Modesto Nuts fell short in more ways than one

Arms carried team in 2008

September 8, 2008 

There was no more fitting way for the Modesto Nuts' season to come crashing down. With the Colorado organizational brass watching from the stands at John Thurman Field and Stockton Ballpark, Modesto lost back-to-back games after failing to turn a double play.

That failure flat-out cost them the second game of the series and the chance to advance, and ignited the 12-3 torching that ended the season.

So who is to blame for the inability to execute one of baseball's most basic plays?

Let's put it this way: For the want of a shortstop, the season was lost.

You might remember back in April, when the Nuts had just arrived in town, that the player singled out for local fans to watch was a shortstop. Hector Gomez was going to be the fan favorite -- the athletic, personable and dynamic shortstop who would make Modesto fans recall when Miguel Tejada played here in 1996. Gomez and equally sure-handed second baseman Daniel Mayora were set to give the Nuts the best double play combination in the California League.

But Gomez, a postseason all-star at every level he played before 2008, never made it to Thurman Field. On opening night in Stockton, Gomez came to bat in the ninth inning with the Nuts leading 3-2 and took a swing at an inside pitch, driving the ball off the shin bone in his left leg.

Gomez hopped around the clubhouse for weeks saying, "I'll play tomorrow," before an MRI revealed the hairline shattering -- a spider web kind of break, one person said -- that would essentially end his season (Gomez came back long enough in July to hurt his arm.)

Everyone thought it was temporary when Mayora moved over to play shortstop, where he was merely adequate, but he ended up making the bulk of the starts at the position. Jason Van Kooten played some at second, as did Nick Haley. Occasionally, Mayora would get a start at second while Van Kooten played short, but that served only to showcase Mayora's skills at his natural position.

What happened in the playoffs wasn't a surprise. Except for the first eight innings on opening night, the Nuts never had a shortstop. They struggled to turn double plays all season and because of it had to scramble in the final week merely to reach the playoffs.

The Colorado minor-league coordinators saw that glaring weakness all season. That they chose not to fill the position blows holes in the Rockies' stated philosophy of trying to build team spirit and winning attitudes.

Without a shortstop, the captain of the infield, there is no team, no spirit, no winning.

Gomez's imitation of Jermaine Dye wasn't the only crushing injury. When Cole Garner, his .318 average and his power went down with a wrist injury after 50 games, the outfield and batting order never recovered.

What was left was a scrappy, hard-working group forced to play out of position. Even in the playoffs, you had a second baseman (Haley) manning third, a shortstop (Van Kooten) at second, a second baseman (Mayora) at short, a left fielder (Jay Cox) in right and a center fielder (Lino Garcia) in left.

When players are uncomfortable on defense, it tends to show at the plate, and the 2008 Nuts will go down as one of the worst offensive teams in Modesto history. In the 12 seasons since the renovation of Thurman Field, no Modesto team has scored fewer runs (645,) hit fewer homers (85) or drawn fewer walks (451). All this while leading the league by striking out 1,257 times.

With all of that gloom and doom, there was one factor at work that made the Nuts competitive:

The collection of arms Modesto marched to the mound every night was one of the best in team history. Again, charting only from the field-altering 1996 renovation, this staff registered the second-lowest ERA (3.96), allowed the second-fewest runs (633) and set a Modesto record by issuing only 376 walks.

With any consistent offense, Modesto not only would still be playing tonight but would have been a consistent challenger throughout the season to San Jose in the North Division.

Instead, we're left wondering not about what could have been but grasping for positives from a group of Nuts that never was allowed to be a team.

The 2008 Modesto Nuts -- we never knew you.

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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