As the Modesto Nuts wind down through the last six weeks of the regular season, the biggest spot in the pitching rotation might belong to Tyler Gagnon.
He's assumed control of the space right behind Eddie Butler, and since Butler is limited to five innings it becomes extremely important for Gagnon to go at least six innings to save the bullpen.
That's been no problem lately for Gagnon, who on Tuesday held Bakersfield in check over six innings in what became a 5-1 Nuts' win.
"Regardless of who is pitching before or after me I just try to do the same thing and focus on what I'm going to do against the hitters I'm going to face," said Gagnon, a Brentwood native who was drafted in 2009 out of Diablo Valley College.
"I think it works that I follow Eddie because he goes out and throws so hard, then I come in not throwing as hard. It makes Eddie and I a good team."
On the other hand, Gagnon can stand on his own lately with the quality of his work.
Over his last four starts, the 24-year-old righty is 2-2 with a 2.08 ERA with 22 strikeouts and only six walks over 26 innings. Included in that run are two losses in which he allowed only three total earned runs in 12 innings against San Jose and Stockton.
"It's not by design that he's following Eddie, but that's the way it's come up now," said Nuts manager Fred Nelson.
"When you have a five-inning start and someone follows it with a four-inning start, then you're really in trouble. But he's been solid, and all of the confidence his teammates have in him rubs off on everybody."
And the secret to Gagnon's success? It's no secret. He just battles.
"At the beginning of the season, in talking with Burbs (pitching coach Dave Burba) we found I was trying to do too much and overthrowing a little bit, especially when runners get on," Gagnon said. "I've been trying to take what I do in the bullpen, like hitting spots, into the game. I just try to relax and do what I know what to do."
It helped on Tuesday that the Nuts staked Gagnon to an early 3-0 lead, with all the scoring coming on gift runs.
David Kandilas led off the first with a four-pitch walk, stole second, took third on a wild pitch and scored on Ryan Casteel's sacrifice fly for a quick 1-0 lead.
In the second, Tyler Massey singled with one out and Trevor Story walked. They moved up on a ground ball and both scored when Jose Rivera's routine ground ball went under the glove of Blaze shortstop Juan Perez.
Gagnon sailed along with a shutout until the sixth, when he was pulled after allowing back-to-back doubles by Kyle Waldrop and Yovan Gonzalez.
Nelson Gonzalez entered to restore order, retiring all three Bakersfield hitters he faced, then Kenny Roberts finished up with two scoreless innings.
The Nuts added icing in the seventh when Jared Simon's two-out single to left scored Harold Riggins and Rivera.
So despite being out-hit 8-5 and striking out another 10 times, the Nuts enjoyed what for them qualifies as a comfortable win.
Credit Gagnon for making it look easy.
"It looks to me like he's getting tougher," Nelson said. "It's easy to pitch when you have your good stuff, but that doesn't happen all the time and he's been able to have success when he hasn't been real sharp.
"He just battles and stays with it and then you look up and he's given you seven innings and kept your club in the game. That also save your bullpen. He does all of those things and, believe me, we take notice of all of it."
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150 or follow him on Twitter, @modestobeek