Did you blink? The 2023 season went by in a flash. It feels like last month when the Cubs began their journey in the Midwest League with a three-game sweep of the Quad Cities River Bandits in Davenport, Iowa.
That was early April, and remember all of that warm weather we had to begin the year? It was one of the warmest opening weekends ever. Now, five months later, the Cubs will see the River Bandits for the first time at Four Winds Field this season.
Heading into this final homestand, both teams are indeed eliminated from playoff contention. But there is a ton to play for on both sides, with multiple players on each team ranking in the upper echelon of Midwest League statistic leaders.
Also, South Bend is second in the league in base hits with 1036, and leading the circuit in doubles with 224 on the hitting side. Credit to hitting coach Dan Puente. This is going to be the second straight year South Bend has a shot to finish leading the league in doubles, and they also were right up there in the lead for hits last season too.
On the mound, pitching coach Clayton Mortensen has had the Cubs pitching staff combining to have the lowest team WHIP in the league all year. Plus, the Cubs are top-five in the league in most strikeouts by a pitching staff, and lowest amount of walks.
Bench coach D’Angelo Jiménez has also helped Cubs infielders to look extremely sharp making dynamite plays. Manager Lance Rymel works with the catchers before each and every game with their warmup, and bullpen and development coach Andrew Rueter has been a big reason why the Cubs have been so good in shutdown roles late in games.
The entire coaching staff did a fabulous job this year. Big shoutout to athletic trainer Nick Roberts, athletic training assistant Hannah Boutwell, strength and conditioning coach Kelcey Mosley, nutritionist Andrea Garcia, clubhouse manager Tim Hart, and video coordinator Zach Harrison for a job well done this season.
Also, a big thanks goes out to the amazing production staff with the South Bend Cubs. Chris Hagstrom-Jones, Kayleigh Sedlacek, and my broadcast partner Max Thoma are the best in the business. None of what you see that is done by this organization would be possible without all of those great people.
Andrew Berlin, Joe Hart, Nick Brown, Andy Francis, and the fantastic Cubs front office are superstars too. They work so hard behind the scenes, and it’s a perfect harmony that comes together each year to make Downtown South Bend an elite community and place to watch the sport that we all love.
Plus thank you so much to the great South Bend Cubs fans. It’s been a spectacular last few years at Four Winds Field. And the best part is that it’s just going to get more and more fun.
Players to watch on Quad Cites…
Shervyen Newton, INF: The River Bandits may have struggled in the second half, but Shervyen Newton definitely has not. He had one of the longest hitting and on-base streaks in the circuit all season, as his on-base streak recently came to an end at 25 straight games. Newton was one of the hottest hitters in Minor League Baseball for the month of August, batting .310 last month. And he has started September in the exact same fashion, going 6/11 in three September games against the Peoria Chiefs with two home runs and six RBI. The Chiefs have scuffled and all of the sudden, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers are back in the playoff race thanks to Quad Cities.You can bet that there will be Christmas and Holiday Cards sent to Davenport from Appleton, and also from Fort Wayne to Lansing after the TinCaps took the East Division lead over West Michigan. Regardless, Newton has been really, really good. He is not going to show up on any Kansas City Royals top prospects list, and he has a super interesting story being from the Netherlands. He started his career in the Mets organization, and played for them until being released in 2022. He then signed with the Phillies, and less than a month later was claimed off of waivers from the Royals. Wild road. On opening weekend back in April, Newton went 0/8 against the Cubs, but he’ll definitely be a threat this week at Four Winds Field.
Ben Wereski, LHP: Similar to the kind of work we saw from lefty Jordan Carr of Cedar Rapids last homestand, Ben Wereski has been one of the most dominant southpaw arms in the Midwest League since he got to Quad Cites. Carr, of the Kernels, had not given up an earned run since May 20 when he faced South Bend. Wereski, the former Rutgers Scarlet Knight, not only has worked all zeroes in his last five games while batters have hit a minuscule .071, but he has not given up a run since August 10. He’s going close to a month of blanking teams. And like Carr, he’s a bullpen piece. So late in games this week at Four Winds Field, the Cubs will have to be aware that QC could pull a fast one and play a little match-up. Wereski was not drafted, and was only a free agent signing. After spending all of last season with Low-A Colombia, where he had an ERA over 4.00, but only walked 16 batters in 57 innings, he has struck out 31 batters in 17 frames with Quad Cities since heading to the Midwest League.
