The Kane County Cougars always have been one of the better baseball operations in the country.
But this year has been one for the history books.
Contact information ( * required )
With a 3-2 victory Thursday at Cedar Rapids, the Cougars established a franchise record by winning their 89th game of the season. Win No. 90 came Friday. The 2001 Cougars, featuring Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Gonzalez, had held the record with 88 wins.
And the fun may be just beginning.
The Cougars are headed to the Midwest League playoffs, a spot that was guaranteed after they won the first-half crown in the Western Division in June with a 45-25 record.
They haven't let up in the second half. After Sunday's 9-2 victory over Peoria, the Cougars own an overall record of 91-48, including an eye-popping 54-16 at home. They open the Midwest League playoffs Wednesday at Wisconsin and then come home Thursday to Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva to continue the first round.
For fans, the fun has been multilevel. Not only has this franchise put itself into position for a championship, but the Cougars are doing so as a Class A affiliate of the Cubs.
"This is one of the best seasons I've experienced," said Cougars general manager Curtis Haug. "It's incredible. We win 89 games and still (had) four to play. We've had some great crowds here. We've had successful promotions."
Like all minor-league teams in organized baseball, the Cougars have had to endure the inevitable moving up and down of players.
"If you look at the team, we've had 50 different players here this year," Haug said. "Only 10 guys are remaining from the original opening-day roster, and guys are still playing at the top level of the league. It's really amazing what this team has done."
Holding it all together has been manager Mark Johnson, a former major-league catcher with the White Sox, among other teams. Johnson played for the Cubs' Class AAA Iowa affiliate in 2005 and 2009-10, and the previous baseball administration recognized his leadership ability.
Johnson managed the Cubs' short-season Class A Boise club in 2011-12 before being named Cougars manager for the 2013 season. For his efforts this year, he was named the Midwest League Manager of the Year.
"We started out with a good team and a good core of guys," Johnson said. "We've had a lot of movement. Guys have filled in. They've had some opportunities and made the most of them. It's been a really fun year."
No doubt the Cougars benefited from some top prospects in the resurgent Cubs system.
Kyle Schwarber, this year's first-round draft pick, played in 23 games with the Cougars, putting up a batting line of .361/.448/.602 with 4 home runs and 15 RBI. Jacob Hannemann, drafted in the third round last year, moved up to Class A Daytona. Continuing to produce is catcher-first baseman Cael Brockmeyer, who went into Sunday's contest with a line of .293/.365/.451 and 7 homers.
Role players also have played a part in the Cougars' success, too.
"We've had a couple of key guys who have really helped out," Johnson said. "Jacob Rogers (16 homers) and Ben Carhart, and some older guys and some older pitchers in the bullpen. When you have guys like that who really understand and have a good feel, that also helps.
"On the other side, when you have guys who continuously move, the message that you're trying to sell to players is always being reinforced. You always have to keep presenting the message to the new guys so everybody keeps hearing the same thing."
For that kind of reinforcement, Haug gives Johnson all the credit, along with his staff that includes pitching coach David Rosario, hitting coach Tom Beyers and assistant coach Chris Gutierrez.
"I definitely think it's MJ's leadership and experience and the way he's handled this group of guys and the revolving-door aspect of it all," Haug said. "And the Cubs have got a great farm system and organization. They're really deep. They've got a lot of talent in the farm system, and it's definitely showing here at Kane County."
If there's one area in which the Cougars have enjoyed stability, it has been starting pitching. They've had a core four of their own in Paul Blackburn (9-4, 3.32 ERA), Daury Torrez (11-7, 2.74) Jen-Ho Tseng (6-1, 2.40) and Duane Underwood (6-4, 2.50).
"We've had four starting pitchers here the whole year, and they're really some talented young guys," Haug said. "They've been the nucleus, the backbone of this team."
Big at the box office
As they have been since their first season in 1991, the Cougars have been a box-office draw. Through Saturday, their average attendance of 5,970 ranked second to Dayton in the Midwest League. The Cougars' total home attendance for the season has broken the 400,000 mark.
"It's meant a lot to us," Haug said. "We've always put on great, family, G-rated entertainment that's affordable. It's convenient. People come from all over the Chicago area to experience it, from the fireworks shows to the on-field entertainment. We're always keeping the crowd and the kids involved in what we do.
"The food is good, the beer is cold, and it's affordable. When you add to that the Cubs are here and people can come and see the future of the Chicago Cubs, it's a big bonus."
On the field, Johnson said the support from the fans has been most welcome.
"It's been incredible," he said. "The front office of Kane County does an unbelievable job. They're out there for us. Whatever we needed, they'd get. For these young kids, in their first full season, playing before 8, 9, 10,000 (fans) consistently is just a blessing.
"The atmosphere at Kane County is unmatched in the minor leagues. It's just a really cool atmosphere. You've got to give the credit to the fans and the front office for making that happen."