Live From Kane County: Cougars Win Thriller

GENEVA, IL - Things were simply not going well for the Kane County Cougars. After showing constant improvement throughout the better part of the second half of the season, it appeared the team was falling back into old habits. Habits that manager Aaron Nieckula had worked so hard to correct.

Mistakes were made on the base paths, runners were left on base and the pitching wasn't incredibly sharp either. In fact, it looked all but certain that the team was going to lose a 3-1 ball game to the Burlington Bees. That is, until Greg Dowling stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning with two runners on base and nobody out.

Flash back to what lead up to this point. In the previous seven innings, the team had a combined six hits, and had left eight runners on base, five of whom were in scoring position. So forgive the Cougar faithful - all 9,696 of them – for not having blind confidence that the team would mount any sort of comeback. After all, the team was 2-56 this season when trailing after seven innings.

Even though Dowling happened to be 2-for-2 on the day, surely it was going to be an anti-climatic finish to the game. But on a 1-1 pitch, Dowling smoked a slider down the first base line that easily cleared the fence. The only question looming was, fair or foul?

With an emphatic swing of his arm, home plate umpire Antonio Gutierrez pointed towards the pitcher's mound to signal a fair ball and suddenly, amazingly, the Cougars had a 4-3 lead. Forget about bringing in a relief pitcher to try and hold the Bees in the ninth, Nieckula suddenly had to get Andrew Carignan up for a save attempt.

Though the call immediately sent Bees manager Jim Gabella out of the dugout as if he were storming a beach – resulting in him being tossed within 10 seconds – the home run stood and Dowling was mobbed after he crossed home plate. Though Dowling had previously struggled against Bees hurler Chris Hayes, the experience proved to be the difference maker in this game.

"I remembered the last time I faced Hayes that his slider broke late," Dowling said about the Bees' relief pitcher. "I knew I had to get the bat out in front of it before it broke and I jumped on it."

After asking Dowling how close the ball was to being foul, he replied, "it was about as close as it could be."

Carignan came into the game in the ninth inning after a brief warm-up in the bullpen and mowed down the Bees in order. After striking out the final batter, Carignan gave a fist pump reminiscent of White Sox hurler Bobby Jenks and the UNC alum remained unscathed on the year (0.00 era) while earning his third save in as many attempts. With a mid-90's fastball and a strong curve, Nieckula is excited about his recently acquired closer.

"When you have a bulldog mentality like Carignan does and a fastball in the mid-90's, you're going to be successful," Nieckula said. "If he can continue to learn how to pitch in situations and develop another strong pitch, he can move up fast in the organization."

Jason Fernandez, who has recently found his niche in the five spot in the Cougars' rotation, pitched well almost all game but had one huge mistake. The mistake came in the second inning when after Fernandez put runners on first and second via walks, he gave up a three-run homer to C Matt Morizio, his fifth on the season.

After the home run, Fernandez settled down and wound up with a quality start putting in 6.2 innings of work, the last four resulting in no hits from the Bees.

Trailing 3-0 in the bottom of the second, the Cougars managed to get one run back on a two-out RBI from 3B Alex Valdez. Valdez, who was back from the disabled list for the game, singled to center field to plate Dowling who had doubled earlier in the inning. Although the team was still trailing by two, it was a big momentum boost to get a run on the board after giving up three.

"Our mentality was to continue to chip away at them," Nieckula said. "I didn't expect us to score three runs right back. It's a boost psychologically to score a run after giving up some because it helps us realize we can hit their pitcher."

Neither team had much going until Dowling's three-run bomb in the eighth, which would up being the game winner. Despite the 4-3 victory, the team's woes at the plate continued. After coming off the worst hitting month of the season – the Cougars batted just .230 in July – Nieckula has suggested that he will be making changes to try and jumpstart his team.

"This team is much better than a .230 squad," Nieckula said. "I'm going to shake things up a bit to try and get things going for us."

Part of the shake up occurred during this game as Nieckula didn't run out to coach third base per usual. Instead, hitting coach Benny Winslow took the position. In addition to the coaching change, Nieckula batted 2B Larry Cobb in the three-spot and C Gustavo Rosendo at clean up for the first time this season.

"Part of my job is also to develop my coaching staff," Nieckula said about putting Winslow out at third for the day's game. "And with the lineup, I'm still trying to decide where to put everyone for the best chemistry."

After coming into the game for relief in the top of the eighth inning, Nick Walters (3-0) earned the victory for the Cougars after hurling one inning of no-hit ball. Hayes (3-4) recorded his fifth blown save on the season for the Bees. Besides Dowling's three hits, Rosendo was the only other player in the game with more than one hit as he registered two singles on the day.

Regardless of how ugly it was, a win is a win and with it the Cougars improved to 17-20 in the second half. The team closes out a four-game home and away series against the Bees on Thursday at Elfstrom Stadium. The Cougars hold the series advantage, 2-1.

Trevor Cahill (6-4 3.80) will take the mound for the Cougars in search of his seventh victory on the season.

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