A Hot Night in Burlington: Seeing the South Bend Cubs Up Close and Personal

There are very few things I enjoy more in the summer than going to a minor league game during the week. It is a pretty intimate setting in which to see a ballgame. The crowd is sparse, but knowledgeable and you can hear and see everything. Such was the case this week as I traveled to Burlington, Iowa to see the Cubs’ low-A franchise, the South Bend Cubs, in person for the first time this year.

Burlington is located on the Mississippi River about 45 minutes south of the Quad Cities. It is the home of the Burlington Bees, an Angels’ affiliate in the Midwest League. The setting was quaint as there were a few box seats but most were of the silver bleacher variety. The stadium itself has a lot of amenities for food and beverages and is easily accessible including free wifi.

The Cubs came to town with a record of 26-30. Playing on the road has been difficult for the young squad, most of whom were drafted only a year ago. The crowd, later listed at 542, was probably closer to 200. Every time I go to a Midwest League game in Iowa there are always Cub fans there to cheer on their team and tonight’s game was no different. I sat right beside the on deck circle on the first base side with a collection of other Cub fans.

When the game began at about 6:30, the temperature was near 90 degrees, humid, with no wind. The Cubs jumped out to an early lead with a pair RBI groundouts by Cael Brockmeyer in the second and Gleyber Torres in the third to take a 2-0 lead.

Pitcher Zach Hedges looked better than I what I had seen on TV. He has a nice upper-80’s to low-90’s fastball. He combines that with a wicked slider/cutter than breaks late. He was getting some ugly swings, weak grounders, and had a no hitter going through 3 innings.

However, come the fifth inning, you could tell he was wearing down from the heat and humidity as his fastball was no longer sitting in the bottom of the zone. As a result, Hedges gave up three runs and you could tell he was gassed after only 71 pitches.

Tommy Thorpe came in the sixth to relieve Hedges and he looked solid for two innings. His fastball had a lot of pop to it, while his curve was all over the place – once sailing over Brockmeyer’s head to the backstop – it looked like the scene where Nuke LaLoosh hits the bull in Bull Durham.

In the meantime, the Cubs put together single runs in the sixth when Yasiel Balaguert drove in Gleyber Torres and in the seventh Rashad Crawford’s sac fly drove in Jeffrey Baez, who hit a booming triple to the 385 mark in right center.

In the eighth, though, Tommy Thorpe gave up three runs and the Cubs failed to mount a comeback. I planned on going back Thursday night, but the game was called due to rain.

Here are five things I took away from the game

1. Cael Brockmeyer needs to be moved up.

Clearly, he is the leader on the team. The Midwest League All-Star was the first one out for drills, and his bat is a steady presence in the middle of the order. Behind the plate, Brockmeyer, despite his 6’5” hieght, sets a great low target. He has a strong and accurate arm and had a great rapport with pitcher Zach Hedges all night long. The problem with promoting Brockmeyer is there is nowhere to send him. I could see him at Myrtle Beach but the hot-hitting Victor Caratini blocks his way; Caratini, likewise, is blocked by Schwarber at Tennessee. It’s a good problem to have, but something could give here in the next two weeks.

2. There’s something there with Zach Hedges.

Some bloggers I know don’t think much of Hedges. I can understand why they think that as he only has one plus pitch. His curve often lands wildly out of the strike zone. And sometimes he leaves his fastball up in the zone. But I see something else. I see what he can become. He is far from a finished product and the slider is one pitch to build around. I think if he could develop a change versus a curveball, the change would work much better for him as that would give him three pitches with the same arm action and angles but with varying speeds and breaks. With his slider being solid, the Cubs will continue to work on developing him.

3. Gleyber works best when Gleyber goes the other way.

On the night, Torres went 2 for 4 with a run and an RBI. He also K’d twice. His hits went up the middle and to right field. Even when he strikes out, you still see his hands going inside out to go the other way. Here he is in the top of the seventh.

4. Jeffrey Baez, Kevin Encarnacion, and Yasiel Balaguert never met a fastball they didn’t like.

All three hitters punished fastballs in the zone. Baez had a triple, Balaguert went 3 for 4, and Encarnacion went 1 for 3 and was robbed on a hard hit ball right at the first baseman. I can see why the Cubs have hung on to these three hitters for the past five years in between their injuries. They can square it up.

5. Tommy Thorpe’s Dillema.

Throughout the year, Tommy Thorpe has had command issues. After seeing him pitch in person, I came away impressed with his fastball and his command of it. He has some nice deception to it as it is hidden behind his head to right handed-hitters for most of the windup. The problem was that everyone in the stadium knew that was the only pitch he could throw for a strike, so hitters began to sit on it. After two innings and a revolution through the order, they got to him. He can’t survive on just a 90 mph fastball.

After watching the team on MiLB.TV all year it was good to see the game, and also to hear the sounds of the game. If anything, seeing the Cubs in person reaffirmed what I saw all year on TV and listening to on the radio: there a lot of positives to this team.

They can hit and they have pitching, they just need experience. Most of the pitching jams and big innings they give up would be different except for one pitch. They could have put other teams away while at the plate if a prospect just tried to go the other way with men on second and third instead of trying to pull the ball.

The Cubs are young, and they are developing.


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