Horton doubled in his first at-bat for Kane County
GENEVA, IL - The Kane County Cougars pounced on the Fort Wayne Wizards early scoring four runs in the bottom of the first and erasing a 1-0 deficit to win their third consecutive game 6-3 Thursday night at Elfstrom Stadium.
Despite giving up a leadoff home run to Wizards’ DH Javis Diaz – his fifth on the season - to start the game, the Cougars’ responded quite well in the bottom half of the first inning, piecing together five hits, including three doubles, to plate four in the inning and grab a stranglehold on the game.
CF Mike Massaro led off the four-run inning by nailing a double to left-center field. Recently promoted SS Josh Horton followed by hitting a double in his first at bat with the Cougars to plate Massaro and even the score at 1-1. RF Jermaine Mitchell made it three consecutive hits after lining a single between the third baseman and shortstop. On the ensuing throw from the outfielder to home, Mitchell made a heads up play on the base path advancing to second base while Horton remained at third.
Clean up hitter Greg Dowling grounded out to second for the first out of the inning but advanced Mitchell to third and scored Horton to give the Cougars a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. After C Matt Smith walked to put runners on the corners, 3B Christian Vitters nailed a double and lengthened his hitting streak to six games while plating both Cougars to make the score 4-1.
Cougars’ manager Aaron Nieckula was pleased with the way the team responded after the first inning bomb.
“That was something else,” Nieckula said about Diaz’s home run to start the game.
“I was happy to see our offense bounce right back and put good wood on the ball and get four runs back fast.”
As it turned out, the four runs were enough for the three Cougars’ pitchers taking the mound on the day. Travis Banwart made his professional debut as a starter and hurled three innings while giving up only the solo shot in the first.
Although Banwart left with a lead, he wasn’t eligible to receive the victory because he failed to go five innings. The victory instead went to RP James Heuser (7-6) who threw five innings of four-hit ball while giving up two runs, both coming off a two-run homer in the eighth from CF Cedric Hunter, his fourth on the season.
“Banwart made one mistake on the home run but bounced right back and shut them down,” Nieckula said about Banwart’s first pro start.
“Then Heuser came in and established the inside part of the plate and pitched a great game in relief.”
Leading 5-1 heading into the bottom of the fifth, the Cougars tacked on an insurance run that came from the bat of Matt Smith. On a 2-1 pitch, Smith belted his first professional home run as the solo blast soared over the left field fence to give the team a five-run cushion. Nieckula later joked about Smith’s blast.
“Sometimes you close your eyes and swing hard and you hit a home run,” Nieckula said with a smile about his catcher’s bomb.
“No, no he worked a good count and got great wood on the ball and hit hopefully one of many home runs to come.”
Closer Scott Moore entered the game in the top of the ninth and retired the Wizards’ with relative ease to earn his 11th save on the season.
The Cougars, who are now 13-18, have been playing better ball since the all-star break. With the addition of many new draft picks and the combination of players on the roster all year long beginning to find a groove, Nieckula is understandably excited about the rest of the season.
“It’s seems like we’re playing better ball these last three or four weeks,” Nieckula said.
“Pitching has been above average in the second half and the hitting has been more selective. It’s a combination of fresh faces in here but it’s also the hard work and positive frame of mind these guys have kept throughout the whole season.”
Both Horton and LF Toddric Johnson had multi-hit games for the Cougars while Diaz was the only player for the Wizards to have two hits. Steve Delabar (2-3) shouldered the loss for the Wizards after giving up five runs in four innings of work.
The Cougars continue their four-game series against the Wizards on Friday as Jason Fernandez (5-1, 2.86 ERA) will make his fifth start of the season and second as the team’s permanent number five pitcher in the rotation. Nick Schmidt (0-0, 1.80 ERA) will take the hill for the Wizards.