The Modesto Nuts have won four games in these California League playoffs when a loss would have placed them on flights home the next day.
In that context, Thursday night's 7-4 loss to Lancaster during Game 1 of the best-of-five League Championship Series lacked the lethal punch. But it was convincing.
Neither team had lost at home in the playoffs until Lancaster pitching contained the Nuts on eight hits, five of them singles.
One member of the crowd of 1,155 at Thurman Field waved a sign reading, "Stay Calm. Go Nuts."
"We've been solid all year. We'll swing it," maintained Modesto shortstop Tim Smalling, who continued his run as the Nuts' hottest postseason hitter. "All we can do is put some good at-bats together (today)."
Modesto learned what Lake Elsinore and High Desert already have witnessed firsthand during the playoffs Lancaster leadoff man Delino DeShields Jr. can dictate a game with his legs.
DeShields, 20, the son of the former Dodger infielder, stands only 5-foot-9 but checks in at 209 pounds. And, yes, he can run. He's stolen 101 bases this season, second in Major League Baseball behind only former Bakersfield phenom Billy Hamilton (155). The JetHawks have loved him since he reported from Lexington about a month ago.
All the Houston Astros' No. 5-ranked prospect did against Modesto was single twice, reach base four times out of five and score twice. That's acing Leadoff Man 101. Nuts catcher Dallas Tarleton started the game by throwing out DeShields at second, but the speedster wasn't fazed.
"He's a dynamic player at the top of their lineup," Smalling praised. "I felt like he was on base a lot tonight."
DeShields wasn't alone. Shortstop Jiovanni Mier, No. 2 in the JetHawks' order, also hurt the Nuts. He and DeShields combined to score half of their team's runs.
The series is a collision between the league's second-best pitching (Modesto) against the second-best offense (Lancaster). The hitters prevailed in the opener.
"We can score runs," Lancaster manager Rodney Linares said. "DeShields creates havoc out there."
Modesto starter Kennil Gomez was rocked for eight hits, a bad stat given the fact he got only seven outs. The JetHawks touched him for six hits in the third inning and finished him on Jon Meyer's 2-run single that made it 4-1.
The Nuts have campaigned through the playoffs without the injured Kyle Parker, arguably the league's leading hitter. Trying to fill that void, however, has been shortstop Tim Smalling.
Smalling, a North Carolina native and a 15th-round draft pick by Colorado last year, has driven in 10 post-season runs. His hot hand continued when he accounted for the Nuts' first run with a sacrifice fly to right, good for a short-lived 1-0 lead in the second.
Modesto nearly tied the game in the third. Delta Cleary Jr., whose two-run triple pulled the Nuts to within 4-3, was thrown out at the plate after Jared Clark's fly ball. Lancaster right fielder Domingo Santana threw on the fly to catcher Carlos Perez who stood in front of the plate and applied the tag.
"It was a reasonable play," Modesto manager Lenn Sakata said. "I can't keep him (Cleary) there at third and let the next guy make an out. He (Santana) has to make a good throw to throw him out."
Later in the sixth, with the Nuts trying to climb back, Smalling contributed a solid two-out single to left to plate Rafael Ortega. That closed the gap to 6-4.
But that was all the Nuts managed against Lancaster right-hander David Martinez, who struck out six and yielded seven hits in six innings. Relievers Jose Trinidad, Kenny Long and Andrew Robinson blanked the Nuts on only one hit.
"We did not get a timely hit," Sakata said. "We've had problems with holes in the lineup and it showed up."
The Nuts will need a good start tonight by Juan Gonzalez (6-13) against Blair Walters (3-3). The only certainty is that it will be Modesto's final home appearance of the season.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2302.
CALIFORNIA LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES GAME 1