GENEVA – It didn’t take Josh Horton long to make his presence felt with the Kane County Cougars.
Hours after arriving in Chicago from Boise, Idaho, where he played Wednesday for short-A Vancouver, Horton delivered an RBI double in his first at-bat with the Cougars on Thursday, helping them to a 6-3 victory against Fort Wayne in the first of a four-game series at Elfstrom Stadium.
Batting second in the lineup, Horton ripped a line drive to deep center that Fort Wayne center fielder Cedric Hunter could not flag down, scoring the Cougars’ Mike Massaro, who opened the bottom of the first with a double into the gap in left center.
“I was just trying to get him over to third,” Horton said. “I honestly thought [Hunter] was going to catch it. I got kind of lucky with that.”
The Cougars went on to score three more times in the frame, highlighted by Sean Doolittle’s two-run double off losing pitcher Steve Delabar (2-3).
Horton was 2-for-4, adding a single to lead off the seventh.
“He did a nice job up there,” Cougars manager Aaron Nieckula said. “He took some nice aggressive swings, worked the count and put some good wood on the ball tonight. He made a couple nice plays in the field.”
Horton did bobble his first fielding chance as a Cougar in the second inning, but calmly recovered to flip the ball to second for the third out. He admitted to being a little nervous making his first appearance with a new team.
“You just got to get out there and try to get comfortable,” he said. “Getting that first hit helped. Obviously, there’s going to be a little bit of nervous tension.”
Horton was drafted by Oakland in the second round of this year’s amateur draft after playing three seasons at the University of North Carolina. He hit .335 with nine homers and 53 RBIs in 73 games for the Tar Heels this year. Horton was named the MVP of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament and the NCAA Chapel Hill Regional after providing Carolina with the game-winning hits in the title games of both events.
Horton was called up after appearing in only 14 games for Vancouver. He batted .268 for the Canadians with one homer and six RBIs. His call-up was necessitated by the promotion of Mike Affronti from Kane County to high-A Stockton. Affronti hit .264 with five home runs and 29 RBIs in 78 games with the Cougars this season.
The Cougars added another run in the third without the benefit of a hit. Jermaine Mitchell led off the inning with a walk, advanced to second on an errant pick-off attempt, went to a third on a groundout and scored on a wild pitch.
Matt Smith homered into the left field picnic area in the fifth to extend the lead to 6-1. It was the first round-tripper of Smith’s young pro career. It came off the heels of a 0-for-10 series against Dayton.
“To be honest, it was just good to get good wood on a pitch,” Smith said. “I’ve kind of been struggling a little bit lately. I tried to stay back as long as I could; it was a changeup.”
The former Texas Tech standout joined the Cougars on June 25 after being drafted by the A’s in the 14th round of this year’s draft.
Horton’s debut and Smith’s dinger overshadowed a strong pitching effort by three Cougars – Travis Banwart, James Heuser and Scott Moore.
Banwart, making his first start with the Cougars, gave up a home run to Javis Diaz on the third pitch of the game, but allowed only one hit after that. As planned, he threw only three innings, striking out two and walking none.
Heuser (7-6) followed Banwart to the hill, and the lefty was sharp until Cedric Hunter belted a towering two-run homer just inside the right field foul pole with two outs in the eighth.
Moore worked a scoreless ninth to notch his 11th save.
Highlight: Josh Moore’s first at-bat with the Cougars was an RBI double, erasing an early Fort Wayne lead.
Sight Seen: Breathe Easy Man, one of the lesser known superheroes, threw out the first pitch.
Next: The Cougars will send righthander Jason Fernandez (5-1, 2.86) to the hill today at 6:30 p.m. against Fort Wayne southpaw Nick Schmidt (0-0, 1.80).