Affiliate Flashback: 2001 Kane County Cougars

Well before they were an affiliate of the Oakland A's, the Kane County Cougars were the Low-A club for the Florida Marlins. A number of top-rated prospects passed through Geneva, Illinois, back then, including Dontrelle Willis, Josh Beckett. Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Gonzalez. Our resident Cougars' historian takes a look back at the Cougars 2001 championship squad.

The best team the Kane County Cougars have ever had, well, the only championship they have ever had was in 2001, although the championship was somewhat tarnished by tragic events that cut the championship series short after only one game.

Ten members of that 2001 team have played in the major leagues. I think you probably have heard of a couple – Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Willingham, Josh Wilson, Chip Ambres, Kevin Hooper, Denny Bautista, Hansel Izquierdo, Michael Flannery and Mike McNutt. Plus there was a 17-year-old shortstop on that team named Miguel Cabrera.

That team was managed by Russ Morman, and his hitting coach was Matt Winters. Winters spent seven years as the Cougars hitting coach, Morman managed the Cougars for two season. Both times they went to the playoffs.

The Offense

In all, the 2001 year will be known in Kane County for all of the hitting, a rarity in the normal pitching-oriented Midwest League. This team was a great hitting team, led by Adrian Gonzalez, who was named league most valuable player. Gonzalez hit .312 with 17 homers and 103 runs batted in batting third and fourth most of the year. He also played a really solid first base.

Kevin Hooper was the regular second baseman. You talk about a grinder, that's what he was, his uniform was always dirty, and he always got the job done. At short was Miguel Cabrera; he made a lot of errors at short, and hit sixth or seventh in the order most of the year. You could see he was going to be something. At third was Josh Willingham. He was solid, not spectacular, but solid. He hit .259 with seven homers and made most of the plays.

In the outfield was Will Smith in left. He was ok offensively, hitting .280 with 16 homers. He really didn't have a position as he wasn't very good in the field. In centerfield was Chip Ambres. This would be his second year with the Cougars, and he was a sparkplug most of the year at the top of the order. In rightfield was Jim "Doc" Kavourias. He lead the team with 23 homers, a mark that was the most in team history, at that point. The next year, Jason Stokes broke it by five homers. Doc hit behind Gonzalez most of the year and was a threat with the bat, hitting .261 with 30 doubles and 120 hits.

Dennis Anderson was the regular catcher. He was a good backstop, who was a pest, but not much offensively. Dominic Woody was also a catcher for that team and also wasn't much offensively. On the bench were Matt DeMarco and Matt Easterday. Both of whom were valuable contributors to the team. They both could play multiple positions in the infield and outfield. Francisco "Paco" Ferrand was on the team for the third out of his four seasons with the Cougars. He was a veteran who was able to hit near the middle of the lineup. Pat Magness was the regular designated hitter for the Cougars that year. He would hit .256, but he drew 53 walks and struck out 41 times in 68 games. Matt Postell was the third catcher, the one who could hit. He hit .284 in 34 games. Josh Wilson was the regular second baseman after Kevin Hooper got promoted midway through the first half. He would hit .285 in 123 games. That was after starting the season in an 0-22 slump.

Others that played were, Scott Hicks (1 game), Willy Hill (6), Heath Kelly (11), Hunter Wyant (7), Winton Zapay (1).

The Pitching

Pitching wise, it was a good team. Ramon Castillo led the team in wins with 11. Steve Sawyer was second with 10 wins out of the bullpen. The starting rotation consisted of Castillo, Mike McNutt, Gustavo Lopez, Manuel Esquivia and Brandon Sloan. Gustavo Lopez was a holdover from the year before. Castillo went 11-2 in 28 starts, going 159 innings and striking out 108. Manuel Esquivia went 8-7 in 18 starts. Another starter was Brad Haynes who went 7-3 in 17 starts, but was injured most of the second half of the year.

