. Pinango, PCA, Caissie. Book it. Mix in Jordan Nwogu or Jonathan Sierra at DH or mix and match any five of those guys between the four possible lineup spots, and you’ve got yourself a tremendous order. As the spark plug type player, PCA made the SportsCenter Top-10 plays multiple times in 2022 with his play in center field. PCA hit .321 in the postseason, and capped-off his best month with South Bend in August by hitting .356.
The Cubs kept on winning, and winning big. The contagious winning also included a six-game sweep over the St. Louis Cardinals affiliate, the Peoria Chiefs at Four Winds Field from May 3-8. South Bend also took five wins in six games multiple times this season either on the road or at home. The home field advantage was no joke for the Cubs either. South Bend would finish with the best home record in the Midwest League, and had a circuit-high 44 wins at Four Winds Field.
With their ubiquitous approach of slapping the ball anywhere and everywhere on the diamond, it seemed like everyday there was somebody different coming up in the clutch. Take into account a player like BJ Murray. Murray displayed arguably the best keen-eye at the plate in the Midwest League, and before he was promoted to South Bend, he was one of the best hitters Myrtle Beach had. Due to the depth of the lineup, Murray hit either sixth or in the bottom third of the order; An unreal weapon to have. One-through-nine, the Cubs played for one another everyday.
South Bend also played their best baseball of the year when the lights were shining brightest. When in action on the television home of the Chicago Cubs, Marquee Sports Network, South Bend went 8-1 in the regular season on the Network, which included four walk-off wins. One walk-off victory belonged to Pablo Aliendo, who’s walk-off home run beat Peoria on June 23 in Downtown South Bend.
Another memorable Marquee walk-off took place on a warm Sunday in South Bend on July 31 when the youngest guy on the team, Kevin Made, launched a double off the left-center field wall to beat Lake County, the team that the Cubs would eventually see in the Championship Series.
By the way, who could ever forget Owen Caissie’s birthday walk-off grand slam. Just a couple hours before he turned 20-years-old, OC’s last swing as a teenager was a walk-off slam to defeat the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, which sent Four Winds Field into an explosion of cheers.
All of those unforgettable moments added up to a history making regular season. But of course, there was still work to be done. As the Second Half Western Division Champions, the Cubs played their best ball down the stretch of the regular season, and punched their ticket to the playoffs to take on the Minnesota Twins affiliate, the Cedar Rapids Kernels in Round One. There was one key roster move made shortly before the playoffs, however. Jake Reindl, who was added to the Cubs roster midseason before getting hurt, returned to the active roster to pitch into the postseason. Keep him in mind.
What was different this season compared to 2019 was the change in the number of playoff series. In 2019 during the first title run, you had to win three total series. In 2022, that number is now two. For the Cubs, they got things started right at home against Cedar Rapids.
Game 1 versus the Kernels saw Luis Devers on the mound, and Devers did what he had all season. Devers, who will likely be crowned the Chicago Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year at any moment, gave up only a run in his playoff debut, and it came in the first inning. Past that point, the Cubs needed to rally as they battled a top ranked Twins arm in David Festa. Once Festa left that game, the Cubs turned it on. An eventual game winning hit from Fabian Pertuz propelled the Cubs over the Kernels with a 1-0 series lead. Reindl would pitch a 1-2-3 top of the 9th inning to shut the door in the win.
Game 2 of the Division Series went the way of Cedar Rapids, but the Cubs would learn something about themselves quickly in this playoff run; They have the clutch gene when under immense pressure. With their backs against the wall in a decisive Game 3, the Cubs sent righty Daniel Palencia to the mound. Even before Palencia threw his first pitch of the nighty, he had a 4-0 lead to work with after the Cubs piled it on Kernels pitching in the 1st inning of that Game 3. Palencia then took the ball and put together his best start of the year with five shutout innings, and eight strikeouts.
The Cubs were heading back to the Midwest League Championship Series with their 2-1 series win over Cedar Rapids. In storybook fashion, waiting for them were the Midwest League affiliate of the Cleveland Guardians, the Lake County Captains.
For the first time since 2016, the South Bend Cubs dropped a home playoff game at Four Winds Field. A wacky Game 1 of the Championship Series began what was a history making series. 11-8 was the final of the first game. South Bend had a 5-0 lead to begin the ballgame, but Lake County had an answer. The Cubs continued to fight back as the night went on, but the Captains put a 1-0 series lead into their back pocket as both teams took a bus to Eastlake, Ohio.
Remember the clutch gene in the Cubs? There was no excuse that could be made. They knew they just had to take things one day at a time. That’s exactly what happened in Game 2 a couple nights later.
From Classic Park, positioned just about 20 minutes east of Downtown Cleveland, the Cubs edged out a 4-3 win, behind a miraculous 9th inning effort from McAvene. PCA had a key 9th inning solo home run that added a tally of insurance, and that proved valuable with the one-run victory.
We would go to yet another Game 3. On a Wednesday in Cleveland, with a little rain in the forecast, most Cubs fans have heard this one before. South Bend saved their best game of 2022 for last.
Behind home runs courtesy of Owen Caissie, Pablo Aliendo, and Luis Verdugo, as well as a strong start from Porter Hodge, three masterful bullpen innings by Joe Nahas, and one last zero hung by Sheldon Reed, the South Bend Cubs were Midwest League Champions.
In the back end of the bullpen on the Championship run, late inning specialists Reindl and Reed combined to throw seven shutout innings in two series with a combined eight strikeouts.
South Bend had to play their best baseball in crunch time. As their team mentality was “We Never Quit”, the Cubs won three separate win-or-go-home games, one in the Division Series, and two in the Championship Series, to take the crown.
Much has been talked about with this team being as tight knit as any that have ever played in Downtown South Bend. All you had to do was be around those guys for a day to realize how much fun they have together, and how well they all gelled with one another. Plus, when you have 44 wins at home, that's a whole lot of Gatorade cooler dumps in the postgame interviews.
This is a South Bend Cubs team that will be remembered for a long time down the road; For their passion, their determination, their energy, their sense of humor, their kindness, their generosity, and their talent. The 2022 South Bend Cubs, a special group.