MODESTO — Tyler Gagnon wanted to pitch the ninth inning, but didn't waste much time pleading his case.
The Modesto Nuts right hander had thrown eight scoreless innings against Inland Empire and with an 8-0 lead was within three outs of his first professional shutout.
Three things decided his fate. He had thrown 92 pitches, reliever Ryan Arrowood needed work, and most important the Nuts are chasing bigger goals.
"I wanted to, but we have rules and other guys have to pitch," said Gagnon (12-9), who had more reasons to be excited about his start than to be upset about being pulled. "Ryan hasn't pitched in a while and he has what it takes to finish the game. I tried to get out there."
Arrowood worked a scoreless ninth, so on a night in which two California League teams punched their tickets to the postseason, the Nuts moved one step closer to claiming their place in the playoffs.
Even in losing, and in dropping to .500 at 67-67, Inland Empire clinched a South Division wild card spot when Rancho Cucamonga defeated High Desert. Yes, the 66ers were celebrating in their clubhouse after getting skunked on the field.
And in San Jose, Visalia's victory over the Giants clinched the first North Division postseason berth for the Rawhide since 2007.
That outcome was just as important to Modesto, which now has a three-game lead on San Jose in the race for the North Division second-half crown with six games to play. The Nuts' magic number to win the North over San Jose is 4, and their number to clinch a wild card berth and eliminate Stockton is 3.
"The guys have been good the last three weeks taking it one game, one inning at a time," said manager Fred Nelson. "I'm proud of what they've done."
The current streak is impressive. The Nuts have won 13 of their last 15 games and have won eight straight games at John Thurman Field.
But even more impressive is what Gagnon and his rotation mates have accomplished. League pitcher of the year Dan Winkler won 12 games before his promotion to Double-A Tulsa, and Ben Alsup won his 12th game last week.
Gagnon joined the 12-win club Tuesday. Four pitchers lead the Cal League with 12 wins apiece, and the Nuts have three of them. It is the first time in 19 years Modesto has had three pitchers notch 12 or more wins in a season.
"We have a really good staff with starters that have been able to go deep into games," Gagnon said. "We also have an offense that has picked us up and relievers that have shut down the other teams late and allowed us to get those wins."
But it's more than that. To get three starters to a dozen wins apiece, they have to stay healthy, so decisions like pulling Gagnon after eight innings, even when he's cruising, have happened all season long.
"We still have some games to go," Nelson said. "And this late in the year if we run guys out there for 100 pitches it may cost us down the road. We're all in this thing together. Gagnon was terrific and this isn't the first time he's been this good in a start.
"Knock on wood, but we haven't lost a lot of starts this year from our starters. We've run these five guys out each 20-22 starts and they've stayed healthy."
It certainly helped Gagnon that he was staked to an eight-run lead in the first four innings.
Taylor Featherston led off the first with a triple and came home when Matt Wessinger hit a sacrifice fly on the next pitch.
In the second, Tyler Massey lined a two-out RBI single and Featherston followed with his second triple of the game tying a Modesto all-time record for a 4-0 lead.
The Nuts scored twice after having two outs and no one aboard in the third when Brian Humphries' single was followed by doubles from Will Swanner and Harold Riggins to extend the lead to 6-0.
Trevor Story's two-out triple in the fourth was Modesto's lone hit of the inning, but it followed a walk and a hit batsman by Kramer Sneed (7-3) for the 8-0 advantage.
"We're capable of scoring runs with two outs and nobody on base," Nelson said. "We're getting a couple of two-out hits and all of the sudden we're in a position to score, and we're getting a lot of hits in those situations. That's where this team has really come together."
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150 or follow him on Twitter, @modestobeek
Oklahoma murder victim Chris Lane was friend and Aussie campmate of Modesto Nuts outfielder David Kandilas. Read Brian VanderBeek's blog at www.modbee.com/blogs."We're capable of scoring runs with two outs and nobody on base. We're getting a couple of two-out hits and all of the sudden we're in a position to score, and we're getting a lot of hits in those situations."
Nuts manager Fred Nelson