Ever since starting the season 9-18 the Modesto Nuts have lived by the promise that they're only a big hit away from becoming a factor in the California League.
Thursday night's 4-2 loss to Bakersfield marked the three-quarter pole of the season, and guess what the Nuts lost another game because they couldn't come up with the big hit.
So Modesto will head into the final 35 games of the regular season looking up at San Jose in the race for a second half title and looking up at both Visalia and Stockton in the battle for the two wild card spots.
At this late juncture, it's going to take a hot streak just for the Nuts to have a chance to control their own postseason destiny.
The good news? They still think they can do it.
"It's going to take wins," said Brian Humphries, one of three Nuts with two hits against the Blaze. "We've been battling all year and the season isn't over until we're mathematically eliminated."
While Bakersfield was getting the key hit in winning the final two games of the series, Modesto continued to struggle in those situations. After going one-for-10 in Wednesday's loss, the Nuts went one-for-seven in the series finale and stranded nine runners.
They had the bases loaded with two out in the seventh when Humphries struck out, then loaded them again with two out in the eighth, only to have Harold Riggins look at three straight strikes from closer Pat Doyle the last of their 10 whiffs.
The team has been addressing the collective two-strike approach all season, but manager Fred Nelson said that the team will readdress the matter, with urgency.
"It is the lack of a big hit and we have to make some adjustments," Nelson said. "We have to do a better job of making adjustments deep in counts, especially with two strikes, when we have runners on.
"We can't afford not to put the ball in play and not to make adjustments. That, between now and the end of the season, will be one of our short-term goals."
Modesto's lack of offense made a losing pitcher of Dan Winkler (12-4). He's been the best pitcher in the league all season, but in this game he was just good enough to lose.
The league leader in wins, strikeouts, inning pitched, batting average against and WHIP went five innings and allowed three runs on seven hits with two walks against seven strikeouts.
It was his 21st start of the season and he's gone at least five innings in all 21 while allowing as many as four runs only once.
But it also was his fourth start this season against Bakersfield, which means that if the Blaze hitters aren't familiar with Winkler's arsenal of pitches, they haven't been paying attention.
The Nuts staked Winkler to a 2-0 lead in the first against Shane Dyer when Humphries lined a one-out single and scored when Taylor Featherston tripled into the left-field corner. Jared Simon drove home the second run with a solid two-out single to left.
At that point you'd almost expect the Blaze to falter. They've had the league's worst record by far all season and were looking at one of the most dubious streaks in minor league baseball.
They came to Modesto having won two of three from Lancaster, and entered Thursday night needing a win to claim back-to-back series for the first time this season.
And Modesto, which hasn't won back-to-back series since closing June with three straight series wins, was in position to oblige.
Bakersfield scratched out a run in the second, then took a 3-2 lead in the fourth when the two hitters Winkler walked both scored on a two-out single by No. 9 hitter Juan Perez.
"Winkler's fine but may be scuffling a little with his mechanics," Nelson said. "He's a great competitor and he locates well. The back-to-back walks after one out cost us some runs, but that is very uncommon for him. I don't worry about that because he's been terrific all year."
Kraig Sitton threw two perfect innings in relief of Winkler, but Bruce Kern walked the first two hitters he faced in the eighth, and the lead runner scored for a 4-2 Blaze lead when Ryan Wright drove a sacrifice fly to the wall in left.
After that it was just a matter of seeing how the Nuts would manage to fall short at the plate once again.
"Except for games like last night, we're always one hit away from either tying or winning the game," Humphries said. "We haven't been able to come up with that hit and eventually it will come. Season's not over yet."
He's right. But for the first time, the finish line is in clear view.
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at 578-2150. Follow him, @modestobeekModesto Nuts follow MLB's strikeout trend. Page C-4