This is Will Swanner’s second season in Modesto, so he knows as well as anyone where flyballs fly and where they go to die at John Thurman Field.
And he was watching Friday night when teammates Jordan Ribera and Kyle Von Tungeln had bids for game-winning ninth-inning home runs swallowed by the depths of straightaway center field.
But when it’s a warm, windless night, there’s no place like right-center. And that’s where Swanner’s two-run blast cleared the fence with two outs in the 10th to give the Nuts a 4-3 victory over San Jose before 3,619 fans.
Improbable? You bet. The Nuts had lost five of six and were an out away from dropping to a season-worst 23 games under .500. The Giants had won five straight and after scoring in the top of the 10th had closer Steven Okert on the mound. All he’d done was go perfect in 18 save chances this season.
With one out, Nuts shortstop Rosell Herrera got to Okert for a single to left – Herrera’s fourth hit of the game. After Pat Valaika struck out, Swanner stepped to the plate looking for one pitch to hit.
“Fastball away, and that’s to my strength,” Swanner said. “I saw how he pitched Kandy (David Kandilas) with a first-pitch fastball. Kandy fouled it off, but I was expecting the same thing and got it. The oppo homer.”
Swanner’s first-pitch soaring fly carried roughly 380 feet to right-center, or just enough for the Nuts’ first walk-off homer of the season. But an inning earlier, Ribera and Von Tungeln blasted pitches 400 feet, only to have them caught at the wall.
In the local jargon, both got Thurmaned.
“Any other place in this league, both Ribera and Von Tungeln would have had walk-offs,” Swanner said. “In the later innings here, when the wind stops blowing, the ball goes out to right-center.”
No one in the league needs wins right now more than the Nuts, who still need two wins in their final seven games of the first half to avoid the league’s worst midpoint record since 1995.
“Our team has been so up and down,” Swanner said. “Our wins are so high and our losses are so low. If we can just find the middle ground, we can be the best team in this league.”
Ben Alsup, Friday’s starter for Modesto, is the perfect symbol of how quickly fortunes can turn. Last season, after a rough first half, he went 10-0 in the second half and ended up leading the California League with 13 wins.
He’s winless this season but pitched more than well enough to be in position for his first win of the season against San Jose, getting the Nuts into the seventh inning.
Alsup gave up a run in the second when a double by Jesus Galindo was followed by a single to left by Chuckie Jones. The Nuts answered in the bottom of the inning, turning two infield errors, including one on a blown rundown, into an unearned run.
Modesto got to San Jose starter Ryan Bradley for an earned run to take the lead in the fifth. Kandilas led off with a routine pop fly to the right side of the infield that got above the lights and disappeared. By the time the Giants retrieved the high bounce off the infield, Kandilas was standing on second with a double.
Valaika followed with an RBI single for a 2-1 lead that Alsup was able to take into the seventh.
San Jose designated hitter Matt Pare doubled to start the inning and was bunted to third. After Alsup walked Jesus Navarro, Shane Broyes entered and walked Galindo to load the bases.
Jones tied the score 2-2 with a single, but Broyles left the bases loaded by striking out the next two batters, then worked a perfect eighth.
San Jose scored the go-ahead run in the 10th against Rayan Gonzalez, the third Modesto pitcher. Blake Miller led off the 10th with a single and scooted all the way to third when Mitch Delfino singled up the middle. Brian Ragira followed with a sacrifice fly to deep right, and the Cal League’s best closer got up to pitch in the Giants’ bullpen.
“Those other two balls were hit better, but Swanner hit his to the right spot,” said Nuts’ manager Don Sneddon. “We just beat a guy who had saved 18 in a row, and for us that’s another positive sign.”