Live From Kane County: Cougars Split Two

GENEVA, IL - After a season of struggles, the Kane County Cougars have been quietly playing better baseball. Over the weekend, the Cougars concluded a four-game series with the Fort Wayne Wizards, which the Cougars won, three games to one. Matt Bailey has notes from the Friday and Saturday contests, which the Cougars split with Fort Wayne.

Friday's Game: Cougars Win Fourth Straight

When Kane County Cougars manager Aaron Nieckula was reminded that the day's 7-4 victory over the Fort Wayne Wizards pushed his team's winning streak to four games in a row, he was quick to make a correction.

"No, it's one in a row," Nieckula would say with a straight face. "I don't know what happened the past few days."

Though Nieckula very rarely uses such clichés as taking things one game at a time, that is precisely what the Cougars have been doing. With the numerous ups and downs that have come with this season, Nieckula has began looking at each game as a completely different season in which his team has to come out and impress.

On Friday, it was no different as the Cougars, then winners of four straight, defeated the Wizards thanks to the arm of Jason Fernandez (6-1) and a lineup that has started to develop chemistry.

Though Fernandez struggled to find a control on his fastball for most of the day, he fought through five walks and three errors from a usual strong Cougars' defense to hurl six innings of five-hit ball while giving up three runs (one earned) to earn the victory.

"Jason Fernandez brings a lot of passion and enthusiasm to the game," Nieckula said about Fernandez, who was making his fifth start of the season.

"He needs to maintain focus and maintain an even keel. I felt like he came out a little flat today. He was a little high in the zone, but he still had a quality start. Anytime you have a quality start and you don't have your best stuff that's saying something."

As far as the three errors are concerned, Nieckula is a bit worried. In the team's previous two games, the Cougars committed a combined total of zero errors. And as Nieckula typically says, defense should never slump.

"We've been a little lax lately on defense," Nieckula said. "It wasn't exactly the way you draw it up tonight with three errors. I've been a little disappointed in the second half because of our increase of errors. I don't know what it is but we need to do a better job of taking care of the baseball."

Like so often this year, the Cougars fell behind early in the top of the first inning. With one out, Fernandez walked 2B Jodam Rivera and it turned out to be costly. After pitching the count into his favor at 1-2, Fernandez threw a fastball up in the zone to CF Cedric Hunter and Hunter connected knocking a single up the middle and advancing Rivera to third. RF Sam Carter then grounded into a fielder's choice but easily beat out the double play to plate Rivera.

Trailing 1-0, the Cougars responded in the bottom half of the inning. With one out, SS Josh Horton walked and advanced to second on a Jermaine Mitchell ground out. With two outs, DH Greg Dowling came through knocking a 2-2 pitch into center field for a single scoring Horton and knotting the game at 1-1.

After the Wizards plated an unearned run against Fernandez thanks in large to a two-base error by 2B Larry Cobb, the Cougars again responded in the bottom frame.

With one out, 3B Christian Vitters walked and RF Ramiro Mendez followed up with a single to left field, advancing Vitters to second. After another walk to Cobb loaded the bases, CF Mike Massaro hit a single up the middle to score Vitters and Mendez and give the Cougars their first lead of the game at 3-2. Another two-out single from Mitchell would score Cobb to extend the team's lead to 4-2.

Although the Cougars have succeeded in getting runners on-base this season, typically, they have failed to get them in. However, as of late the team has thrived at getting crucial hits with runners in scoring position.

"That's been the story of our season," Nieckula said about leaving runners in scoring position. "We get a lot of men on base but end up with a lot of LOB's. The last 3-4 weeks we've done a much better job of hitting runners in. We've been running the bases aggressively and getting out of double play situations."

The Wizards would score one more unearned run in the top of the sixth plating Carter, who had walked to lead off the inning, on an error from 1B Sean Doolittle.

But three more runs from the Cougars in the bottom half of the inning would put the game away. Vitters extended his hitting streak to seven games in the inning when he led off with a single. After three more singles and an error by 1B Jeremy Hunt, the Cougars ended up with a 7-3 lead.

With all the shuffling Nieckula has done this season with the lineup, it appears that during the past few weeks he has began to find the consistency that has been lacking the entire season.

"Last year we had a lot of consistency with our lineup," Nieckula said. "Everyday I'd come to the park we had pretty much the same lineup. This year I've tried to establish a set lineup and I think now we are starting to develop some chemistry."

The Wizards would add one run in the eighth inning to make the final tally 7-4 in favor of the Cougars. Derrick Gordon, who has been one of the best relief pitchers for the Cougars this season, came in for the final 1.2 innings of the game and earned his fifth save of the season.

Massaro was the only Cougar who had a multi-hit game finishing with three singles on the day. Hunter, Jon Schemmel and Jeremy Hunt all had two hits for the Wizards.

Nick Schmidt (0-1) shouldered the loss for the Wizards after surrendering four runs in only two innings of work.

Saturday's Game: Cougars Momentum Stopped

Despite all of the momentum the Cougars brought into the Saturday's game, the Fort Wayne Wizards came out smoking and exploded for seven runs in the second inning en route to defeating the Cougars 10-1 and ending their four-game winning streak.

Starter Henry Rodriguez (4-6) lasted only two innings and was shelled for seven runs thanks in large to six walks. Rodriguez, who has been clocked as high as 99 mph this season, has had problems controlling his fastball.

"I need to work a lot on controlling my fastball and pitching to certain locations," Rodriguez said through the translation by teammate John Herrera.

While the Wizards scored almost at will in the second inning, the Cougars could not buy a base hit winding up with just two on the day. Wizards starting pitcher Stephen Faris (6-6) went 6.1 innings of two-hit ball while only giving up one run in the bottom of the seventh.

Cougars manager Aaron Nieckula wasn't thrilled with the team's performance.

"We didn't do many things well today," Nieckula admitted. "Rodriguez didn't have his best stuff and we struggled to get anything going on offense."

After Rodriguez came out, Herrera came in and didn't fare to well for the Cougars, hurling four innings while giving up three runs himself. A lone bright spot for the Cougars came in the last two innings as Haas Pratt, typically a first baseman or designated hitter for the team, came out and hurled two innings of scoreless relief.

Not only did Pratt not allow any runs, but he only gave up one hit in the process lowering his era to 1.93 on the season.

The Wizards had 10 hits on the day spread out to five players who each had two hits.

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