STOCKTON Between the errors, walks and wild pitches, the Modesto Nuts' 3-2 opening night victory over the Stockton Ports was far from a perfect display of baseball.
But Nuts closer Andrew Johnston would not have had it any other way.
Johnston was the closer on the mid-season California League All-Star team in 2007 before losing the touch on his pitches, and eventually his role on the team. But Thursday, with the Nuts nursing a one-run lead, he worked a scoreless ninth and stranded the potential tying run at third base to preserve the win.
"All off-season I've been waiting for the chance to get back in the closer role," said Johnston, one of eight Nuts from previous seasons coming back for another run with the team. "I was going through a lot of things mechanically and went into the off-season determined to get back to where I was in the first half. I feel very confident coming into the new season."
Johnston wasn't alone in having a reason to celebrate an excellent opening night on a personal level — above and beyond the win for the team.
Modesto native Anthony Jackson celebrated the first night of his summer-long homecoming with three singles and two runs, relievers Tommy Baumgartner and David Patton handed the lead to Johnston with three strong innings, starter Esmil Rogers (1-0) allowed one run over five innings, and catcher Mike McKenry set the defensive tone by gunning down two Ports baserunners in the first inning.
It was a performance good enough to allow the Nuts to take momentum into Game 2 of the 140-game schedule, while leaving enough wildness to allow ample room for improvement.
Modesto committed three errors — all throwing errors from middle infielders — but the Ports countered with a flurry of wild pitches that factored into most of the Nuts' scoring.
The season's first run came in the fourth, when Daniel Mayora was hit by a pitch, scooted all the way to third on a wild pitch and scored when Matthew Repec lined a two-out single to left.
A nice display of early-season situational hitting gave the Nuts a 2-0 lead in the fifth in a rally again aided by Ports wildness. Jackson led off with a bunt single and took second on a wild pitch. Hector Gomez bunted Jackson to third and Michael Paulk followed with a sacrifice fly to left.
Rogers, who allowed a single to Archie Gilbert to open the game, didn't allow another hit until he got two outs in the fifth, when Frank Martinez homered down the line in right. The next two batters reached base before Rogers retired Gilbert on a fly to center to end the threat.
More off-target pitching gave the Nuts a 3-1 lead in the seventh, when Jackson singled and eventually scored on the third walk of the inning issued by reliever Graham Godfrey.
Modesto returned the gift in the bottom of the inning. The second throwing error of the game from Nuts shortstop Gomez put Ports at the corners with two out, and Martinez scored from third on a wild pitch to narrow the gap to 3-2.
Baumgartner was charged with the unearned run, but further damage was averted when Patton got Gilbert on a called third strike to end the inning.
From there, Johnston took over. The 6-foot-5-inch right-hander from Missouri walked the first batter he faced, but got the next three batters on ground balls to close the win.
"Andrew is so much improved," said Nuts manager Jerry Weinstein. "He's a different guy because of what he and Butch (pitching coach Butch Hughes) were able to do in the off-season and again in spring training. He's going to be able to be a real closer. He has his sink back and has real depth in his breaking stuff."
On a more technical basis, Johnston has a new grip on his slider. It's so different than the one he used last season that it could be considered a whole new pitch.
"The new slider grip is 10 times better than the one I had last season," Johnston said. "I'm just glad I got the opportunity the first night to go in and close the first victory for the team."
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or at 578-2300.