GENEVA – Several dozen Cougars fans bookended their Saturday nights with big cheers.
The support started with the earlybirds taking their seats as Chicago's Jackie Robinson West earned the final outs of the U.S. Little League championship.
A few hours later, a much bigger crowd hailed something it saw with its own eyes instead of on a video board. The Cougars extended their winning streak to a season-high 13 games by beating Clinton, 2-1.
In between, perhaps just a few folks felt anything but extended elation. Cougars reliever Michael Wagner, for one, appreciated the pick-me-up after admittedly pulling for JRW's opponent from his hometown of Las Vegas, a Mountain Ridge program he opposed as a child.
"Yeah, I was reppin' it hard until the the last out," Wagner said. "What are you going to do? It's baseball, right?"
Repeat that last part as consolation to the LumberKings. Clinton (56-73 overall, 26-35 second half) squandered early opportunities to score more than just one run through five innings, then watched the Cougars ignite their attack yet again.
A few milestones moved into closer view as a result. The Cougars stand two victories from tying the single-season franchise record for wins with nine games remaining. With four more consecutive wins, they'd match the longest streak in Midwest League history, 17 games.
Owners of the best record in minor league baseball at 86-45 (41-20 second half), the Cougars took the lead on right fielder Jeffrey Baez's two-run home run in the bottom of the fifth.
In the top half, a play emblematic of the streak and arguably the season occurred when Cougars second baseman Danny Lockhart erased Clinton's Aaron Barbosa with a throw to the plate. One pitch earlier, Cougars manager Mark Johnson departed the dugout to argue the call that Barbosa had stolen third base safely with one out.
"That was definitely a great pitch to kind of give us a chance on the ground, you know," Lockhart said. "The play worked out good. They were running contact, so it was nice to be able to get that out, kind of keep the game in our favor. It also shifted the momentum right there."
Cael Brockmeyer started behind the plate for the third straight game as recent acquisition Victor Caratini nurses a tight quad. Will Remillard (elbow inflammation) is on the disabled list and rehabbing at home in New York before rejoining the parent Cubs organization next month for fall instructional league play.
Ben Carhart, another member of the catching rotation, recently earned a promotion to Advanced-A Daytona. Mark Zagunis is expected to start behind the plate Sunday.
"It's been one of those years with the catchers, you know," said Johnson, who played the position for parts of eight seasons in the major leagues. "It's been kind of good kind of moving guys in and out, and nobody's getting real tired or anything. So this is a little challenge for Brock, especially late in the season. He's a strong kid, but he does a good job running the game and he handles the staff really well."
With the Cougars outscoring opponents, 74-25, during the streak, pitchers certainly have done their part. On Saturday, righty Ben Wells took his turn with six innings of six-hit, one-run ball.
Although he recorded only five groundball outs among his 18, Wells lauded his sinker plenty. In addition to the key fifth-inning groundout, it helped him induce an inning-ending double play in the fourth.
A seventh-round pick of the Cubs in 2010 who joined the team from Advanced-A Boise last month, Wells is accustomed to relying on the pitch.
"That's what I've been doing lately. My sinker's been moving well, been controlling it, keeping it down in the zone," he said. "I've made a lot of quick outs with it, especially earlier in the count, try to go with as much early contact as I can."
Clinton out-hit the Cougars, 7-5. Brockmeyer's fifth inning double and Baez's homer were the Cougars' lone extra-base hits.
Wagner (two innings) and Francisco Carrillo (one) spaced one hit and six strikeouts in sterling relief, setting the scene for a pleasant bus ride.
With a matinee in Burlington Sunday to open a six-game trip, the Cougars – 53-15 at home with 10 sweeps – traveled after the game, looking to keep their roll afloat on the road.
"Grab a shower, get something to eat and head to the hotel," Wells said.