The bullpen was great. It consisted of Terry Byron, Michael Flannery, Rolando Geigel, Kevin Halamicek, Rob Henkel, Hansel Izquierdo, Chris Key, Eudy Lajara, Randy Messenger, Marc Sauer, Steve Sawyer and John Skinner. The highlights of the bullpen were, Chris Key who went 7-0 with a 2.35 ERA in 54 games. Steve Sawyer went 10-2 with a 4.20 ERA in 55 games with seven saves. Brandon Sloan went 3-4 with a 3.36 ERA in 41 games, 13 starts. The closer was Michael Flannery who had 16 saves.

Hansel Izquierdo was a minor league veteran by the time he came to the Cougars, as he had been through the Marlins system once already. Then went through the White Sox system. He went 7-1 with a 1.32 ERA in 24 games, with two starts.

Highlights of the Season

In the third game of the year, it was an extremely windy Elfstrom Stadium, the wind was blowing hard out to right. Will Smith hit three homers. Two of them were legit homers, the other one just carried, and carried and carried over the fence. Smith finished with four hits. Adrian Gonzalez hit his first professional homer in the seventh inning. Ambres, Gonzalez and Magness each had three hits. There would be six homers in the game. However, there were also four errors and the Cougars would lose 13-11. In total, there were 24 runs and 35 hits in a surprisingly offensive-minded game for April in the Chicagoland area. The Cougars had another slugfest. This one in early May against the Cedar Rapids Kernels. This time, they won 16-14 and there were 30 runs, 39 hits and two errors. Smith had four hits. Willingham had three, and Wilson and Ambres each had two. Willingham hit the only homerun of the game off of Bobby Jenks The Cougars would be out hit 23-16. There were eight runs scored in the first inning between the two teams.

Less than a week later the Cougars would score 15 runs in Peoria to win 15-5. Jim Kavourias hit for the cycle. He went 4-for-5 with three runs batted in and four runs scored. Gonzalez and Cabrera each had three hits. Wilson had five runs batted in, including a homer.

On July 25th, the Cougars won 1-0 at home against the South Bend Silver Hawks. The one run came across in the bottom of the ninth. Chip Ambres led things off by getting a single up the middle. He would get to second on a wild pitch. Josh Wilson then lined out hard to right field. The Silver Hawks then made a pitching change, bringing in Aric LeClair. Smith then grounded one to the first baseman, Steve Neal, who let the ball hit off of his glove then roll between his legs for an error. On the play, Ambres would make it to third. At this point the Hawks had a choice to make, who do they want to pitch to. Adrian Gonzalez was the scheduled hitter, but Francisco Ferrand was next, and you still had Jim Kavourias on the bench. They elected to pitch to Adrian Gonzalez, Adrian took a pitch up the middle for a game winning single, to score Ambres. Cougars' starter Brandon Sloan lasted into the seventh, giving up four hits. Rolando Geigel and Eudy Lajara would pitch shutout ball the rest of the way.

One of the best games of the year came in the playoffs against the rival Beloit Snappers. Denny Bautista pitched a one-hit complete game shutout. Winning this game advanced the Cougars into the second round of the playoffs. Dominic Woody provided just enough offense with a homer. Wilson had a double and Gonzalez had a triple. The big story in that game was Bautista. He walked three and struck out eight. Bautista got the first four Snappers in order, he walked Jude Voltz with one out in the second, then got the next two out to end the inning. In the third, he gave up the leadoff single to right then got the next three on groundouts. Denny would then retire 20 out of the next 22 after the single. He threw 92 pitches in his first ever playoff appearance. He struck out five of the Snappers to end innings.

In the championship round against South Bend began on September 10th. The Cougars scored five runs in the first two innings. They would win the game 6-1 behind some great pitching by Ramon Castillo. He went seven innings of three hit shutout ball. Paco Ferrand had three hits and three runs batted in. He hit three triples. Wilson and Anderson also had two hits apiece. Unfortunately, that would be the only game played in the series, as the tragedy in New York occurred the next day, so the Cougars' took home the title, but with heavy hearts.

About the writer

David Malamut has been a season ticket holder of the Cougars for the past 11 years. He has also been writing a daily website about the team for that long at http://malamut.net. David wrote a book about the history of the Cougars in 2005. Baseball In Kane County, Arcadia Publishing.

For daily updates on the Cougars, stats and game stories please go to my website, Voice of A Season Ticket Holder, http://malamut.net.

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