GENEVA – Designated hitter Danny Canela and right-hander Daury Torrez both endeared themselves to Cougars fans Friday, one night later than initially expected.
Had it not been for scheduling switches, Canela likely would have signed postgame autographs in the gift shop after spending the night on the bench.
Ditto for Torrez, who handcuffed Wisconsin in the Cougars’ 8-4 win after missing Thursday’s turn in the rotation because of an ominous forecast.
Both undrafted free agents displayed their skill sets in the opener of a three-game series, helping the Midwest League-leading Cougars (15-6) extend their winning streak to four.
The elation counts double – if not more – for Canela, who played in the independent Frontier League last season. He went 2 for 4 and matched catcher Will Remillard with a team-best three RBIs against Wisconsin (10-10).
“You come from independent ball, you don’t sign for a whole lot, so you’re not necessarily a liability, so going out there during spring training it’s kind of stressful, you know, because you need to make a ballclub or else you’re going to get released,” Canela said. “I did the best that I could. You can’t dwell on things. You can’t change the past. Just kept moving forward and I’m here now. Happy to be here.”
Canela earned Frontier League Rookie of the Year honors with the River City (Mo.) Rascals last season, batting .360 with 12 home runs and 53 RBIs, so his acquisition wasn’t just a whim. Cubs scouts checked him out on the recommendation of executive Alex Suarez, one of Canela’s assistant high school coaches in Miami.
Torrez, a 20-year old from the Dominican Republic, signed with the Cubs in December 2010.
Now in his first year with a full-season affiliate, he improved to 3-0 after limiting the Timber Rattlers to three runs on six hits in 6⅓ innings, striking out seven.
“Because I’m a strike thrower, I can keep the ball down, I’m going to be able to pitch some good games at this level,” Torrez said through translator and pitching coach David Rosario.
“I just always try to always come to the field to work hard and be the best that I can so I can challenge myself to improve every game from the last one. I’m making sure that every time I go out, I’m looking at myself and pushing myself to be the best that I can be that specific day. And so far, so good.”
Manager Mark Johnson also recommended Canela as a translator – he learned Spanish first growing up – but Canela still was finishing up with autographs. There was plenty for fans to talk about in the waiting line, namely the offense.
Yasiel Balaguert and Carlos Penalver paced a 13-hit attack with three-hit nights. Wisconsin righty Zach Quintana allowed seven runs in the first two innings.
A night after rallying from a seven-run deficit to beat Beloit, the Cougars didn’t panic when Wisconsin threatened to dig out from its own hole.
“We’ve been playing really well together, and we never say never. We never give up,” first baseman Jacob Rogers said. “This team’s pretty good at always fighting to the very end. Even if we win or lose, we give it all we can.”
Cougars (RHP Duane Underwood, 0-0, 1.13 ERA) vs. Wisconsin (RHP Taylor Williams, 1-0, 4.50 ERA), 1 p.m. today, AM-1280
Right fielder Yasiel Balaguert entered Friday’s game as the Cougars’ leader in batting average (.313) and RBIs (15).
An undrafted free agent from La Habana, Cuba, Balaguert, 21, has thrived with runners in scoring position as he slides throughout the middle of the order. There’s no reluctance there, as the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder moves well on the bases and defensively, too.
“He’s more of a contact, gap-type hitter,” manager Mark Johnson said. “Obviously, he’s a big, strong kid that’s going to develop some power. He has power, but sometimes you’ve got to learn how to hit with power, and he’s kind of going through that process right now and he’s thinking more up the middle, other way.
“He really doesn’t understand how to pull the ball yet, and that’s going to come with experience. He’s a got a nice, low, short swing for a bigger guy. As soon as he starts learning the zone recognition, the pitch recognition he’ll be a little bit better in that case, too.”
Watch and wait
Fan Dan Beales of Lombard sported a Jonathan Toews Blackhawks sweater and a White Sox cap, a nod to two of the four major Chicago professional sports teams in action Friday night.
“If the Bears were playing, I wouldn’t be here,” Beales grinned.
Good thing football season doesn’t overlap with April baseball and postseason basketball and hockey.
Thanks to technology, Beales and any other invested spectators in the crowd of 2,805 didn’t have to sweat a night out. Beales recorded the Blackhawks’ first-round playoff Game 5 against the St. Louis Blues and planned to leave early. One of his three children got Cougars tickets through school.