The Star-Studded and Banner Raising Summer
From the moment Buddy Bailey was named the new Manager of the South Bend Cubs last winter, a belief was installed at Four Winds Field that the active winningest Manager in Minor League Baseball would help get the Chicago Cubs Midwest League affiliate back to the postseason. After a schedule featuring 140 games in 152 days, to go along with seven playoff games, Bailey has led the South Bend franchise to their first championship since 2005.
Coming up from the dry heat and bright sunshine of Arizona, South Bend's opening day roster needed to prepare for the chilliness of the Midwest in an elongated winter stretching into April. Some players coming in knew what to expect, like Delvin Zinn and Rafael Narea, two middle infield pieces from the Cubs 2018 roster.
But for guys like 19-year-old center fielder Cole Roederer from California, the brisk wind to start the season was a whole new experience.
"Is this the coldest environment you've ever played in," a fan in the front row asked Roederer. "Oh my god yes," he answered.
Bailey was ready for the climate of the early Midwest League season. Previously as a Manager in Pawtucket with the Boston Red Sox organization, he led his teams into frozen tundras at times to start the season.
With two home games to begin the year, the Cubs won back-to-back contests to set the tone of their eventual championship season. Bailey's club finished with a respectable first half record of 37-31, but since the Great Lakes Loons and Lake County Captains both had exceptional first halves, South Bend did not qualify for the postseason in the first 70 games.
However, eventual help was coming. From the start of the season, the roster dramatically changed. It is expected to have consistent turnover at the Single-A level, but only Roederer and Andy Weber played over 105 games with the Cubs. The roster shift towards the end of the first half would go on to be the difference maker.
Before the team's focus turned towards clinching one of the final two playoff spots, it was time for the All-Star Break. The South Bend organization was ready for one of their signature moments of the season. For the first time in 30 years, the Midwest League All-Star Game was heading back to Four Winds Field.
The Cubs sent five members of their team to the All-Star Game. Pitchers Riley Thompson, Cam Sanders, Jeff Passantino, and Brailyn Marquez, along with Andy Weber all got the honor of representing South Bend in their own ballpark in the Midsummer Classic.
In the Home Run Derby on June 17, Bowling Green catcher Chris Betts laid the foundation for his legendary All-Star weekend by surpassing Kane County's Alek Thomas in the final round. In excitement, Betts tossed his bat from home plate to the shallow right field grass during the celebration with his teammates.
The bat throw made Betts an overnight sensation. Social media engagements, TV interviews, and even t-shirt designs followed the bat throw.
However, the next night, he cemented his legacy into Four Winds Field history by winning the first ever sudden death home run derby to end the Midwest League All-Star Game. The sudden death derby featured a one-on-one matchup between Betts and Kane County's Blaze Alexander. Betts outlasted Alexander, and with his Eastern Division teammates pointing and running towards him, Betts launched his bat again and wound up on SportsCenter for the second straight day.
Betts ended up going back to a standard division opponent in the following series after being a South Bend hero just days before. To begin the second half, the Cubs faced off against the Hot Rods to get the final 70 games started. This matchup set the table for the first round of the postseason. The Cubs clinched the second half wild card and a best of three series with Bowling Green loomed after the regular season concluded.
To get to that point, the Cubs overcame all the turnover and played as one unit. Entering the fold midway through the season was a tall, lanky 19-year-old named Brennen Davis. Davis, who was Chicago's second round pick in 2018, came in with quite the resume. Already a top-10 Cubs prospect, the Chandler, Arizona native completed the dynamic duo outfield role with his best friend Roederer.
After arriving, it only took Davis eight games to hammer his first professional home run. On a hard line drive laced over the left field wall in Dayton, Davis touched them all for the first time. One of the more memorable moments of the 2019 regular season was his walk-off home run against Quad Cities at Four Winds Field on July 13. It was his first ever walk-off hit.
Davis' noteworthy season earned him the honor of being named the Chicago Cubs Minor League Player of the Year. It marked the second straight year where a South Bend Cub won the award. Jared Young took home the honor in 2018.
A notable piece on South Bend's roster who did not get to celebrate on the field after winning it all was third baseman Chris Morel. The "energizer bunny" brought about as much energy and determination to win as anyone who came through Four Winds Field in 2019. After sustaining an injury in July, Morel's season came to an end.
If one thing was for sure about Bailey's club, the next man up mentality was always present.
Injuries to the likes of Morel, Jonathan Sierra, Levi Jordan, and Nelson Velazquez put even more pressure on the Cubs role players to perform. With just a 12-16 start to the second half, South Bend won 32 of their final 46 games and played their best baseball entering the postseason.
The final time South Bend lost in the 2019 calendar year was August 31 versus Bowling Green.
With just three regular season games left, the Cubs, who held the Eastern Division wild card spot, needed to sweep the Hot Rods in order to clinch first place. The game one loss at home of that series ended in favor of Bowling Green 5-4. South Bend came so close to completing their climb to the top spot in the division, as they won the final two games of the regular season and fell one win short. However, it ended up working out in their favor.
