The Eugene Emeralds clinched the first half title for the South Division of the Northwest League on Wednesday night, joining South Bend as the only two Cubs affiliates to qualify for the post-season so far. The Emeralds currently have a 23-10 record for the first half, which officially ends on July 25. The keys to success were a dominant starting pitching staff, a great back end of the bullpen, quality defense, and capitalizing on mistakes. They hit only .239 as a team, but they were third in runs scored by using their speed create opportunities.
The win and playoff berth have to be extremely exciting for a team that has had some disappointment in the recent past. Last year, the Emeralds only had to win one of their final three games to clinch a playoff spot and they fell short losing all three. Some members of the team returned this year, including starting pitcher Jose Paulino, reliever Jared Cheek, and OF Kevonte Mitchell.
It’s been nice to actually watch the Cubs’ short-season affiliate play this year after listening to them on the radio last year in Eugene and previous years with Boise. MiLB TV has been a great tool to report on and evaluate the team.
It would not surprise me to see some of these players moved up to South Bend in the next week as more and more draft picks come into the system. In fact, the star of Wednesday’s game, Jose Paulino, was promoted in the locker room during the celebration! He had a 0.51 ERA in 6 starts and ad struck out 37 batters in 35 innings. In the clinching game, Paulino went 7 innings with 7 K’s on 76 pitches. Jesus Castillo (31 Ks in 24.2 IP) and Manny Rondon (1.57 ERA) were equally brilliant at times as starters in the first half for Eugene. Top prospect Dylan Cease had a 3.32 ERA in 5 starts while striking out 23 in 21 innings.
Meanwhile, Jared Cheek, the Cubs’ 21st round pick out of Georgia in 2015, shut down teams at the end of games. Cheek led the league with 6 saves and posted an ERA of 1.26. Equally impressive out of the pen has been the work of setup man Michael Knighton, new draftee Wyatt Short, and converted catcher Mark Malave.
First baseman Chris Pieters hit .286 and led the team with 12 stolen bases. What impressed me most about Pieters was his glove work at first, not to mention his arm when he flexed to the outfield a few times. The former pitcher is having a great year in his first full year stateside. Robert Garcia led the current Emeralds in hitting at .296 and combined with Darryl Wilson and Kevonte Mitchell to track most fly balls.
While this team did have some high-profile prospects in Cease, Wilson, and Bryan Hudson, it has been Pieters, Paulino, and Cheek who set the tone. The Ems still have five games before beginning a 39-game second half. Watch for SS Yeiler Peguero and 3B Wladimir Galindo to have strong second halves.
With a new professional development deal through 2020, broadcasts on MiLB.TV, and a first half title, it looks like a great year out in Eugene. And there’s still plenty of time left to make it even better.