Kane County Notebook: Cougars Still On Top

Banwart is off to a good start to the season.

Before dropping a 7-0 decision versus the Dayton Dragons on Sunday, the Kane County Cougars had broken another all-time franchise record with their 16-5 start. Through the first 22 games of the season, the Cougars have the most wins of any team in the Midwest League (16) and are tied for first with the Clinton Lumberkings. David Malamut checks in with an update on the Cougars inside…

The Week In Review (4/21-4/27)
The Kane County Cougars did not have a good series against the Great Lakes Loons (the Los Angeles Dodgers Low-A affiliate) to start the week, and the Cougars would lose the series 2-1. It would be the first series loss of the year for Kane County. In game one, they played solid ball, but would have to hold on in the late innings to win the game 6-4. Craig Italiano pitched well in five innings.

Game two of the series was a disappointment, as the Cougars lost 1-0. Travis Banwart pitched very well in his seven innings, giving up four hits and one unearned run. He did not walk anyone and struck out six. The lone run was unearned because of a Christian Vitters error.

In game three of the series, the Cougars just didn't get anything going offensively the whole game. They would eventually lose 3-1. Jamie Richmond pitched a solid six innings, but would end-up losing the game after giving up a homer to Jamie Ortiz.

Next the Cougars returned home to play the Dayton Dragons (the Cincinnati Reds' Low-A affiliate). The Friday scheduled game was rained out, so the Cougars met the Dragons for two games on Saturday. In game one of a double-header, it was very windy with 30 mph gusts at least. Christian Vitters would hit two homers, one of which was wind-aided. The other one was way gone. Scott Mitchinson pitched very well in six innings of work for his third win of the season.

In game two, the Cougars appeared lost at the beginning of the game. Dayton scored seven runs in the first two innings off of starter Scott Hodsdon who lasted 1.2 innings. Scott Deal did come in and pitch very well after Hodsdon left. Kane County scored five runs in the fourth inning to make the game close, but they would leave the bases loaded once, as Corey Brown struck out.

On Sunday, the Cougars lost the final game of the series by a score of 7-0. Craig Italiano got the start and was once again outstanding. The right-hander lowered his ERA to 1.50 on the season with five shut-out innings. He struck-out eight and walked two. Scott Moore relieved Italiano in the sixth, but he was unable to keep the shut-out going. He allowed three runs in three innings and took the loss. Earl Oakes, in his 2008 season debut, allowed four runs in one inning. The Cougars on offense managed only four hits and two walks.

Player Spotlight
Offense
This year's team has been impressive with Greg Dowling, Toddric Johnson, Corey Brown, Christian Vitters and Matt Ray leading the way offensively.

Matt Ray has played a solid second base, and has been hitting the ball well. Ray has hit mostly in the second spot in the line up. Through Sunday, Ray is batting .289 with a .350 OPS. Unfortunately, Ray has been bothered by a sore shoulder and left Sunday's game early.

Shortstop Michael Richard has had limited playing time after recovering from a thumb injury. When healthy, Richard has been leading off and when he gets on base, he can run well. He already has five stolen bases in five chances and he has a .441 OBP in nine games.

First baseman Greg Dowling has been in a slump as of late, after hitting in the clean up spot all year. On Saturday, he was moved into the three-hole and responded with a couple of run scoring hits. After hitting better than .400 earlier in the year, Dowling is hitting .313 after the slump. He still has an 842 OPS, however.

Centerfielder Corey Brown is either a homer or a strike-out it seems. In 22 games, he has five homers and 31 strike-outs. He also has 13 walks and is hitting .294. Currently he is playing in the designated hitter spot, as he has a sore shoulder and isn't able to let loose when throwing the ball.

Matt Smith joined the team about a week ago and he has been a good catcher thus far. Defensively, he has improved over last year, and offensively he has been ok. He has only a .176 BA, but his OBP is .391 thanks to five walks. Christian Vitters has played a lot better than last year offensively (.267 BA with two homers and 11 RBIs) and has been able to move the ball around better. Defensively, at third, he is still making some errors.

In the outfield, Toddric Johnson has been solid this year. He has done a good job scoring and driving-in runs (13 runs scored and 17 RBIs). Michael Lissman has struggled with the bat (.212 BA and a .280 OBP). He hasn't been able to find the holes, and he is swinging at too many pitches. Shane Keough has some hits (five in his last three games) after a slow start. He has been using his good speed, as his hits have been a lot of the infield variety. Keough rarely has hit the ball in the air to the outfield, but his .268 BA is solid and his OBP is up to .348.

