GENEVA – Cougars manager Mark Johnson is five years removed from his days as a major league catcher, but he still distinctly recalls his unease every time he extended his arm to call for an intentional walk.
"Every time I put my hand out and went for that intentional walk, I was like 'Oh, [crud], I hope he throws it to me," Johnson said. "I was always prepared to jump, to dive, to do whatever. Because you never know – pitchers are not used to throwing soft."
Clinton reliever Mark Bordonaro underscored that point much to the Cougars' liking on Saturday night, throwing a wild pitch high and wide for ball four of an intentional walk of Rock Shoulders. That allowed Gioskar Amaya to scamper home from third base with what turned out to be the winning run in the Cougars' 7-6 victory.
The wild pitch occurred with two outs and Amaya on third in the bottom of the eighth, and the score tied at 6.
It was perhaps a fitting turning point for a zany night in which the Cougars showed plenty of fight in front of 11,139 fans at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark. That started with their manager.
Johnson was ejected at the end of the fifth inning after a ferocious protest of an apparently blown at home plate.
A frame-by-frame photo sequence of the play to end the fifth appeared to show that the Cougars' Jeimer Candelario beat a tag attempt from LumberKings catcher Marcus Littlewood, but home plate umpire Clinton Vondrak called Candelario out.
Candelario leapt into the air in disbelief, while Johnson charged down the third base line to vigorously dispute the call. Not long after, he was ejected, prompting Johnson to fling his helmet to the ground in disgust. The call temporarily kept the score knotted at 3.
"That's all I was watching, was his hand and the plate," Johnson said. "I thought I had a great vantage point. I thought I saw him touch the plate, and it was an outstanding slide by Candy."
Johnson said there are no lingering hard feelings on his end, and called Vondrak a quality umpire.
"We just disagreed on it," Johnson said. "[Stuff] happens."
Johnson ended up watching a heck of a comeback from upstairs, as the Cougars employed clutch, two-out hitting to notch three runs in the bottom of the seventh to tie the score at 6.
Then, in the bottom of the eighth, Amaya led off with a double to left and was bunted to third by center fielder Oliver Zapata. Candelario then popped out on the infield for the second out before Clinton's attempt to intentionally walk Shoulders (2 for 3, RBI) backfired.
The drama wasn't over.
The LumberKings (60-63, 27-27) squandered a leadoff double in the top of the ninth off Cougars reliever Michael Hamann, who then induced consecutive line-outs to right field before making a slick stab of Martin Peguero's comeback grounder to close the game.
Hamann (2-2) said Cougars pitching coach Ron Villone works on fielding hard come-backers with the pitchers.
"We just use kind of a sponge ball, and honestly he just rears back and hits them as hard as he can, so we actually practice something like that from time to time," Hamann said.
Catcher Carlos Escobar put the Cougars (50-69, 20-33 second half) on top with a two-run double in the bottom of the first, and the Cougars led 3-0 before allowing Clinton to catch up in the top of the fifth.
In addition to Shoulders, Giuseppe Papaccio and Zapata had two hits apiece for the Cougars in the first game of a seven-game homestand.
Cougars starting pitcher Michael Heesch, of Crystal Lake, pitched six innings of three-run ball, allowing six hits with three walks and a strikeout.
Note: Johnson said there still is no timetable for star center fielder Albert Almora to receive an MRI needed to assess his groin injury, as well as "everything following it."
With little more than two weeks left in the season, that means it's possible Almora's days playing for the Cougars are over.
"You've got to look at the big picture with him, and there are 17 days left," Johnson said. "It's something you want to be careful with. It's not like a minor injury. It's not a major injury by any means, but it's something you've got to really look out for him and his best interests.
"Whatever it is has got to calm down, and when it calms down we'll take another picture and see what's doing."
Almora's injury has been described as a bruised bone in his groin. The Cubs' top draft pick from 2012 has been on the disabled list since Aug. 6. He is batting .329 with 17 doubles in 61 games after joining the team in May in the aftermath of breaking a bone in his hand during spring training.