Live From Kane County: Cougars Win Pair

GENEVA, IL - The Kane County Cougars have been playing great baseball of late, and that continued at home this week. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Cougars dominated the Lansing Lugnuts by a combined score of 12-1. Matt Bailey has the details from the games.

Tuesday's game: Cougars Erupt Late

The Kane County Cougars outscored the Lansing Lugnuts 8-0 in the last three innings to earn a 9-1 victory at Elfstrom Stadium Tuesday night. Six of the runs came in the bottom of the eighth inning when the Cougars put together five hits en route to making a close game a blowout. Cougars manager Aaron Nieckula spoke later about the team's ability to close the game out.

"We dropped a six-spot on them with good AB's, aggressive base running and being relentless," Nieckula said.

"You always hear about the nail in the coffin, and that's what you have to do. We did it tonight against a quality pitching staff. They couldn't minimize our big inning and we capitalized off it."

Cougars' starting pitcher Henry Rodriguez hurled five innings of four-hit ball and didn't allow one run to cross the plate. Although Rodriguez typically struggles with his fastball control, he was a different pitcher on this night. In the fourth inning, Rodriguez fell behind Lugnut hitter Matt Lane 3-0 with the bases loaded but rebounded to strike him out, something he wasn't able to do earlier in his career.

"This is one of the best outings I've seen from Rodriguez in his last four or five appearances," Nieckula said.

"Before he'd be at 3-0 and throw one strike and then it would be ball four. Now, he steps off the mound and takes his time, regroups, and he throws strikes. He got himself back into the count today and worked out of the jam. That's a sign of maturity and improvement."

Though Rodriguez didn't give up a run, he earned the no decision after relief pitcher Eric Sheridan (3-1) – who wound up with the victory after pitching two innings and giving up one run – gave up the only Lugnut run of the game on a solo home run from C Matt Liuzza, his 10th on the season.

The Cougars struck first in the bottom of the fourth on a double from LF Toddric Johnson. The Double plated 1B Sean Doolittle who had singled to lead off the inning.

The solo blast evened the game at one apiece heading into the eighth inning. With the Cougars holding a 3-1 lead in the top of the eighth, Nieckula called on closer Andrew Carignan. Carignan came in and mowed down the Lugnut batters over the final two innings striking out five and giving the Cougars a chance to lengthen their lead.

"Carignan came in and slammed the door shut in the final two innings," Nieckula said about his closer.

"He did a nice job of shutting down an offense that leads the league in scoring and giving us a chance to push the lead further."

The Cougars would score two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning that began with a double from 3B Christian Vitters. SS Josh Horton followed with an infield single and with no one out, Johnson had his second RBI hit on the night to score Vitters. After two singles from RF Mike Massaro and CF Jermaine Mitchell, Johnson would cross the plate and give the Cougars a 3-1 lead. Four singles - including the third RBI hit from Johnson – and one double in the bottom of the eighth followed by two RBI groundouts amounted to six insurance runs for the Cougars. This is the type of surge from the lineup Nieckula has been waiting for most of the season.

"The best feeling is that these guys are starting to come together as a team," Nieckula said.

"When we go out and execute fundamentals and have no errors like we did tonight, we're going to be winning games."

Johnson, who had three RBI on the day, also threw out Shoffit attempting to come home on a single in the fourth inning. With three hits, Johnson extended his hitting streak to nine games.

"My confidence and rhythm have been starting to come because I've been playing more," Johnson said.

"I would never wish it on him but I knew it was one of my major opportunities when Jermaine (Mitchell) went down with an injury. I knew I had to come in and impress."

Adds Nieckula, "Johnson's had great at bats against left-handed pitchers for us in the past three weeks. He came up big for us today and he's been very consistent for us as of late."

In addition to Johnson's three hits, Doolittle, Horton and Massaro all had multi-hit games for the Cougars with two hits apiece. Vitter's double improved his hitting streak to five games while Massaro's hits improved his to six.

Jaspe was the only Lugnut with a multi-hit game as he had two singles on the day. Edgar Estanga (0-1) shouldered the loss for the Lugnuts after giving up two runs in the seventh inning.

The Cougars improved to 22-21 on the year, the second time they have been over the .500 mark this season. The victory parlayed with a Peoria Chiefs loss also moved them within 2.5 games of the wild card spot in the second half of the season.

"The most important part is making the run to the playoffs," Johnson said.

"I was here last year and it was a great experience in the playoffs and we want to get back this year and have a chance to win it."

Wednesday's game: Cougars Blank Lansing

The Cougars' pitching staff, led by Trevor Cahill, combined to hurl nine innings of three-hit ball and shut down the Lansing Lugnuts 3-0 to win their second straight game at Elfstrom Stadium.

Cahill threw six innings of three-hit ball to earn his fourth quality outing in his last five appearances. Although Cahill surrendered no runs, he earned the no decision as the team failed to give him any run support.

With the score tied 0-0 heading into the bottom of the seventh, the Cougars would score one run in the inning to take a 1-0 lead. The inning began with 1B Sean Doolittle walking. DH Greg Dowling followed up with a single to center field moving Doolittle to second. After a sacrifice bunt and an intentional walk to load the bases, SS Josh Horton lined a single to left field scoring Doolittle.

Although the Cougars wouldn't need any more runs, they would get two more insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth inning off three consecutive hits. After CF Jermaine Mitchell singled to leadoff the inning, 2B Alex Valdez doubled to score Mitchell. Doolittle followed by hitting a single that scored Valdez to give the Cougars' a 3-0 lead.

Relief pitcher Derrick Gordon (3-2) came in and shut down the Lugnuts surrendering zero hits in two innings of work to earn the victory for the team.

2007 third round pick Sam Demel, who had previously been with High-A Stockton, earned his first professional save after coming into the game in the ninth. Like Gordon, Demel had seemingly little trouble with the Lugnuts as he didn't give up a hit.

Mitchell was the only player with a multi-hit game on the day as he had three singles and scored a run. Doolittle and Horton also had RBIs on the day for the Cougars.

With a single, 3B Christian Vitters improved his hitting streak to six games while LF Toddric Johnson and RF Mike Massaro had hitting streaks of nine and six end, respectively.

The victory moves the team to 23-21 on the season and 1.5 games behind the Peoria Chiefs for the wild card in the second half of the season.

The team continues their four-game series against the Lugnuts on Thursday at Elfstrom Stadium with Scott Deal (5-9, 4.57 ERA) taking the mound. Graham Godfrey (6-6, 4.30 ERA) will pitch for the Lugnuts.

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