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Inside the Cougars' Den: Cleaning up defense Cougars’ focus

Kane County Cougars short stop Wes Darvill grabs a ground ball during their game against the Clinton LumberKings Monday in Geneva.
Kane County Cougars short stop Wes Darvill grabs a ground ball during their game against the Clinton LumberKings Monday in Geneva.

GENEVA – Quad Cities outscored the Cougars, 27-14, in a four-game sweep to open the season.

No doubt that tally got the clubhouse stirring, although an equally impactful count was the River Bandits’ edge in fewer errors: three to Kane County’s seven.

After recording six errors in their first two games, the Cougars committed errors three times in their next four games entering Wednesday. While completely emulating the opposition wasn’t advisable – Quad Cities struck out 41 times in the series – it proved an effective proposition in a limited case.

“The first couple games, we didn’t take care of the ball at all. Kind of clumsy and dropping balls and not throwing the ball and not hitting cutoff guys. You name it, we kind of were sloppy,” Cougars manager Mark Johnson said.

“Our team watching Quad Cities play such good defense kind of maybe woke them up a little bit. To say, ‘Hey, that’s pretty solid, that’s how we need to go about our business.’ ”

Tuesday’s tight victory against Clinton offered a handful of solid defensive plays.

Third baseman Jeimer Candelario sprawled to his left to smother a sharp grounder and start a double play. First baseman Dan Vogelbach showed range to glove a ball down the line and flip to the pitcher in time for the out. Right fielder Bijan Rademacher contributed a series of running catches.

Players cited early-season kinks as the main culprit for the sour start in the field. Lately, they’ve been creatures of habit in a better way, crediting early work and pregame preparation.

“We’ve got a routine every day, every day, every day,” Candelario said. “That’s why we’re ready to go in the game.”

The parent Cubs’ organization recently recognized Chadd Krist as the top defensive catcher in the system. Fellow backstop Willson Contreras shifted from third base to catcher last season and pared his errors from 23 in 2011 to eight in 2012.

Good or bad, defense projects as a season-long talking point. The Cougars hope an offseason premium on glovework keeps that chatter positive.

“We’re working on it,” Rademacher said. “That’s something we really worked on in spring training was getting better collectively as a group with team defense.”

Castillo clicks early: Right-hander Lendy Castillo contributed another strong outing to the early starting pitching annals with Monday’s five-inning no-decision, limiting Clinton to one run and three hits.

A converted infielder who opened last season as a Cubs reliever, Castillo brings a good talent base as the organization aims to mold him into a major leaguer with staying power.

“Lendy, when he lets it go, he gets after it. He gives himself a chance every pitch,” Cougars pitching coach Ron Villone said. “Knowing that he hasn’t been pitching a whole lot, a whole long time, we’re here to work on some things. But [Monday] showed that he knows how to minimize damage, he’s got some good poise on the mound. His stuff speaks for itself. But first outing, I approve.”

Who’s hot
Designated hitter/first baseman Rock Shoulders entered Wednesday with a .480 batting average and 19 total bases in 25 at-bats to begin the season. He has been the team’s most consistent run producer while hitting from the lineup’s No. 5 hole.

Who’s not
Before a 2-for-4 effort in Tuesday’s victory against Clinton, shortstop Marco Hernandez went 1 for 18 as the Cougars were swept in a season-opening, four-game series against Quad Cities.

Star watch
Wisconsin center fielder Mitch Haniger looms as a primary threat during the Cougars’ four-game road series against the Timber Rattlers that begins today. A first-round draft pick of the parent Milwaukee Brewers in 2012, Haniger had seven hits in his first 19 at-bats (.368 average). His older brother, Jason, was drafted as a catcher by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 19th round in 2009 but did not sign.

Ten Cougars played with then-Cubs affiliate Peoria in the Midwest League last season. Three in that group are pitchers. ... Cougars righty Pierce Johnson, a supplemental first-round pick of the Cubs in 2012, was the highest Missouri State draftee since the Washington Nationals took righty Ross Detwiler sixth overall in 2007. ... Neither the Cougars nor the Clinton LumberKings stole a base during the first four games of the season. That changed when the teams opened a series Monday. ... The Cougars will play 13 of their next 19 games on the road.


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