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KC Cougars

Season-high crowd of 11,304 watches Cougars win

The Cougars' Kevin Encarnacion is congratulated after scoring in the first inning of Thursday's game against the Quad Cities at Fifth Third Ballpark in Geneva. The Cougars won, 7-4.
The Cougars' Kevin Encarnacion is congratulated after scoring in the first inning of Thursday's game against the Quad Cities at Fifth Third Ballpark in Geneva. The Cougars won, 7-4.

GENEVA – An Italian discovered America more than 520 years before Giuseppe Papaccio’s arrival at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark on Thursday.

Admittedly no Christopher Columbus – Papaccio traveled by airplane and limousine and didn’t realize South Bend, Ind., was a pretty far drive from Geneva – that hardly mattered when he took stock of the Cougars’ clubhouse on Independence Day.

One year ago, Papaccio was playing in a wood bat collegiate league in upstate Amsterdam, N.Y., on the Fourth of July. These days, he’s the first member of the parent Cubs’ 2013 draft class to join the Cougars.

“We had a nice little home field with fireworks and stuff last year, so pretty much the same thing but not at the professional level,” said Papaccio, a shortstop selected in the 18th round out of Seton Hall.

You sure about that?

A season-high crowd of 11,304 attended the Cougars’ 7-4 win against Quad Cities, the fourth straight season Kane County played at home for the holiday.

Fans started buying tickets early Thursday morning, and the buzz picked up as players left the field after batting practice some 40 minutes before the gates opened at 5:15 p.m.

“There can’t be that many people lining up to get in already,” first baseman Dan Vogelbach said.

Manager Mark Johnson tells the Cougars (33-47 overall, 3-11 second half) to get used to it every July 4 they’re fortunate enough to be in a baseball uniform.

“I don’t know where we are, what we’re doing, but we’re playing a game somewhere,” Johnson said. “And it’s always a good crowd, no matter where you’re at. It’s an exciting weekend to play. When you’re a player, you get excited for it and people are rambunctious and excited. They cheer a little bit louder.”

Many spectators gasped in unison early in the Cougars’ three-run first inning. Center fielder Albert Almora – the Cubs’ first-round draft pick in 2012 and undoubtedly someone most fans came to see – was hit by a pitch on his left triceps by River Bandits righty Juan Minaya.

“His triceps above his elbow, so a pretty good spot to get hit,” Johnson said. “If you’re going to.”

Almora, who broke the hamate bone in his left hand during spring training and was sidelined until late May, initially walked toward the dugout and slammed his batting helmet to the ground.

Moments later, he was leading off first base and soon scored when Vogelbach, the next hitter, guided a two-run, opposite field double to left. Almora was hit in the knee by a pitch in the fourth and scored on a Jeimer Candelario single.

A six-hit relay from pitchers Felix Pena, Nathan Dorris and Dillon Maples teamed with the heart of the lineup to steer the Cougars to their first win in a series opener since June 8 at Cedar Rapids.

“They’ve got a real strong offense. They’ve got guys 1 through 9 who can hit it, who can hit it out of the park,” said Quad Cities righty Lance McCullers, who’s set to start Monday afternoon in the finale of this five-game series. “You’ve got to be careful. There’s not too many guys you can just step back and take a deep breath with. You’ve got to be on top of your game when you pitch against these guys.”

Papaccio, who batted .365 and led the Big East with 24 doubles as a senior this season, hopes to join that company.

He earned a speedy promotion after batting .313 with six RBIs in nine games with Rookie League Arizona, playing against teams of recent draftees and extended spring training players.

The Cubs informed him of his call-up Wednesday afternoon. He arrived at O’Hare Airport at around 1:30 p.m. Thursday and arrived in time for batting practice.

“I’ve talked to pretty much everybody. Just introduced myself,” Papaccio said. “It’s always different being the new guy, you know. So I don’t know, just trying to be quiet.”

The clubhouse initially was reserved after the game, as a handful of players were absent watching the postgame fireworks show.

Johnson encouraged players to make some noise, or at least turn the music on.

“It’s been a tough month, month-and-a-half putting stuff together or putting games away,” Johnson said. “So for us to kind of put all aspects together and come out ahead for once, it’s nice.”

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