The Kane County Cougars -- the Midwest League's best team -- clinched a first-half Western Division championship with a 5-2 victory over the Cedar Rapids Kernels on Saturday.
The Cougars (42-20) were backed by starter Juan Paniagua's best outing as he tossed 6 innings of scoreless baseball and struck out nine Kernels (27-35).
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It was the first time since 2009 that the Cougars secured a division title in the first half of the season.
Paniagua set the tone with 8 strikeouts through the first 3 innings, allowing only 2 hits.
Cedar Rapids' starter Lewis Thorpe kept the Cougars scoreless until the fourth inning when Ben Carhart connected on his first home run of the season over the left-field wall.
The Cougars added another run on Carlos Penalver's sacrifice fly to score Jordan Hankins, who had reached on a single.
In the fifth, the Cougars pushed their advantage with 3 runs. Thorpe was taken out after loading the bases on 2 walks and a hit. The Kernels' new pitcher Brandon Bixler walked Jacob Rogers to force in a run, and Cael Brockmeyer followed up with a 2-run single to score Carhart and Yasiel Balaguert for a 5-0 lead.
The 5-run advantage looked like enough until the Kernels made some noise in the eighth. With Josh Davis on the mound, Cedar Rapids had two runners on with only one out, setting things up for Chad Christensen.
The Kernels' left fielder doubled home both Ryan Walker and Engelb Vielma to cut the Cougars' lead 5-2.
In the ninth, Cedar Rapids threatened in similar fashion with runners at first and third with two outs, but Tyler Bremer struck out Walker to end the game.
Paniagua (2-3) earned the win his third consecutive quality outing. Thorpe (0-1) suffered the loss in his Midwest League debut. Tyler Bremer picked up his sixth save.
The Cougars continue the series against the Kernels on Sunday with a 1 p.m. first pitch from Fifth Third Bank Ballpark. Paul Blackburn (5-1) will toss for the Cougars against the Kernels' Ethan Mildren (1-3).