MODESTO -- Way back in the dark days of the Modesto Nuts' 2-9 start to the season, manager Lenn Sakata said that all it takes to win in the California League is a good team with a great bullpen.
He would be considered a prophet except that he'd used that recipe before, and with the bullpen now in place the Nuts are making a late run at a first-half title.
Starter Christian Bergman got the Nuts into the seventh inning on Wednesday, and the bullpen took over from there in a 4-2 victory over Inland Empire at John Thurman Field.
The win boosted the Nuts back to .500 and within a streak and a prayer of first place in the North Division. Modesto is in third place, 4½ games behind Bakersfield and three games in back of San Jose, but the Nuts play both teams three times head-to-head in the final 10 games.
"Our backs are against the wall, but we just have to keep playing well enough to win," Sakata said. "The guys know what's ahead of us. Yes, it's a challenge, and now we have to see if we can meet that challenge."
The bullpen certainly has done its part in the last two months after spending April as the team's overwhelming weak point, and a lot of that has to do with the return of closer Adam Jorgenson.
The Fullerton State product had 24 saves for Modesto in 2010, but lost his touch last season in Tulsa. He was hoping to rejoin Tulsa this season, but instead was kept in extended spring training to await an opening.
It came in Modesto very early when closer Bruce Kern went down with an injury, and since then Jorgenson is perfect in 10 save opportunities one off the league lead.
"It's not a big deal to be here since this is like home for me," said Jorgenson, who lives in Costa Mesa. "It's not where I expected to be, but I'm trying to make the best of it. I worked in the offseason getting myself back to where I was, to get my velocity back up and to be able to throw strikes with my curveball and changeup. That's the biggest change for me."
Another key to Jorgenson's success is the support he gets from his bullpen mates. In 2008, his first year in the Colorado organization, Jorgenson was part of a Casper staff that included current teammates Chad Rose, Nick Schnaitmann, Kurt Yacko and Isaiah Froneberger.
"We know each other well and they're my best friends in the organization," Jorgenson said. "It's cool to be on the same team and it makes it more relaxed for us. It's competitive because you want to outperform your buddy, but it's more a kidding thing instead of a stressful thing, like you can get in professional environments. This is as relaxed as I can be on a team."
The Modesto offense continues to score just enough runs to have a chance to win. In this one, Helder Velazquez had a two-out, two-run double in the second inning for a 2-0 lead, which the Nuts would not relinquish.
Bergman (7-4) gave up a solo homer to C.J. Cron in the fourth and an unearned run in the seventh, but only once allowed more than one hit in any inning as he won his third straight start.
Tim Smalling's RBI single in the fifth gave the Nuts a 3-1 lead, and Jared Clark doubled off former Cal State Stanislaus pitcher Eric Cendejas in the eighth and scored an insurance run on an infield error.
Jorgenson took over from there, striking out two in a perfect ninth inning. He now has 28 strikeouts against two walks in 15ª innings and a 0.59 ERA, and is one of the major reasons the Nuts still have a shot at a first-half title.
"I think, honestly, we have the best team in the league," Jorgenson said. "We haven't been consistent, but I wouldn't be surprised if we come back and win this half.
"We have three-game series left against the two teams ahead of us and if can beat those teams then who knows what can happen?"