MODESTO — Tim Smalling is one of only two position players on the Modesto Nuts who was part of last year's North Division title squad.
The main reason he stayed back is a knee injury that limited him to 68 games last summer, but as a High-A repeater he has greater incentive to leave an early positive impression on the 2013 season.
And that's exactly what he did Friday night, lining a two-out game-tying single in the fifth and a two-out, go-ahead RBI triple in the seventh inning of Modesto's 4-1 victory over Lancaster.
"It felt good to get it going because it's been a little bit of a tough start," Smalling said. "I just have to go out and keep working to put good at-bats together."
Will Swanner and Trevor Story drove home insurance runs in the eighth as the the Nuts (4-5) claimed their first home victory of the season and snapped a three-game slide in front of a John Thurman Field crowd of 3,737.
"You have to start somewhere and we got some action in the middle of the lineup from Swanner and Story," said Nuts' manager Lenn Sakata. I really have to compliment the pitching, which kept us in the game until we were able to do what we did."
Modesto's offense awakened too late to get starter Dan Winkler a shot at the win. Winkler went six innings in his second straight impressive start, holding the league's top hitting team to one run on three hits with a walk and five strikeouts.
Will Rankin pitched the seventh and got the win, Kenny Roberts worked a scoreless eighth and closer Scott Oberg finished to grab his third save.
The Nuts collected 10 hits six over their final three at-bats but still showed signs of struggling to put the ball in play. Modesto suffered another 13 strikeouts and has whiffed 96 times in nine games.
"I think that's the way we're going to have to play this year," Sakata said. "We're going to hit better than this, but this really is the kind of baseball I prefer because it shows who can hit when it counts and who can produce when it matters. You learn a lot more from games like this than you do in blowouts."
Modesto was dominated by Lancaster starter Luis Cruz, who allowed three singles and two walks while striking out nine batters in 4º innings, leaving with a 1-0 lead.
But he and his teammates fell victim to Houston's organization-wide, tandem-starter philosophy, in which each night's starter goes a maximum of five innings or 75 pitches, and his pitching partner takes over at the start of the next inning.
So with two outs and Juan Crousset at third base, Cruz still very much in control and one out from qualifying for the win was pulled after his 79th pitch and replaced by James Dufek. Smalling, who struck out in his first two at-bats against Cruz, smacked a first-pitch, game-tying single to left.
In the seventh, after Brian Humphries lined a double to center, Smalling followed one hitter later with a booming triple to left-center for a 2-1 lead.
The Nuts then put the game away in the eighth when David Kandilas singled, stole second and scored on Swanner's single. Story followed with a double to pad the lead, as Modesto put together solid at-bats in the final innings.
"It is important that the guys put up the kind of numbers that will allow them to be promoted to the next level, but it's more important for them to learn how to play the game the right way," Sakata said. "We're still working that out."