MODESTO — Through the first month of the season the best way to ensure the Modesto Nuts wouldn't score was to allow them to load the bases.
That's only a very slight exaggeration, since this team was woefully inept offensively with runners on base.
The key for Modesto's turnaround was always going to be linked to their ability to start delivering in such situations, and in Friday's 12-8 victory over Lake Elsinore the Nuts continued to show how much they've progressed.
In fact, Taylor Featherston seems to be leading this one-man crusade to stop Modesto's maddening penchant for shooting blanks at the plate with runners aboard.
The second baseman drove in five runs for the second time in three nights, with four of them coming Friday on his first career grand slam.
"In a bunch of games early in the season we were always just that one hit away and I think everybody tried to be the guy to get that big hit," said Featherston, who had a three-run double in Wednesday's win.
"It only takes one, and then the floodgates can open like they did tonight. This is really a close-knit team and we have guys working hard every day. You never know who the guy is going to be and it doesn't matter as long at it's someone."
In what clearly qualified as the season's ugliest game - with 15 combined walks - Modesto needed to rally from an early four-run deficit to elicit the cheers of the 3,415 in attendance.
The Nuts trailed 6-2 before tying the game with a four-run fifth. Featherston drove in a run with a double, and Tyler Massey chased home two more with a triple - the first of his three hits.
The Storm pushed across a run in the top of the sixth to regain the lead, but gave it right back when reliever Luis de la Cruz walked the bases loaded ahead of Featherston's blast to left field, which gave the Nuts a 10-7 lead.
"I faced the guy last night and I know he has good stuff," Featherston said. "He gave me a first-pitch slider and I was sitting on a fastball. I got it and got enough of it to get it in the jetstream."
It was the first grand slam of the season for the Nuts. Of the 10 slams hit in the league this season, three have been allowed by the Storm.
Modesto would go on to tack-on two more runs in the inning, with Massey and Harold Riggins smacking RBI hits.
Despite reaching double figures in runs for the first time this year, things were far from totally rosy for Modesto.
Starter Tyler Anderson, a first-round pick of Colorado in the 2011 draft, returned to the mound after a sore shoulder caused him to miss a turn in the rotation. He went only three innings and allowed five runs on four hits and three walks before coming out of the game with an apparent injury.
With 10 wins in its last 14 games, Modesto has pulled within three games of .500 for the first time since April 25.
But for these Nuts, perhaps the progress is not best measured by the win-loss record. Instead, just check out their success when runners are aboard.
"I honestly didn't know what our record was," Featherston said. "In this game you have to keep an even keel. You put your work in and play the game and try to get better every day.
"Today we swung the bats well and and I know the last two weeks we've been playing a lot better."