Like all thoroughbreds, Jon Gray can smell a finish line.
For him, it comes at the end of the fifth inning, and on Thursday night Lancaster just happened to be the team trying to set up speed bumps between Gray and the end of his outing.
The Modesto Nuts' righty reached back in that fifth inning to strike out the side, activating the third digit on John Thurman Field's radar gun and notching his second California League win in as many starts as the Nuts beat the JetHawks 6-2.
Modesto now has won four straight series for the first time this season and leads the North Division second-half race by one game over San Jose with 23 games remaining.
Through two starts, Gray (2-0) has left as solid a first impression as any Modesto pitcher since Tim Hudson dominated in eight appearances with the Modesto A's in 1998.
Gray has gone 10 innings and allowed one run on three hits, with only one walk to blemish his 14 strikeouts. Welcome to Modesto.
"I don't think he was as crisp tonight as he was in his first start," said manager Fred Nelson. "But he has three quality pitches, he's poised and he doesn't panic."
There is the matter of how to approach that finish line. Like Eddie Butler earlier this year, the five-inning limit for Gray is set in stone. Until a special edict emerges from the home office in Denver, Gray will be done after 15 outs.
If that's the case, then why not go out in style? Well, Gray did, striking out Dan Gulbransen looking on a changeup, then getting Chris Epps and Nolan Fontana swinging, in the process hitting 100 mph on the stadium gun.
"I didn't pay attention to what inning it was and I really still want to keep the mindset that I'm out there to go nine innings," Gray said. "I thought when I came off that there was a slim chance they'd let me go out for the sixth. No, but that's the way it is and it's fine."
Lancaster starter Brady Rodgers (9-7) never got the chance to find his groove, leaving before retiring a batter.
David Kandilas opened the Nuts' first with a single and Trevor Story followed with a booming home run to left-center for a quick 2-0 lead.
Brian Humphries picked on a fast ball and drilled it up the middle, with Rodgers' right instep keeping the ball from going through to center field. The right-hander from Arizona State fell to the mound in obvious pain, and limped off the field.
When Humphries came around to score on Will Swanner's two-out single, the Nuts had a 3-0 lead and Rodgers had given up a third run without registering an out.
Lancaster kept Gray (2-0) from getting through a second straight scoreless outing by pushing across a run in the third. An error on a sacrifice bunt aided the Lancaster cause, but the run was earned.
Taylor Featherston singled home runs in the third and fifth innings, then scored on Jared Simon's double in the eighth after being hit by a pitch.
That run changed the Nuts' strategy, since the four-run lead eliminated the one-inning save opportunity for closer Scott Oberg. That was good news for Kraig Sitton, who got the last out in the eighth, then was able to stay on in the ninth to fan the same three hitters Gray whiffed in the fifth to get his second save.
"That turned out good for Sitton," Nelson said. "As he moves up, he's going to have to be able to get out both left handers and right handers, but teams always are looking for guys who can get lefties out. He's pitching with more confidence."
Gray's arrival in Modesto has created an interesting scene at the end of games. As a No. 1 draft pick, he's the target of no shortage of autograph seekers.
At the end of Thursday's game, Gray obliged all the people in line with Sharpies, signing game tickets, baseballs, hats and the occasional glossy photo.
Now, how on earth did those collectible photos show up in Modesto so quickly?
"It is crazy, but the photos are cool," Gray said. "But that's a good sign because it's much better than not seeing anything like that at all."
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150 or follow him on Twitter, @modestobeek
Nuts' reliever issues irresistible proposal. Read Brian VanderBeek's blog at modbee.com/blogs