2013 Modesto Nuts went down swinging

September 7, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textBrian VanderBeek
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: Sports, including preps, colleges and the Modesto Nuts
    Bio: Brian VanderBeek joined The Bee in 1996 after previously working at The Home News-Tribune and The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, the (Dover) Delaware State News and the Hanford Sentinel. He is a graduate of Ripon High, Modesto Junior College and holds a degree in journalism from Fresno State.
    Recent stories written by Brian
    On Twitter: @modestobeek
    E-mail: bvanderbeek@modbee.com

The Modesto Nuts played 21 innings of postseason baseball last week.

In being swept by the Visalia Rawhide, the Nuts never — at any point — held a lead.

There was no more fitting way for Modesto's season to end. Because this was a team — from opening night through Thursday's final pitch — played an entire season from behind.

They opened the season with two key players on the disabled list — Taylor Featherston and Sam Mende — and Mende ended up playing all of 16 games, leaving a void at third base for most of the season.

Two players expected to carry a huge offensive load — Trevor Story and Will Swanner — never got going at the plate. Story hit .233 and Swanner .239.

Modesto whiffed at an alarming rate, averaging more than 10 strikeouts per game until the final month of the season. They settled for simply setting a California League record by carrying their bats back to the dugout 1,372 times — the third-most in the history of minor league baseball.

The Nuts started the season 9-19 and enjoyed only one extended hot streak. Fortunately for them, it came at the end of the season when they finished on a 17-4 run en route to a 75-65 overall record and a third straight North Division second-half title.

Then, on July 6, manager Lenn Sakata was fired. The Nuts were instructed to not discuss Colorado's decision to dismiss Sakata, and to be fair there was little they could say from a company standpoint, but it clearly was an angry group of players that embarked on the regular season's final 53 games.

The move also put new manager Fred Nelson is a difficult position. As supervisor of development — a new position invented by Colorado — he'd been in the Nuts' clubhouse since joining the team in May.

But the Rockies never really explained to the players the communicative nuances of dealing with dual authority figures in the clubhouse, so it was a huge, awkward and unpleasant initial adjustment for the players when Nelson moved into the manager's office. And it wasn't easy for Nelson, either.

"They finished with a heck of a run and made a lot of progress in the second half," Nelson said. "I can't be prouder of a group.

"There were opportunities earlier in the season where they could have gone into shutdown mode and quit, but these guys took it right down to the wire. Those are character traits that are great to have as a ballplayer."

It took until August for the team to click, and along the way they continued to whiff at the plate — winning games the old-fashioned way, with pitching and defense.

"In the beginning we were behind a lot and we didn't handle adversity very well," Swanner said. "We did that better as the season went on and we battled out butts off. Even in the majority of games we won we were behind at some point. That's our mentality and I love this team."

It was an enjoyable team to watch, one that certainly endeared itself to the home fans. Even after excruciating losses that featured double-digit whiffs, the players to a man were gracious, forcing smiles while signing autographs and taking pictures with the fans, saving the scowls and the pain for the silence of the clubhouse.

That's one of the reasons the Nuts again did well at the gate. They didn't set an attendance record this season, but their turnstile count of 177,770 was third-best in Modesto minor league history.

There also were some individual highlights.

• Dan Winkler went 12-5 with a 2.97 ERA and gave Modesto the league pitcher of the year for a third consecutive season, following the lead of Chad Bettis and Christian Bergman.

• Ryan Casteel got only 36 at-bats in April as Swanner's backup, a role he never really relinquished. But despite never becoming the Nuts' regular receiver he was the team's breakout performer. He finished with a .276 average, 22 homers and 76 RBI and was named the California League's top catcher. He had six total homers in three previous seasons.

"It was a great learning experience for the team, and we had some great moments along the way," Casteel said. "I'm already looking forward to next season with this group because of what we've learned and the adversity we overcame. We didn't start off well, and to come back strong the way we did showed our character."

