Yes, the start of the second half gave the Modesto Nuts a fresh start after a miserable first half of the season.
But the harsh reality for this team remains in place. Lacking overpowering starting pitching and a consistent offensive attack, the Nuts have to flirt with perfection to win games.
Four infield errors constitutes nobody’s definition of perfection, and High Desert rode those bobbles to a 7-2 victory in front of 3,891 Saturday night at John Thurman Field.
“It’s been what we’ve been doing all season,” said Nuts manager Don Sneddon. “We have to make the plays behind the pitching, and we didn’t do that. We had a double-play grounder that became an error, and the pitching hasn’t been quite good enough to get us out of jams.”
A portion of the inconsistency on offense and defense has to fall to the makeup of the Nuts’ roster, which right now has more shortstops than outfielders.
It means at least three players every night are playing away from their natural positions, and since those shortstops all have to see time in the middle infield, the defensive alignment and batting order remain fluid from game to game.
“A consistent lineup is something you’d like to have – getting players in the lineup in the same spots day-in and day-out and giving them the chance,” Sneddon said. “But all these players are learning, and they don’t know what spots they’ll be asked to play when they do move up.”
The Nuts took a 1-0 lead in the second inning when Will Swanner doubled and eventually scored on Matt Wessinger’s infield single.
But with runners at the corners and one out they failed to score again in the inning, then squandered a huge opportunity in the fourth, when Mavericks starter Jochi Ogando (3-2) walked the first three batters.
Instead of having the bases loaded with a chance to add to the lead, Modesto lost a runner when Swanner made the first out trying to steal second base on a 3-1 pitch. Then, following walks to Jordan Ribera and Derek Jones, Ogando got a strikeout and a fly ball to get out unscathed.
The missed opportunity immediately hurt the Nuts. Starter Ben Alsup (0-8) didn’t allow a hit through four innings, but a walk and the first of Modesto’s four infield errors set the table for the Mavericks’ decisive rally.
The error was the key play in the inning, because with one out and one on, Tim Lopes hit a potential double-play grounder about 10 feet to the right of second base.
Pat Valaika, who was the Pacific-12 Conference Defensive Player of the Year at shortstop for UCLA in 2013 but pressed into second base duty for Modesto, bobbled the ball and got nobody.
When the next three High Desert batters collected hits, the Mavs had a 4-1 lead.
Alsup would allow only one more hit while working through the seventh, but Modesto would score only once more against Ogando and two High Desert relievers.
And for the second night in a row, the game got away from the Nuts as soon as they went to the bullpen. Alving Mejias gave up two runs on two hits and a walk in the eighth, and John Keck gave up one run in the ninth on a hit, a walk and the last of the four errors.
“We can’t recover from big innings because we’re not offensive enough to do that,” Sneddon said. “We have to get better and when we don’t make the plays the pitchers have to step up and pick up the infielders, just like the infielders have to pick up the pitchers.”