Juan Carlos Negret, OF: This is one of those league leader watch lists that we mentioned earlier. Right now, the big man Negret has 19 home runs this year. That’s tied for the top spot in the Midwest League for qualified active players with two men from Cedar Rapids, Ben Ross, and Kala’l Rosario. That’s a fun little competition for the Kernels, who have been playoff bound since midseason. You can bet that Ross and Rosario are trying to leapfrog each other, but Negret has seen this type of power before. He hit 18 home runs, spending all of last year with QC. And he crushed a career high 23 bombs in 2021 with Colombia. His next homer would be his 20th, so that’s a big deal. Like South Bend Cubs power hitter Felix Stevens, Negret is a native of Cuba, and he’s coming off a month of August where he only hit .202. Still, the power is his game, and one swing could very well quickly wind up in the home run porch or on top of the Tiki Hut.
Players to watch on South Bend…
Ezequiel Pagan, OF: He’s been terrific since he got to South Bend in April.So much so, that Pagan was hitting .400-plus for a matter of weeks. He then hung out in the .300’s every single day of the summer until last week, when his batting average scooted to .299. It was his first time under .300 since April 28. And he plays everyday. That is some insane stuff. What’s even crazier is that Pagan still is not considered a Cubs top-30 prospect. That should tell you everything you need to know about where the Cubs organization is, and how deep the farm system is. A guy that has hit more than .300 all season at the top of the lineup everyday is not a top-30. But you can bet that he’s going to be there someday soon. Pagan’s time in South Bend has featured a walk-off way back when it was really cold, to a summer of plenty of multi-hit games. He gives Lance Rymel an option to play in any outfield spot everyday, and he also has a keen eye at the plate. Pagan was chasing Lansing’s Daniel Susac for the batting title in the Midwest League, but he once again is at the top spot, as Susac was at last promoted to Double-A. It’s Pagan’s award to win. This week can officially cap it off for him. Make sure you guys at Four Winds Field this week cheer loud when he steps up, he’s working on history!
Connor Noland, RHP: What can you say about Mr. Reliable? Connor Noland is set for his final start of 2023 with no breaks, injuries, or stoppages. In his first professional season after being drafted in the 9th round by the Cubs last year out of Arkansas, Noland was nothing but a workhorse for the Cubs this season. The home opener starter way back in April against Beloit at Four Winds Field just continued to grow more and more, and became one of the best pitchers in High-A Baseball. As the leader in the Chicago Cubs minor league system in highest ground ball rate, and lowest walk rate, you knew the Cubs would have a chance to win every time he toed the rubber. Noland wasn’t going to overpower you, but he could keep hitters off-balanced with every start. Of course, he’s got the bulldog mentality too after shining as a two-sport athlete at Arkansas as a quarterback, and then going to baseball full time later on with the Hogs. Noland is still only 24-years-old. He was definitely one of the candidates to go to Double-A Tennessee, but you have to think he starts there next year, and is going to find a way one day into the Cubs rotation at Wrigley. His stuff is that good, he throws strikes, makes very few mistakes, and again, the job of the starting pitcher is to give your team a chance to win every time you’re out there. That is Connor Noland in a sentence. He was a fantastic South Bend Cub on the field, and in the community.
Luis Verdugo, 3B: It should surprise no one that the Cubs are about to lead the league in doubles for a second consecutive year, and Luis Verdugo is on the roster. Doubles and Verdugo go together like peanut butter and jelly. He has got his swagger back, and Verdugo was one of the Cubs best players in the month of August, and still is going into September. His hitting streak may have come to an end after 12 games. But he’s going to take a 14-game on-base streak into this series against the River Bandits. And in those two weeks at the plate, Verdugo is batting .404 with a 1.125 OPS. One of the biggest pieces to South Bend’s 2022 Championship runs, this year started out slow with the Tennessee Smokies, but the Verdugo is back. It’s been an amazing end to the season for him, and one more strong series can really put him in a good place entering 2024 with the Cubs organization. He’s still very young at 22-years-old, and now he knows what to expect from Double-A. Sometimes it takes learning that lesson of how difficult it can be. Verdugo’s got that now under his belt, and spring training 2024 for the Cubs third baseman can really define what happens next.
Tuesday, September 5 - 7:05 PM ET: RHP Tyler Santana vs LHP Frank Mozzicato
Wednesday, September 6 - 7:05 PM ET: RHP Connor Noland vs. RHP Shane Panzini
Thursday, September 7 - 7:05 PM ET: RHP Grant Kipp vs. LHP Ryan Ramsey
Friday, September 8 - 7:05 PM ET: RHP RHP Nick Hull vs. RHP Ben Kudrna
Saturday, September 9 - 7:05 PM ET: RHP Luis Devers vs. Steven Zobac
Sunday, September 10 - 2:05 PM ET: RHP Michael Arias vs. RHP Luinder Avila
Catch the entire six-game series against Quad Cities on Sports Radio 960 AM WSBT, online at wsbtradio.com, or on MiLB.com with Max Thoma and Brendan King on the call.