Modesto Nuts look forward to second half of Cal League season

First half showed club which improvements need to be made

bvanderbeek@modbee.comJune 19, 2013 

The 2013 Modesto Nuts stormed into April with the confidence of a champion.

Seventy games later, having posted the worst first-half record in the nine-year history of the affiliation, the players who made up the core of the 2012 South Atlantic League champion Asheville Tourists still are adjusting to the caliber of play in the California League.

Tonight offers a fresh start for the Nuts, who open the second half with a 7:05 p.m. start against Visalia at John Thurman Field.

Yet the adjustments Modesto needs to make in order to compete for a playoff spot need to be addressed by more than just the hope of a new tomorrow.

Last year's Asheville Tourists led the Sally League in home runs, batting average and runs per game. This year's Modesto Nuts are ninth in the 10-team California League in home runs, and are last in batting average and runs scored.

The most telling statistic is the 702 strikeouts suffered by Nuts' batters, which has the team on a record whiff pace for a league in constant operation since 1946. It means Modesto is carrying the bat back to the dugout in more than 25 percent of its plate appearances.

"We just have to keep going out there and hope that things change," said Nuts' manager Lenn Sakata. "We need to put some consistency together on offense, to where guys are giving good at-bats up and down the lineup."

With those offensive numbers, it's a wonder the Nuts finished only six games under .500 (32-38) in the first half.

Credit the pitching and defense for that modest level of success.

Led by ace Dan Winkler, who leads the league in every meaningful pitching category, and closer Scott Oberg, who is tied for the league lead in saves, the Modesto pitching staff ranks second in the league with a 3.96 ERA and has walked the fewest batters.

The defense has committed the third-fewest errors in the league, leading to allowing only 36 unearned runs in the first half. Combined with the stingy walk totals, it means the Nuts didn't give away games.

But they also failed in so many situations in which a fly ball or well-placed ground ball would have resulted in a run, leading to the team's 5-11 record in one-run games.

"We had that streak of, what, 10 games (the Nuts lost 11 of 12 from April 19-May 2,) and we had a lot of tough losses in there," Sakata said. "We had games we should have won where we didn't get a hit and we gave up some leads late.

"The kids are putting-in the effort, and all we can do about situational hitting is to continue to stress it and work on using the middle of the field. It has been better lately, especially with the guys who are expected to carry us."

There have been some individual offensive highlights.

Ryan Casteel began the season as the backup catcher, but finished the first half with a .296 average a team-leading totals of 13 homers and 46 RBI.

Brian Humphries leads the team with a .311 average, and Taylor Featherston is hitting .291 while solidifying the second base position.

Other than those three, no Nuts' player who has played more than 15 games is hitting .260 or better.

With San Jose winning the first half title for the eighth time in nine years, Modesto's path to the postseason is clear.

It can either win the second half (which the Nuts did in 2012 en route to the league championship series) or it can make up seven games on Visalia and six on Stockton in the next 11 weeks.

In either case, the crusade starts tonight.

"The health of the players always is a concern," Sakata said. "We've had too many guys out and it would be nice to have a set lineup for the second half without too many problems.

"That alone might allow us to make a run at this, but that's a big if."

Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150 or follow him on Twitter, @modestobeek


MODESTO NUTS: SECOND HALF BEGINS

RECORD: 32-38 (4th in division)

BATTING: .245 (last in league)

RUNS: 301 (last in league)

HOMERS: 54 (8th in league)

STAFF ERA: 3.95 (2nd in league)

TEAM LEADERS

AVERAGE: Brian Humphries .311

HOMERS: Ryan Casteel 13

RBI: Casteel 46

RUNS SCORED: Harold Riggins 35

WINS: Dan Winkler 9*

ERA: Winkler 2.15*

STRIKEOUTS: Winkler 98*

SAVES: Scott Oberg 15*

* leads California League

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