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Cougars still trying to feel way through

Published: Wednesday, April 9, 2014 9:19 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, April 9, 2014 10:10 p.m. CDT

GENEVA – A Cougars reliever blew a save for the fourth time this season after a starter turned in the staff’s fourth outing of at least five innings.

A quiet clubhouse absorbed in Wednesday afternoon’s 7-4, 10-inning loss to Fort Wayne suggested otherwise, but Cougars pitchers remain primed to collaborate on the ups and downs.

“In the clubhouse. After the game. After there’s hits – if there’s pitchers in the dugout,” right-hander Paul Blackburn said. “Before, after, during. Pretty much all the time.”

That open forum gains extra importantance in the early season considering the Cougars (3-3) still are evaluating personnel.

Righty Jose Arias, who surrendered a game-tying solo home run in the ninth and three unearned runs in the 10th, provides one example. He’s pitching out of the bullpen for the first time after starting for his first four seasons in the parent Cubs’ system.

“We really hadn’t seen everybody in spring training as a staff,” Cougars manager Mark Johnson said. “Early in the season, you’re trying to feel your way through the players and see what we’ve got. To be in every game does feel good, and it does help out and these guys have played really well.”

A supplemental first-round draft pick in 2012, Blackburn kept the Cougars afloat with five innings of two-run, two-hit ball, striking out four and walking two.

Johnson wanted Blackburn to work from his fastball more, but quickly reiterated players were here to learn, anyway. Expect to see more balanced doses of Blackburn’s breaking ball in his next start.

“Give the guy credit. He’s got a good feel of everything, and he really competes,” Johnson said. “He’s an ultimate competitor, and that’s going to get you through a lot of tough innings and tough situations no matter if you are pitching backwards or not.”

Fort Wayne (2-4) stole five bases and hit two home runs, including catcher Dane Phillips’ one-out solo shot in the ninth. An outfield error fueled the TinCaps’ rally in the 10th.

David Bote (double), Jake Hannemann (triple) and Jacob Rogers (home run) delivered extra-base hits for the Cougars, whose biggest offensive moment came when a ball just snuck over the infield.

Eleven years, 11 months and 15 days after anyone named “Dunston” played a professional organized baseball game in Illinois, left fielder Shawon Dunston Jr. dusted off the annals and fared better than his namesake.

Dunston Jr.’s two-run single in the sixth inning provided a 4-2 lead, as he hit a fastball that narrowly cleared the reach of leaping TinCaps second baseman Fernando Perez.

“Got lucky. Got out in front. A little anxious,” Dunston Jr. said. “Got lucky, got in and got two RBIs, but I mean it doesn’t really matter now if our team lost. All that matters is wins and losses.”

Dunston’s father, a former longtime Cubs infielder, could attest to the latter part of that statement on April 24, 2002. Playing for the San Francisco Giants against his former team at Wrigley Field, the elder Dunston went 0 for 4 against Matt Clement, Joe Borowski and Antonio Alfonseca.

Many of the Cougars were one rung away from the top of the organizational ladder at Short-A Boise last season. Recognizing the steady climb at hand helps them put days like Wednesday in perspective.

“We’ve played together two years in a row now with a lot of guys on this team,” Blackburn said. “And they do their job. They do a great job at it, and I think that will help us in the long run.”

Cougars short hops

Up next

Cougars (RHP Tyler Skulina, 0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. TinCaps (RHP Walker Weickel, 0-1,12.00 ERA), 11 a.m. today, AM-1280

Fly away, home run

Speaking after Tuesday’s 12-inning win – the Cougars’ first victory in a home opener since 2010 – manager Mark Johnson cited the cold, damp conditions as a roadblock for home runs.

“You’d have to shoot a missile to get one out of there,” he said.

A few hours later, solid contact into the wind and sunlight did the trick. After TinCaps right fielder Jose Carlos Urena launched a two-run blast in the top of the second, Cougars first baseman Jacob Rogers smacked the first pitch of the bottom half over the right field fence to tie the game.

Fort Wayne catcher Dane Phillips tied the game with a solo homer in the ninth.

Do you like apples?

Fort Wayne changed its nickname from “Wizards” to “TinCaps” five seasons ago, a nod to the preferred, cooking pot headgear of renowned pioneer John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman.

The team sought a new identity for the 2009 season and solicited name suggestions from the community. Chapman died near Fort Wayne in 1845.

TinCaps president Mike Nutter is a former Cougars employee.

Fun-da-men-tals ...

As he bathed again in adoration during the first Ozzie’s Reading Club school matinee of 2014, Cougars mascot Ozzie T. Cougar fell short in his eponymous race once more.

A night after mass media requests foiled a would-be victory, Ozzie failed to touch third base Wednesday afternoon.

A young fan breezed by just as the big cat came to his senses.

Kevin Druley, kdruley@shawmedia.com

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