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Going Nuts: Modesto takes first two games of California League Championship Series

The Nuts return home needing just one win to earn themselves some rings

Mark Duffel

For the second consecutive year, a Mariners affiliate will have the opportunity to bring a championship to a club that hasn’t seen one in over a decade. Last year, the Jackson Generals, Seattle’s Double-A affiliate, took home the Southern League Championship for the first time since 2000 (the AZL Mariners were also league champs, but they won back in 2009). This year, the Modesto Nuts have a shot at bringing Modesto their first Cal League Championship since 2004, chances that were much improved when they went on the road to Lancaster and took the first two games of the series from the JetHawks. The Nuts had been hoping for a series split, positioning them to only need two out of three games played back at their home turf, John Thurman Field. Modesto’s strength hasn’t exactly been its starting pitching, since trades and promotion thinned out the club, and Lancaster has a notoriously homer-happy park, sitting 2,200 feet above sea level. Try to put up enough runs to stay competitive, take one of the two games, head home. Instead, the Nuts won both games, one in thrilling fashion.

In the series opener, Nathan Bannister toed the rubber for Modesto and turned in another strong performance, going 6 innings of five-hit, no-run ball, with one strikeout. He threw 74 pitches, 51 of them for strikes. “Big Game Banni,” the Arizona product drafted in the 28th round in 2016, has been Modesto’s de facto ace ever since Nick Neidert got promoted to Double-A. His 4.60 FIP doesn’t look sterling but it’s pretty impressive considering: a) it’s the Cal League and b) this is his first year of pro ball (he didn’t pitch in short season as he was nursing an arm injury that cropped up during the CWS). He’s also the king of C’ing the Z, running a K% of almost 20% while walking just 3% of batters. Bannister made a couple of spot starts in Tacoma when they were thin on pitchers and held his own well, putting up almost identical numbers. Newly acquired Seth Frankoff covered the next two innings and also hung zeros, keeping the homerun-happy JetHawks silent.

Meanwhile, the offense went to work. And by work, I mean they wrecked shop like they were Beyonce with a baseball bat and Lancaster pitchers were cars. The scoring kicked off in the second, when Donnie Walton, Joey Curletta, and recently-promoted prospect Joe Rizzo all hit consecutive doubles. Luis Liberato followed that up with a home run to give Modesto an early 4-0 lead. Joe Rizzo would add another moonshot home run in the fourth, showcasing some of his plus power, and the Nuts tacked another run on in the fifth on yet another Joey Curletta double scoring Joe DeCarlo and Donnie Walton to make it 7-0. But things really got out of hand in the sixth. Two HBPs and a walk loaded the bases, and then Kyle Lewis singled to drive in two runs. 9-0. Joe DeCarlo walked to load the bases, and then Donnie Walton walked to make it 10-0 Modesto. They would add another run on a wild pitch, and then Joe Rizzo singled to drive in two more. 13-0 Modesto. The bullpen would give a good chunk of those runs back in the ninth, making the score look closer than it was, but this was a curb stomping. The Nuts were also aided by some superb defense and a little bit of luck, like when Donnie Walton had a routine double play ball go through his legs, kicked the ball while trying to retrieve it to Jordan Cowan at second, who then calmly completed the double play, the third of the night for Modesto. When you’re hot, you’re hot.

The second game wouldn’t feature quite that offensive explosion, but provided thrilling nonetheless. Spencer Herrmann got the start for Modesto and held the JetHawks to two runs over five innings, allowing two home runs. For the first part of this game, all the scoring was done via the home run: Garrett Hamspon hit a leadoff homer off Herrmann, Eric Filia answered back in the third with a two-run shot to give the Nuts a 2-1 lead, then the excellently-named Hamlet Marte tied it up with a solo shot of his own. But Eric Filia wasn’t having that, and hit another homer in the sixth to give the Nuts a 3-2 edge. (ALSO: Eric Filia has a very cute dad who is every bit as gregarious as his son, reports our own Jen Mac Ramos):

Modesto would take a 5-2 lead in the sixth with an RBI single from Joe DeCarlo scoring Kyle Lewis and an Arturo Nieto RBI single scoring Joey Curletta, and they held that lead all the way into the ninth. Unfortunately, the Nuts bullpen wasn’t able to hold the lead. Setup man Art Warren had to enter a little early to get submariner Jack Anderson out of a bit of a jam; he only needed two pitches to get an inning-ending popup, and then pitched a clean eighth despite hitting a batter. But closer Matt Festa didn’t have his good stuff that night, allowing three straight singles, the third of which scored a run to bring Lancaster within two. Helmet Marte then hit a sacrifice bunt that was mishandled by Joe Rizzo, loading the bases, and Festa gave up a two-run double to pinch-hitter Avery Romero. Things looked bleak, with runners at second and third and no outs, and it would have been easy for this team to quit here, to give up a score and gift the JetHawks a walkoff win, take a day to travel home, and try to get two more wins on their home turf.

But that’s not how this team rolls. Festa bore down and got the next three outs to send the game to extras. The Nuts failed to score in the 10th, and WSU product Joe Pistorese came in. He also didn’t have his best stuff, walking the first batter he saw, but battled back to field a sac bunt and strike out the next batter, Mylz Jones. He then gave up a single to Hamlet Marte, but Donnie Walton made an incredible play at short, diving to field the ball and then throwing home to nail the runner trying to score from second. To the 11th.

Jordan Cowan’s name has been popping up on this website lately. In case you missed it: Cowan is a local kid drafted by the Mariners in the 37th round in 2013, and has been busting his hump in the lower levels of the system since then, taking his winters to play in Australia (where, apparently, he is much beloved). We wrote him up most recently for being this year’s winner of the Edgar Martinez Productive Team Plate Appearance award. He also figured heavily in the divisional round of this playoff run, with a go-ahead homer that helped the Nuts clinch a win:

Jordan Cowan has hit two home runs over his entire season, playing more than he ever has in relief of an injured Donnie Walton and Logan Taylor. He’s already had his first postseason home run. Tonight he stepped to the plate, with two teammates on, in a tied game in the 11th inning, and hit his second.

It sure can, Jordan.

The Nuts return to John Thurman Field on Friday at 7:05 PM to seek a championship. I will be listening and cheering. I hope you will be, too.