GENEVA – Cougars right-hander Paul Blackburn cruised through Peoria for six shutout innings Tuesday by shortening his stride and quickening his delivery.
Reacting swiftly to the lone lull in a 6-1 victory against the Chiefs went a long way, too.
With his teammates in the middle of a six-run, third inning rally – highlighted by second baseman Ben Carhart's three-run home run – Blackburn retreated to the bullpen to stay sharp.
Call it an instinctual intermission in an eventual four-hit, three-strikeout night that gave Blackburn his seventh win in nine decisions.
"You just kind of know, really," Blackburn said. "You know when you're sitting there a long time. I mean, I just said to myself, 'If they're going to change pitchers, I need to just throw a little bit, just to kind of stay loose.' Because it was a pretty long inning."
Carhart opened the burst in earnest with a clutch at-bat against Chiefs righty Arturo Reyes, working the count full after falling behind 0-2.
With runners at the corners and Kyle Schwarber, the parent Cubs' first-round draft pick last month, on deck, Carhart jumped on a Reyes fastball. He entered the game on a 6 for 33 (.182) slump.
"He's been scuffling a little bit lately," Cougars manager Mark Johnson said, "and for him to grind out an at-bat and then end it with a home run and put us up like that is huge for him and the team. It was just a big boost."
Jeimer Candelario added a two-run double later in the inning as the Cougars improved to a Midwest League-best 54-27, including 9-2 in the second half and 34-9 at home. A win today would match the 2013 club's victory total, although players have chosen to pay attention to other things.
From batting practice until an hour before first pitch, most Cougars kept a tight focus on the U.S. men's national soccer team in its Round of 16 World Cup elimination match against Belgium.
Admittedly no soccer poet, Johnson still happily granted players' requests to put the ESPN broadcast on the video board and public address system during BP.
A clubhouse sighed in unison after the Americans lost, 2-1, in extra time, as the Cougars had started growing used to seeing teams with "BEL" abbreviations in distress. Over the weekend, the club won all three games in Beloit after starting 0-6 at Pohlman Field in 2014.
"It was awesome," Carhart said. "We've gotten off on the right foot in the second half, and this just helps us keep going."
Monday's rainout prevented the Cougars from vying for a four-game sweep, a feat they would have greeted with more energy than usual. Cougars brass paid for the club to stay in Beloit overnight Saturday ahead of Sunday's matinee.
Given the manageable driving distance from Geneva to Beloit – 150 miles round-trip – Kane County traditionally has commuted for each game during series against Beloit. And vice-versa.
"That was awesome, just to wake up and know you're already there," Carhart said. "Almost like you're actually on the road kind of thing, you know."
Added Johnson: "It was really nice of them to do that. They didn't have to do that. They really took care of us."
Headphones on, Blackburn fixed a short glance at either clubhouse TV before Tuesday's game, but was more dialed in to his start than soccer.
"I just have a couple set songs, really, that I just listen to," he said. "Just kind of go through my whole pitching process and just kind of envision things, so I can plan what I'm going to do."
That itinerary included showing improved fastball command. Blackburn scattered four singles and didn't walk a batter. The Chiefs went 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position, and did not record a hit in that situation until the ninth inning.
A few moments after his impromptu side session, Blackburn literallly shook off first baseman Justin Ringo's broken-bat single leading off the fourth.
Part of the bat hit Blackburn in his lower back, then the back of his leg, but he pitched on after a quick evaluation.
"We're fortunate with that one," Johnson said. "That's some dangerous stuff."
Cougars (RHP Tyler Skulina, 4-3, 2.63 ERA) vs. Peoria (RHP Alex Reyes, 5-5, 4.57 ERA), 6:30 p.m. today, AM-1280
Ninths are wild
Three of the five players promoted this season from the Class-A Cougars to Advanced-A Daytona held the closer's role at one point.
With Tyler Bremer becoming the latest of those call-ups this week, fellow right-hander James Pugliese assumed the ninth inning role.
Manager Mark Johnson said the rest of the bullpen roles would vary depending on pitching rotations.
"There's no set roles," Johnson said. "Just need guys that can go in there, throw strikes and get outs."
The cycle of Cael
Catcher Cael Brockmeyer didn't realize his first career cycle was within reach until the eighth inning Sunday, when a reminder came courtesy of Cougars first base coach Chris Gutierrez.
Gutierrez leaned in after a Brockmeyer single against Beloit. All the 6-foot-5, 235 pounder needed was a triple to complete the feat.
"We kind of laughed, and I'm like, 'Yeah, the hardest one to get, sure…,' '" Brockmeyer said.
Brockmeyer delivered in the ninth while sparking the Cougars to a 9-7 victory, smacking a shot off the right field wall that scored the two go-ahead runs. The ball caromed off the base of the wall and rolled away just enough, allowing him extra time to reach third base.
"I was almost to second, and said, 'I might as well just go for it.' It was pretty cool," Brockmeyer said.
– Kevin Druley, email@example.com