The Cubs handled Bowling Green and swept them out of the first round with two wins. In game two down in Kentucky, South Bend completed their first 9th inning comeback all season and beat the Hot Rods 7-4 with four 9th inning runs. On the first of three occasions, the Cubs popped champagne on the road.
The next matchup in round two was one that Midwest League fans had been anticipating all season. Buddy Bailey versus Great Lakes' John Shoemaker; the two winningest managers in the Midwest League in 2019.
Bailey, who is the active winningest manager in Minor League Baseball today and the sixth winningest manager of all time, matched up against the veteran Shoemaker who has been coaching in the Los Angeles Dodgers system for 40 years. Shoemaker owns over 1900 career wins; Bailey has over 2100.
The chess match best of three series began once again in South Bend. The Cubs continued their hot playoff stride and toppled Great Lakes 6-4 at Four Winds Field in game one. Similarly to the first round, South Bend was tasked with winning the series on the road.
In game two, starter Derek Casey had one of his best starts of the season with four innings of one run baseball. The offense carried the Cubs from there to win 7-3 and South Bend swept the Loons. For the second time, Cubs players were dowsed with champagne in an opposing ballpark.
A second-round sweep meant the Cubs were going to get extra rest going into the Midwest League Championship series. South Bend enjoyed a full off day on September 9 before holding their final team practice of the season on September 10. While practicing, the Eastern Division Champions waited on who their final opponent would be.
Dueling it out for the best spot in the West were the Clinton LumberKings and Cedar Rapids Kernels. Clinton, who swept Kane County in round one, escaped Cedar Rapids, Iowa with a series win and advanced to the Championship under the guidance of Manager and former Big-League slugger Mike Jacobs.
The stage was set. A best of five series between Clinton, the Miami Marlins affiliate, and the South Bend Cubs was getting set to take off. Like the prior two rounds, the Cubs opened the series at home. This time, they would host two games.
In game one, South Bend welcomed the services of Chicago Cubs right-hander Kendall Graveman. The Mississippi State alumni was continuing his rehab from Tommy John surgery the winter prior. In only his fourth appearance with the Cubs system all year, Graveman was pinned as the game one starter. The former Oakland A tossed 3.2 innings and allowed just one run. Not only did Graveman make an impact on the mound, but also the clubhouse.
South Bend handled Clinton in game one 3-1. After the first win, they knew a second would put a stranglehold on the LumberKings in the series.
The two teams enjoyed a beautiful night for baseball in game one. However, in game two, rain was on the way. For much of the night, fans at Four Winds Field enjoyed very comfortable and calm conditions. However, towards the 9th inning, the rain started to fall. The Cubs were one out away from a 2-0 series lead, but a clutch single by Clinton's Peyton Burdick tied the game and kept the LumberKings hopes alive.
After nine innings, the top two teams in the league were deadlocked at 2-2. Very heavy rain began to fall as extra innings were about to begin, so the umpires ordered the tarp to be put on the field. Both the Cubs and LumberKings then huddled back in their clubhouses as the hour-and-thirty-eight-minute rain delay continued. To get the field back to being playable, the front office and grounds crew worked efficiently to get the teams back playing. Restart was scheduled for 12:10 AM.
Blake Whitney worked a shutout top of the 10th inning, and then it was winning time for the Cubs. In the bottom of the 10th, Cole Roederer was dancing off the third base bag trying to distract Clinton pitcher Peyton Culberston. On a bouncing ball to the dirt, Culbertson's pitch kicked away from catcher Will Banfield and Roederer sprinted home to score the game winning run.
South Bend had outlasted Clinton 3-2 in extra innings. They held the commanding 2-0 series lead as they packed the bus to head to Iowa. Game three was set for September 14.
The Cubs needed just one more win for the organization's first title since 2005. They were in the driver's seat. And they were sending their ace to the mound. Riley Thompson was ready to make his second postseason start in game three of the series.
The right-hander from Louisville saved his best stuff of the 2019 season for last. On a warm and overcast day in Clinton right off of the Mississippi River, Thompson picked up double digit strikeouts for the first time in his career with 10. He also did not allow a hit in five shutout innings. He earned the well-deserved win in the final game of 2019.
The Cubs whitewashed the LumberKings 5-0 behind a three RBI night from Andy Weber. The de facto captain of the South Bend Cubs smacked a two-run home run, as did third baseman Levi Jordan.
The final out was recorded by closer Brian Glowicki. Against Jose Devers, Glowicki's final pitch of the year was popped up high into the Clinton jet stream towards shallow center field. Under it was Roederer, he made the easy catch and the celebration was on. The South Bend Cubs had won the Midwest League Championship.
Being presented with the championship trophy was South Bend Cubs Owner and Chairman Andrew Berlin, along with the group of jumping and excited Cubs players. With many loud Cubs fans on hand, the organization celebrated their first championship as a Chicago affiliate.
The 2019 season was one with many surreal moments. From seeing Buddy Bailey pick up career win 2100, to hosting the festivities of the Midwest League All-Star Game, to being crowned League Champions, it is a year that no South Bend Cubs player, coach, front office member, or fan will ever forget.
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