What do you do with a California League championship ring? If you're Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier and in the midst of a pennant race, do you ever flash back to that 2004 season in Modesto or pull out the gold and green bling you won on that cold and windy night in Lancaster? Not a chance.
But for the 25 players going into the postseason tonight with the Modesto Nuts, most of whom are making their first appearance in the professional playoffs, there is something very special about that ring.
It's not the piece of jewelry itself, but what it represents life-long memories of the camaraderie and drive of a unique group of players.
Christian Bergman, the league's pitcher of the year and tonight's Game 1 starter for the Nuts in San Jose, was asked why the Modesto clubhouse seemed so focused on winning a title.
"You'll never be playing with this exact group again," Bergman said. "Unfortunately, we'll never see some of these guys again, and that's what makes every season unique and special."
The Nuts won 73 regular season games, and seven more in the next 13 days would give Modesto its first title as a Colorado affiliate, and Colorado its first Cal League crown.
It means Bergman, who went 16-5 this season, has a shot at three more starts, which would give him 30 this summer one more than the combined total of his first two professional campaigns with short season teams.
Yes, above all else, what makes Bergman's season so remarkable is that the 24-year-old product of UC Irvine was able to remain strong from start to finish in his first year with a full-season team.
"The mental preparation was the most important thing," Bergman said. "Everyone tells you that a 140-game season is a grind, and it is. You get into August and the guys get tired, and you really have to stay disciplined and stay on top of your running, lifting and throwing.
"You may have to taper off a little bit to stay fresh, and for me that's a matter of listening to your body and letting it tell you what you need to do that day. That approach has worked for me and I feel great right now."
Since the Nuts clinched the North Division second-half title two nights earlier with a win in San Jose, Bergman's scheduled start on Monday was taken by Roberto Padilla.
It allowed manager Lenn Sakata and pitching coach Darryl Scott to set their rotation for the San Jose series, with Bergman going tonight, Josh Mueller (5-1, 3.18) going Thursday at Thurman Field and Tyler Matzek (6-8, 4.62) set to pitch a decisive Game 3 if needed in Modesto on Friday.
Positive thinking yields positive results
Bergman closed out his regular season with two wins, holding first-half champion Bakersfield scoreless on two hits over eight innings on Aug. 24, then limiting Stockton to two runs on seven hits over six innings last Wednesday at John Thurman Field.
But in the previous two starts, Bergman was rocked. On Aug. 14 he allowed seven runs on nine hits to Visalia. Five days later, also against Visalia, the Rawhide lit him up for 10 runs on nine hits in 2º innings.
"My body felt good and my arm felt good in both those starts," Bergman said. "I had faced Visalia twice in three starts leading into a fourth start and I felt like I had to do something different rather than staying with what had been working for me. When you do that, the results usually aren't very good, as I learned.
"The next start I told myself to go back to attacking the strike zone and to be aggressive with all my pitches."
That's the key for Bergman, who despite not being overpowering amassed 121 strikeouts against only 37 walks in 162º innings.
"One of my goals was to win 15 games, so in that respect I'm happy with the way the season went," Bergman said. "I had a few more bad outings than I would have liked, but that's part of the game and the important thing was that I learned from those outings."
He was far from the only player in the Modesto clubhouse navigating the learning curve. This was a team that started 2-9 and through the first month of the season was so horrible on defense that it was allowing nearly two unearned runs per game.
It heads into the playoffs with a second half title, finishing with the second-fewest errors in the league.
"If you look all the way back to the start of the season when we lost all those games
I remember thinking about if we were ever going to turn it around," Bergman said. "Lenny stayed positive about it, we kept grinding it out and here we are.
"That's a sign of maturity and we've stuck together well as a team. I've had plenty of starts personally when I haven't done my job but the rest of the guys picked me up and got a win out of it. That's what we need going into the playoffs."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2150. Follow him at twitter.com/modestobeek.