MIDLAND, Mich. - The Great Lakes Loons hope to carry the momentum of a much-needed victory into a series against the league's best team.
The Loons ended a six-game losing streak with a 5-2 win Friday night over the Clinton LumberKings at Dow Diamond. But next up are the Kane County Cougars, owners of the best overall record in the Midwest League (64-33).
The two teams begin a three-game series tonight at Dow Diamond on Storybook Princess Night, with the Loons hoping to create their own fairy tale - namely, a run at a second-half MWL playoff spot.
The Loons are six games behind Eastern Division leader West Michigan, and five behind second-place South Bend, but only three behind third-place Lake County, which is important because West Michigan and South Bend already clinched postseason berths by finishing first and second in the first half. That leaves the second-half playoff race open to teams other than West Michigan and South Bend.
But for the Loons, it's first things first, and that's the challenge posed by a Kane County team that easily won the Western Division first-half championship and hasn't missed a beat in the second half. The Cougars are 19-8 in the current half and own a three-game lead on second-place Peoria.
The Loons will start right-handed pitcher Luis Chirinos in tonight's (7:05 p.m.) first game of the series. Chrinos (5-4, 4.63 ERA) will make his eighth start of the season, but his first in nearly two months. The 24-year-old Venezuelan is 3-1 with a 1.89 ERA over his last 10 appearances, all of which were in relief.
Kane County will counter with righty Paul Blackburn (8-2, 2.94,) who has been one of the league's top pitchers. Blackburn is tied for second in the league in wins and is third in WHIP at 1.10. He was the first-round pick of the Chicago Cubs in the 2012 draft, and is rated the team's 15th best prospect by mlb.com.
But Blackburn will face a Loons team that Friday night snapped out of an offensive funk in which they'd gone 24 innings without scoring a run. Jesmuel Valentin had two hits and drove in two runs, while Joey Curletta delivered a clutch seventh-inning double that broke a 2-2 tie.
The Loons also got solid pitching from starter Jonathan Martinez (one earned run in six innings) and three scoreless innings combined from relievers Michael Johnson and Victor Araujo.
Pitching is certainly what Kane County does best; the Cougars lead the MWL in ERA (2.96), shutouts (10), WHIP (1.18) and have allowed the fewest number of hits and runs.
The Cougars bullpen also includes - for now - reliever Kyuji Fujikawa, who signed a big free agent deal with the Cubs in 2013 after spending several seasons in the Japanese League. Fujikawa underwent Tommy John surgery last summer and is with the Cougars on a rehab assignement.
Tonight's activities also includes a postgame Fireworks Loontacular, powered by Dow Corning.
The Great Lakes Loons are an eighth-year Single-A partner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. For tickets and more information, visit loons.com or call 989-837-BALL.