GENEVA – The Cougars might have found a solution to their seasonlong pitching woes.
Skip the starters altogether.
The Cougars gave a trio of their bullpen pitchers extended work on Tuesday, and the result was a 4-2 win at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.
The Cougars entered Tuesday with a 4.63 team ERA – worst in the Midwest League – but the combination of Justin Amlung, Nathan Dorris and Stephen Perakslis tag-teamed their way to a strong night on the mound.
Perakslis induced a game-ending, 6-4-3 double play from Timber Rattlers leadoff hitter Alfredo Rodriguez as Wisconsin threatened with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth.
“Usually in that situation, ninth inning, bases loaded, the batter’s all juiced up, so he’s just looking middle-in,” Perakslis said. “I was just trying to get the ball on the outside half and down in the zone to force a ground ball, and Marco [Hernandez] and [Gioskar] Amaya made a great play.”
Amlung made his first start of the season as the Cougars needed the bullpen to eat nine innings to reset their rotation.
“Our bullpen has done a [heck] of a job the past month and a half, two months,” Cougars manager Mark Johnson said. “If we can get a lead into the later half of the game, we’ve got a pretty good chance.”
The team’s pitching staff entered Tuesday taxed for various reasons, including a woeful start in Peoria on Monday by Jose Rosario. Considering the circumstances, Johnson was elated the team only needed to use three pitchers.
“That was after Amlung had a 31-pitch first inning, which we were holding our breath, like ‘Oh, we’re in big trouble here,’ ” Johnson said. “But he got out of it and actually came back and threw two more innings and picked us up. … Him and Dorris really picked us up.”
Cougars right fielder Reggie Golden smashed a solo home run to left field – his sixth of the season – to start the scoring in the bottom of the second. The Cougars tacked on another run in the fourth, and maintained a 2-0 lead until the Timber Rattlers (44-58, 15-22 second half) tied the game in the top of the seventh off Dorris (6-3), who nonetheless earned the win after pitching four innings of two-run ball.
The Cougars (41-61, 11-25 second half) responded in the bottom of the seventh. After Wisconsin intentionally walked Albert Almora to load the bases for first baseman Dan Vogelbach, Vogelbach notched a sacrifice fly to center field. Cougars catcher Carlos Escobar narrowly beat the throw home for the go-ahead run.
Vogelbach’s sacrifice fly came on a 3-1 count. He was green-lighted on the 3-0 pitch, too – a move Johnson said he rarely would authorize – and Vogelbach pulled a foul ball deep down the right field line.
“He’s proven over time that he can kind of zone in … he’s pretty good in those situations, and I just had a feeling that he was seeing the ball really well tonight,” Johnson said.
Left fielder Oliver Zapata added an insurance run by belting an opposite field, two-out RBI triple in the bottom of the eighth.
Escobar and Zapata – the bottom two hitters in the Cougars’ order – had two hits apiece in the opening game of the four-game series.