GENEVA – The Cougars entered Thursday’s season opener with a little extra early-April oomph.
That momentum grew as a crowd more than double the size of the club’s 2012 home opener turned out to watch the team’s first game as a Cubs affiliate.
Kane County’s 7-2 loss to Quad Cities might have soured the proceedings, but the Cougars haven’t exactly been perfect in all-time home openers, anyway. Thursday’s result made the team 12-11 in that category, and the rest of a six-game homestand provides the opportunity to erase any sting.
Cougars designated hitter Rock Shoulders provided the offense with a lofty two-run home run to right field in the fourth inning. The Cougars trailed, 6-0, before Shoulders’ swing.
Recovering from a shaky first inning in which they struck out twice against Cougars righty Pierce Johnson, the River Bandits struck with a five-run second. The inning was fueled by a throwing error from Cougars shortstop Marco Hernandez.
Pitchers Justin Amlung, Brian Smith, Steve Perakslis and Eddie Orozco combined on 62/3 innings of three-hit, two-run relief after Johnson left with one out in the third.
The Cougars were limited to five hits, including two from touted first baseman Dan Vogelbach.
Quad Cities boasted a historical advantage in Cubs affiliation entering the game. The River Bandits were aligned with North Siders from 1946-47 in the Three-I League and from 1979-84 in the Midwest League.
The Cougars – beginning their 23rd season in Geneva after the Wausau, Wis., club relocated in 1991– served as farmhands of the distant Baltimore Orioles, Florida Marlins, Oakland A’s and Kansas City Royals before September. That’s when the Cougars and Cubs agreed to a two-year player-development contract amid significant MWL shuffling that saw six of the league’s 16 clubs find new parents.
Now a grandparent, Cougars fan Barbara Watters of Elgin channeled her childhood while watching the Cougars, clad in blue Cubs warmup jackets, signing autographs before the game. Though they only met later on a blind date, she and husband grew up a few blocks from Wrigley Field and attended games as often as they could, recalling interactions with such players as Ron Santo and Billy Williams.
Watters has been attending Cougars openers for the past several years because of similar player accessibility that seems to have been drained from today’s major leagues. She and her family attend a handful of weekend games each summer for the same reason.
“Here, they go out there, it’s just like having our Cubs all over again,” Watters said. “And that’s what I come for, is the kids. And even when my kids were littler, that’s why we came, because they could interact with [players] and they talked to them and everything else. I won’t go to a Cubs game. The only way we go is if we get free tickets.”
Recent Augustana College graduate Jake Misener sported a River Bandits cap and a pinstriped No. 31 Greg Maddux Cubs jersey. He’s a Cubs fan and a former Quad Cities broadcasting intern, so he appreciated the chance to see prospects from both sides.
His brother, admittedly a baseball neophyte, tagged along, and that comforted Misener, too, as he forecast a jump in 2013 attendance.
“You get the family-friendly atmosphere here. There’s stuff for kids. Even if you’re not a huge baseball fan, the between-innings stuff is great,” Misener said. “You’ll get to see that and still get to see some of the top talent in baseball.”
COUGARS SHORT HOPS
Cougars (RHP Tayler Scott) vs. Quad Cities (RHP Lance McCullers), 6:30 p.m. today, AM-1280
A crowd of 4,962 attended Thursday’s game. The Cougars drew 2,310 fans to their 2012 home opener.
On the first night the Cougars played as a Cubs affiliate, several spectators didn’t hesitate to sport White Sox paraphernalia. Then again, there was a fan wearing a teal Florida Marlins cap, too. Venerable mascot Ozzie T. Cougar wore a blue Cubs jersey and lost his third-inning fan race when a group of pesky media played the foil.
Cubs brass will be excited because
Burly middle of the lineup bats Dan Vogelbach (first base) and Rock Shoulders (designated hitter) provided fireworks, namely with Shoulders’ two-run homer to right in the fourth.
Cubs brass will cringe because
The Cougars made a pair of errors, including a throwing error from shortstop Marco Hernandez that set up Quad Cities’ five-run second.
The loss brings the Cougars closer to .500 in all-time home openers, but Game 1 does not a season make, especially with the promotions schedule still set to kick in.