GENEVA – Two runs ahead, one run behind, two runs ahead again.
The Cougars navigated a wild stretch in the first two innings of Friday’s series opener against Lake County before seizing control in a 6-4 win at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark.
It’s still early in most players’ first full professional seasons, but the vibes surrounding the Cougars (5-3) only grow after nights like these.
“We’re really laid back,” third baseman Jordan Hankins said, “but I think we’re ready to go play and play hard, too.”
That mindset showed in just about every facet against Lake County (4-4), which tagged Cougars starter Daury Torrez for three home runs but did little against the bullpen.
Torrez still notched his first victory above Rookie ball, scattering seven hits and four runs in 5⅓ innings. Lefty Nathan Dorris, a Midwest League All-Star last season, followed with his third successive scoreless appearance to begin 2014, yielding one hit and striking out three in 2⅔ innings.
“We can’t score runs when we’re on defense, so the quicker we can get these guys back in the dugout, get these guys in the batter’s box,” Dorris said. “We’ve got a good group of hitters, good defense, so we want to get them back and give them a chance to put up some more runs and make it a little more comfortable on us.”
Zack Godley struck out the side in a perfect ninth for his first professional save.
“The first thing you’ve got to do at the start of any season is make sure you go in and execute pitches, locate them where you want them to be,” Godley said. “That way, you can get ahead in counts and work the way you want to do it.”
Led by right fielder Yasiel Balaguert, a nondrafted free agent of the parent Cubs in 2011, the offense remains equally aggressive.
Balaguert tripled among his three hits while driving in two runs. His 12 hits and nine RBIs both are challenging for the league lead. After adding some bulk in the offseason, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Cuban spent most of spring training with the Cubs’ Advanced-A Daytona group.
Struggles came in spots, but haven’t resurfaced since the team left Arizona.
“He’s swinging the bat good now,” Cougars manager Mark Johnson grinned. “That’s all we’re worried about.”
Shortstop Carlos Penalver (three hits), Hankins (two) and catcher Ben Carhart (two RBIs) also propelled the attack.
Armed with their first winning streak of the season, the Cougars will look to take their second home series in as many tries today.
“We really jell together really good,” Hankins said, “and I think that’s how we’re going to get a lot of our success this year.”
COUGARS' SHORT HOPS
Cougars (RHP Juan Paniagua, 0-0, 4.50 ERA) vs. Lake County (RHP Adam Plutko, 0-0, 0.00 ERA), 1 p.m. today, AM-1280
Cougars third baseman Jordan Hankins grew up in Wentzville, Mo., about 40 minutes west of St. Louis. On Friday, he pondered the homefront a little more than usual as his boyhood Cardinals prepared to host the opener of a three-game series against the Cougars’ parent team, the Cubs.
“A lot of friends and family back home say they like the Cardinals but they’ll always be rooting for Jordan, though,” Hankins said. “It’s a love-hate thing, but I love the Cubs now.”
Left-handed reliever Nathan Dorris, a Carbondale native, grew up pulling for the Cardinals before traveling to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field as a middle-schooler. He immediately grew enamored of The Friendly Confines and switched his allegiances to what he and friends dubbed “the dark side.”
Infielder/designated hitter Danny Canela played west of metro St. Louis for the independent River City Rascals last season and attended a game at Busch Stadium with his host family.
“Very nice place,” Canela said.
Golfing one out
Manager Mark Johnson hails from Georgia, which gains the attention of the golfing world around this time each year when Augusta National hosts The Masters.
Johnson has driven past the iconic course but never set foot on the grounds.
“A real special event. A lot of tradition and special things have happened there,” he said. “I definitely watch it when I can.”
With the Cougars playing 1 p.m. matinees today and Sunday, Johnson wouldn’t mind if the field saved the best drama for the final holes.