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Going Nuts: Modesto sweeps Stockton, advances to California League Championship

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winners winners chicken chasing champ dinners

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Last year at this time, every single Mariners affiliate was in the playoffs, and the big club was closing in on a potential WC berth themselves. Even though it was a ton of work, Ethan Novak and I had a lot of fun recapping four or five different games every day. Fast foward to a year later, and the landscape is very different. After the system was thinned by trades and injuries, only one club remains standing in the playoff picture: The Modesto Nuts.

Modesto started the year as world-beaters before losing some top talent with the promotion of RHP Nick Neidert, the California League Pitcher of the Year, INF Chris Mariscal, and OF Braden Bishop, named the Seattle Times’ Mariners Minor League Player of the Year. All-Star OF Eric Filia missed a stretch of time on paternity leave. The Nuts’ bullpen, which had been very strong over the first half of the season, broke down a little with the loss of Neidert and other players lost to trades. After blazing through the Cal League in the first half of the season, the Nuts looked decidedly mortal in the second half. Even the addition of a finally-healthy Kyle Lewis wasn’t enough to push them too far over .500 ball in the second half.

But in the playoffs, all slates are wiped blank, and the Nuts charged into the postseason by winning their first three games against the Stockton Ports to advance to the California League Championship. This achievement is even more meaningful because for the playoff run, Seattle opted not to recall any of its promoted players, including players like Gianfranco Wawoe, who had played most of the season with the Nuts before a last-minute call-up to Tacoma [UPDATE: Wawoe is pictured in the Nuts’ postgame celebration, so he’s with the team, just didn’t play in this series]. When it counted, however, Modesto was able to get contributions on both sides of the ball from both players who had been dazzling all season, like Eric Filia, and quieter contributors, like Jordan Cowan.

Game One: Nuts win, 4-3

In the series opener, Modesto edged out Stockton thanks to a strong pitching performance from RHP Nathan Bannister, who has quietly put together a solid season despite being yanked up to Tacoma every so often as an emergency starter. Bannister went 6.2 innings of two-run ball while striking out seven batters, and the bullpen was able to hold the lead despite closer Matt Festa giving up a ninth-inning run to bring the Ports within one run. The Nuts got all four of their runs in this game on home runs: one from Eric Filia to dead center, and a two-run shot from Jordan Cowan:

You probably haven’t heard a ton about Jordan Cowan, Kentlake HS product and Seattle’s 37th-round draft pick in 2013. Cowan has spent the last four years muddling through the lower levels of the Mariners organization, jumping between the AZL, short-season Everett, and occasional stopoffs in Bakersfield. He spends his winters playing in Australia and is a much-beloved member of the Adelaide Bite. This was his third home run of the year. While Cowan has been a steady contributor all year, he’s moved into the leadoff spot for the playoffs (a role previously held by Braden Bishop), and has been successful there, going 3-for-10 with a stolen base.

Game Two: Nuts win, 11-5

The Nuts won the second game of the home series in much more convincing fashion. The Nuts jumped on Stockton starter Brandon Bailey early after a couple of defensive miscues allowed the Nuts to stretch singles into extra bases. Joe Rizzo, recently called up from Clinton, hit a two-RBI single to give Modesto a 4-0 lead, and they never looked back. The Ports would grab a run back in the second, but in the home half of the inning, Luis Liberato, another recent call-up, blasted a triple into the deepest darkest corner of John Thurman Park, and Jordan Cowan brought him home on a sac fly to give Modesto a 5-1 edge. Modesto starter Spencer Herrmann did give up a two-run home run in the next inning to trim the lead to 5-3, but was able to hold the Ports there over his four innings. Meanwhile, the offense continued to work; after chasing the starter Bailey after just two innings, they jumped on replacement Brandon Marsonek in the fourth. Kyle Lewis hit an RBI single scoring Luis Liberato, and then Joey Curletta hit a two-RBI single to make it 8-3. Arturo Nieto would add an RBI double in the sixth, and then Kyle Lewis topped things off with a two-run bomb to put the Nuts ahead 11-4. New Mariner Seth Frankoff pitched two innings of scoreless ball to earn the win, and Bryan Bonnell and Art Warren cleaned up, each allowing one run but otherwise holding the Ports in check. The pitching wasn’t as sharp as it could have been, but the offense was alive; every single Nuts player had at least one hit, and Lewis and Curletta each had three.

Game Three: Nuts win, 8-2; are California League North Division Champions

The Nuts traveled to Stockton looking for a sweep, and again were able to jump on the Ports’ starter for an early lead they would never relinquish. Jordan Cowan led off with a single and a stolen base, and Kyle Lewis singled him home. An error allowed Joe DeCarlo to reach and load the bases, and Logan Taylor, who has spent much of the season on the DL, singled to bring home another run. Joe DeCarlo then stole home (!) to give the Nuts an early 3-0 lead. Once again, the Nuts were able to chase the Ports’ starter from the game after the second, although replacement Evan Manarino wasn’t greeted any more kindly when Joe DeCarlo hit a three-run home run scoring Filia and Lewis to put the Nuts up 6-0. Modesto starter Robert Duggar was able to keep the Ports off the board until the fifth inning, when he gave up an RBI single. He was quickly replaced by Matt Walker, who gave up one run over two innings of work (on a home run to the improbably named Skye Bolt), but for some reason gets the win because baseball is dumb sometimes. The lead wasn’t ever in jeopardy, though, as Joey Curletta added a home run in the 8th and then Eric Filia hit an RBI double to put Modesto up 8-2. WSU product Joe Pistorese and AFL-bound Matt Festa closed out the game to secure the series sweep and send the Nuts to the ‘ship.

Overall, this was a super-fun series from the affiliate that’s been the most consistently fun all season. After slumping in the second half, the Nuts have roared into the postseason. Every guy in the lineup is contributing, whether it’s Eric Filia, who is probably one of the best unknown prospects in all of baseball, or a finally-healthy-please-we-hope Kyle Lewis, or human Swiss Army Knife Joe DeCarlo, or local kid having a monster series Jordan Cowan. The pitching staff isn’t as good as it was when they had Neidert and others lost in trades (and I was really hoping they’d promote someone like Wyatt Mills or JP Sears from Clinton just to give the bullpen a little bit of relief), but they’re finding ways to get it done. The team will have some time off and be back at it late next week, and I hope you’ll all follow along with me as the Nuts go ring chasin’.