Casteel's skills defensively still trail those of Swanner, so it will be interesting to see what Colorado does next spring. Will they promote both catchers to Tulsa, or will they leave Casteel in Modesto to be the everyday catcher?

• Ben Alsup was 3-8 and led the league in losses at the All-Star break. By getting the win in Monday's regular-season finale, he finished a 10-0 second half and led the league in wins with 13.

"I didn't pitch much differently in the second half, but we came together as a team, as a whole, and we started winning games," Alsup said. "It's just a good feeling to be on a team that was this special."

By finishing with 12 wins apiece, Winkler and Tyler Gagnon gave Modesto three pitchers with 12 or more wins for the first time since 1994.

• Taylor Featherston hit .385 in August, and his placement into the leadoff spot with 21 games remaining in the season was the starting pistol for the Nuts' fast finish.

• Brian Humphries made the transition from a slash-and-sprint hitter to a gap-to-gap hitter with occasional power. The former Pepperdine University standout was the lone Nut to hit .300, and his eight home runs came after he hit two in each of his first two professional seasons.

Among the Nuts' regulars, Humphries had the fewest strikeouts, with 82. Harold Riggins, with a franchise-record 192 strikeouts, and Story (184) ranked 1-2 in the league.

"You have 27 outs and if you're giving away outs via strikeout you're not giving the defense a chance to make mistakes," Humphries said. "The more balls you put in play the more bloop hits you get and the more rallies you get to keep going, and then you start putting runs on the board."

In the end, the 2013 Modesto Nuts will go down as the Whiff Kings. It's a tribute to this group's resilience that it overcame everything thrown its way along with the inability to make consistent contact and still won 75 games and a second-half title.

But once the playoffs arrived, the team reverted to April form. In Thursday's elimination game, Modesto struck out 16 times.

"Addressing the strikeout has been part of the approach and we're teaching daily about putting the ball in play and being a tough out," Nelson said. "There still are days when they don't do as well as you'd like, but that's the game.

"In the end, the guys really battled."

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

2013 MODESTO NUTS BY THE NUMBERS

0 — Playoff wins, the first time since 2007 the Nuts failed to win a postseason game

.252 — Team batting average, the lowest for a Modesto team since 1990

2 — Players on California League postseason all-star team — catcher Ryan Casteel and pitcher Dan Winkler

3 — Consecutive years the Nuts have won the North Division second-half title

5 — Starts made by 2013 No. 1 draft pick Jon Gray. He went 4-0 with a 0.75 ERA

7 — Players with 10 or more home runs, the most since John Thurman Field was expanded in 1997

13 — Ben Alsup’s league-leading win total

14 — Regular season sellouts (crowds in excess of 4,000) at John Thurman Field, a franchise record

17 — Wins in final 21 regular-season games as Nuts moved from third place to division title

22 — Home runs hit by Casteel and Harold Riggins to share team lead

33 — Saves by Scott Oberg to lead the league and tie the franchise record

37 — Wins compiled by Alsup, Winkler and Tyler Gagnon, giving Modesto three pitchers with 12 or more wins for the first time since 1994

45 — Second-half wins, the most ever in nine seasons of Nuts’ baseball

53 — Number of games managed by Fred Nelson following the firing of Lenn Sakata

75 — Regular-season wins, the second-most in Nuts’ history

124 — Home runs hit by the Nuts, the most by a Modesto team since the 1997 L’il A’s blasted 148

137 — Team-leading number of hits by Taylor Featherston, one more than Brian Humphries

183 — Strikeouts by Trevor Story, the second-most in franchise history

192 — Strikeouts by Riggins, the most in franchise history

685 — Record number of wins amassed during Sakata’s California League managerial career

1221 — Team hits, the fewest for a Modesto team since 2000

1372 — Team strikeouts, the most in league history and the third-most in minor league history

Infinite — Number of goosebumps in the crowd during the July 20 Wounded Warriors softball game

— Brian Vanderbeek

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