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Toyota Road Report: July 9-14

Cubs look to slay Dragons in first and only 2024 trip to Dayton
July 8, 2024

Approaching the All-Star Break, plus being in the second half of the Midwest League season, that means one thing. Every single series is going to equal a big series the rest of the way. In the final six games prior to the midsummer classic, the South Bend Cubs will take

Approaching the All-Star Break, plus being in the second half of the Midwest League season, that means one thing. Every single series is going to equal a big series the rest of the way. In the final six games prior to the midsummer classic, the South Bend Cubs will take on an old East Division rival, the Dayton Dragons, out in Ohio.

It’s the first time the Cubs have been back to Dayton since 2022, and Dayton came to Four Winds Field last season. The National League Central vibe on South Bend’s schedule also continues, after South Bend just got done with the Cardinals affiliate, the Peoria Chiefs, over the last week. Dayton is the long standing affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, with names like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Hunter Greene, and Johnny Cueto all passing through at one point.

South Bend finds themselves six games back in the West Division, behind the leading Cedar Rapids Kernels. The Cubs could use a series win to get themselves back in the hunt. For Dayton, they’re in a battle in the East Division, two games behind the West Michigan Whitecaps. Large series for both clubs, and this will be an important stretch to try and take some momentum into the break.

For Dayton, the Dragons are managed by former Kane County Cougars skipper Vince Harrison, the brother of longtime big league player Josh Harrison. Vince spent 2019 with Kane County, that organization’s final year in the Midwest League. Fun side note, South Bend manager Nick Lovullo played with the Cougars in their time so far as an Independent ball franchise, and now they meet as managers. The Kane County affiliate at that time? The Arizona Diamondbacks. Of course, Lovullo’s father, Torey, is the manager of the DBacks.

Now managing in the Reds organization, Harrison has led Dayton to a 42-39 record, and are in the hunt in the East. The Dragons have plenty of top Cincinnati MiLB system talent, including former first-round picks Cam Collier, Sal Stewart, and Jay Allen II.

Collier, Stewart, and Allen. All of them not a day over 22-years-old. Allen is the oldest of that bunch, drafted in the supplemental section of the first-round back in 2021. Allen came to the Midwest League late last season, as we never saw him, and struggled, striking out 40 times in about 90 at-bats. This season though, he has vastly improved from hitting under the Mendoza Line. The average is at .230, but he’s displaying nice power with nine homers.

Collier, who has 13 home runs on the season, is just 19-years-old. He’s also batting .230, but that’s usually typical for a teenage prospect in this league. Of course, the anomaly includes Jefferson Rojas. The Cubs 19-year-old shortstop continues to mash with with a .261 average, plus he homered last week in Peoria. Every young player goes at their own pace in this league. As I like to say. The Midwest League when it was a Low-A circuit was supposed to be difficult for teenage players, let alone when it’s now High-A.

In the case of Sal Stewart, the average for the 20-year-old is .274, and he has eight home runs. The young players on this Dayton team can really crush the long ball. Day Air Ballpark can be hitter friendly depending on the area. Back in 2019, we saw Brennen Davis crush his first career home run out to left-center there.

Collier is ranked as the Reds number-three prospect per MLB Pipeline. Stewart is at number-eight. Victor Acosta, who was acquired by Cincinnati in the Brandon Drury trade, is the number-19 prospect for the Reds.

On the mound, the Dragons have been fantastic in the closing role in late innings this season. They split the close role into a committee approach. Right-hander Luis Mey has converted eight out of nine save chances, but he has also walked 24 batters in 29 innings. Maybe something to keep an eye on.

Righty John Murphy also has saved four games, and is perfect in doing so. He was in Dayton last season, and surrendered eight home runs through the campaign. So far this season, he’s got a 1.59 ERA in 17 games with only one homer given up. Lastly, Brock Bell also has four saves. He has punched out 28 batters in 33 innings.

The last time the South Bend Cubs were in Dayton, Elly De La Cruz was playing for the Dragons. And we all know the caliber of what he’s doing now in Cincy.

Players to watch on South Bend…

Reivaj Garcia, INF: Besides Jose Miranda of the Minnesota Twins, who tied the Major League Baseball record with hits in 12 straight at-bats, Reivaj Garcia might’ve been the hottest hitter in all of baseball over a 48 hour stretch. After a 5-5 performance in the game last Wednesday at Four Winds Field, Garcia picked up two base hits in his first couple plate appearances in the first game he played at Dozer Park later in the series. Seven straight AB’s with a base hit. That’s incredible. No matter where Nick Lovullo slots Garcia in the order, he has always been productive. There have also been times where has hit ninth in the order, and Garcia is arguably as dangerous as any nine-hitter in this league when he bats there. He can hit lead-off, second, third, sixth, whatever. He also does the same thing in the field. On a daily basis, he plays a tremendous second or third base, with shortstop capabilities also there. He had an incredible year in 2023 leading the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in hitting, and that’s what he does. The definition of a professional hitter. Guy puts the ball in play and makes things happen. And he’s the only Cub so far in 2024 with a five-hit game.

Sam Armstrong, RHP: Armstrong responded from a tough outing at Wisconsin last road trip with another dazzling performance at Peoria over Fourth of July Weekend. The right-hander locked in with five shutout innings against the Chiefs, three hits allowed, one walk, and seven strikeouts. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. What Armstrong has done for the South Bend Cubs in 2024 is equivalent to what Hayden Wesneski is doing for the Chicago Cubs. We just saw Wesneski dominate the Angels on Sunday at Wrigley in six shutout innings, and more than likely he may have a different assignment the next time he pitches. Pat Hughes talked about how Wesneski has been able to shape his stuff around what he has done no matter if that’s starting, long relief, getting out of jams, working late innings. Armstrong has done the same. His stuff plays so well to whatever role that he’s called upon, plus he’s a gamer that’s going to compete and hang in the zone to get you out. The slider is pure nastiness, and Armstrong is scheduled to start against the Dragons on Thursday night.

Rafael Morel, INF/OF: The power surge has been lifting off for Rafael Morel over his last number of weeks. Crushing a home run, plus picking up a game winning hit in the Wisconsin away series, and now a multi-home run series against Peoria over the weekend. Morel is finding that power stroke, and just like his brother Christopher, it’s a carbon copy of what he’s able to do in the field. Morel literally plays everything, and he excels in doing so. What a weapon that is for Lovullo and the Cubs coaches. On a nightly basis, you need someone for a spot start third base? Morel’s got it. Shortstop? Morel. Need a make a late switch in the outfield? Morel’s got you. He brings the same flare and fire and positivity each day to the field just like we saw the older Morel do in 2019. Now he’s finding that power and consistency. This is a big series for Morel (and everyone else too), but he’s got some good vibes and success heading to Dayton from the last series. Let’s see if Morel can have a strong series prior to the all-star break, then try and bottle that and apply to the rest of the way. If the Cubs get him hot, the bottom of the lineup is going to be a cause of concern for any other team down the stretch.

Schedule and Probables…

Tuesday, July 9 - 7:05 PM ET: RHP Ryan Cardona vs RHP Erian Rodriguez

Wednesday, July 10 - 7:05 PM ET: TBA vs RHP Nick Dean

Thursday, July 11 - 7:05 PM ET: RHP Jose Franco vs. RHP Sam Armstrong

Friday, July 12 - 7:05 PM ET: LHP T.J. Sikkema vs. LHP Drew Gray

Saturday, July 13 - 7:05 PM ET: RHP Gabriel Aguilera vs. RHP Will Sanders

Sunday, July 14 - 1:05 PM ET: TBA vs. RHP Ty Johnson