Manager Aaron Nieckula has let Matt Ray, Michael Richard and the rest of the guys with some speed loose this year a lot more than he has in past years. The Cougars have also used the bunt a few more times, including with their number three hitter Corey Brown, who put down a sacrifice earlier this week.

Pitching
Pitching staff wise, Travis Banwart, Scott Deal, Craig Italiano, Scott Mitchinson, Scott Moore and Nick Walters have been great for the Cougars so far.

Travis Banwart struggled in one start against South Bend last week, but besides that he has been good, getting at least five innings in three out of his four starts this year. He has three walks and 21 strike-outs on the season.

Scott Deal has been a long reliever for the Cougars so far, after being a starter last year. Being a long man, he has eaten up some innings, going more than three innings in four out of his five outings. He has a 2.81 ERA in 16 innings.

Branden Dewing is also off to a good start out of the bullpen. He has given up one unearned run in six outings and only four hits in 9.2 innings. Dewing has two saves. He has had one long outing (three innings at Peoria on April 13) and he gave up two hits and his only walk of the year.

It seems as though Leonardo Espinal likes to walk the first two hitters after he comes in and then strike-out everyone else. He most -recently did that in game two of the double header against Dayton. Espinal has 14 strike-outs and four walks in nine innings. He has only been through the complete order once in a outing (10 batters faced on April 13 at Peoria, his first outing).

Justin Friend is 3-0 on the season out of the bullpen. He notched his third win last week in Lansing after going 3.1 innings and allowing three hits and one run. Friend would get his first Cougar save on April 21st in Great Lakes with a scoreless inning. He walked two and struck out two. He has allowed only one earned run in 12.2 innings, but has given up five unearned runs. Friend has 19 strike-outs.

Brad Hertzler has quietly pitched well for the Cougars. He has pitched out of the bullpen, his longest outing was four innings on April 5th in Beloit. Recently, he pitched two innings in Great Lakes, giving up a run on two hits, while walking one and striking out two. Hertzler has a 1.59 ERA in 11.1 innings.

Scott Hodsdon has really been a puzzle. His first outing of the season was great (3.1 IP, 4 H, 0 R), his next outing was good (5.1 IP, 7 H, 3 R), but his last two outings have been of great concern. He lasted into the fourth in Lansing, and in that game, he gave up 11 hits and seven runs. Four of those runs were earned. He also gave up two homers to the Lugnuts. In his latest outing, he lasted only into the second inning against Dayton. He gave up six hits and seven runs, five earned. Hodsdon is 0-3 on the year and is giving up way too many hits and falling behind hitters from the beginning of the count.

Craig Italiano has only gotten into the sixth inning once this year in his four starts, as the A's are being careful with his pitch and inning counts this season. His longest outing was the combined no-hitter against Burlington. On Sunday, he threw five scoreless innings, but was hung with a no-decision. Earlier in the week, he faced Great Lakes and went five for the win. He gave up three hits and two runs, one earned. For the year, he has eight walks and 37 strike-outs. He also has four wild pitches in his last three outings.

Scott Mitchinson has been a very bright spot for the starting pitching staff this year. He had his longest outing of the year (7 innings) in Lansing. He gave up six hits and four runs, three earned in that start. In his latest outing against Dayton, he went six innings. Mitchinson gave up one run and five hits and looked good. He threw 89 pitches to get his third win of the season. He has three wild pitches in his last two outings. On the season, Mitchinson has a 2.57 ERA with seven walks, 23 strike-outs in 22 innings pitched.

Scott Moore lost 35 pounds in the off season and it looks to have helped him a lot. Moore gave up his first run of the year in Great Lakes and then three more in three innings in his last appearance on Sunday, but he has otherwise been stellar. He has three saves on the year, and has been striking out most of the hitters he faces (19 strike-outs in 11.1 innings pitched and only one walk).

Jamie Richmond has been ok, but not spectacular this year. He has been an innings-eater most of the time. Richmond has lasted at least five innings in three out of his four starts. In his last start, he went six innings in Great Lakes, giving up four hits and two runs, which stuck him with the loss. Richmond has a 5.00 ERA in 18 innings with two walks and seven strike-outs.

Nick Walters has pitched very well out of the bullpen. The left-hander has not given up a run yet this year in 7.1 innings. He has allowed three hits, five walks, and he has 11 strike-outs.

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.

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