The Modesto Nuts not only won Thursday night, but they redefined what it means to stage a perfect opening night.
A sellout crowd of 4,589 cheered with the spirit of April, on a balmy evening that felt like late May, and celebrated as the Nuts beat Visalia 7-3 with a show of mid-season form.
The team collected 12 hits, stole six bases and played generally solid defense to entertain the largest opening-night crowd in Modesto minor-league history.
The previous opening-night record was 4,294 on May 7, 1997, a crowd that packed John Thurman Field for the first game following its major renovation.
This round of off-season improvements also seemed to be a hit with the crowd, with the new scoreboard as the star. In-game promotions garnered extra attention when shown on the video screen, and even an early game advertisement featuring the team mascots was greeted with applause.
The playing conditions also were much improved over recent years. Ground balls hugged the resurfaced infield with nary a bad hop, and fly balls launched high into the night stayed visible under the reconditioned stadium lights.
There were complaints about long lines at the concession stands, but team management responded by offering free general admission tickets for tonight's game to everyone in the crowd.
They came out once for the scoreboard; maybe now they'll come back for the team.
"We have a lot of athletes on the field, and it's fun to play in a lineup like that," said first baseman Jeff Kindel, who had two doubles and a single. "It made for a good opening night, with all the fans coming out and seeing a good game like this."
The Nuts jumped out to a 6-0 lead with back-to-back three-run uprisings.
In the third, Eric Young Jr. singled home Daniel Carte with the season's first run, and Dexter Fowler followed with a two-run single.
Kindel led off the fourth with his second double and scored on Carte's sacrifice fly. Young made it 5-0 on an infield single, and Fowler completed the rally with an RBI grounder.
Modesto starter Alan Johnson lost his shutout in the fifth when John Hester clubbed an RBI double off the top of the right-field wall.
The right-hander from Mississippi State left during Visalia's two-run sixth, but the Nuts' bullpen parade of Tomas Santiago, Jonathan George, David Patton and Andrew Johnston held the Oaks scoreless on three hits the rest of the way.
"You saw tonight why Johnson wins," Nuts manager Jerry Weinstein said. "He has a cerebral approach, and he can get his off-speed pitches over for strikes, even when he's behind in the count."
Modesto added a run in the eighth on a double steal, with Jason Van Kooten scooting home from third base as Travis Bechtel was swiping second.
"That's always fun to play like that, especially when we're trying to win the game," said Fowler, who stole 43 bases with low-A Asheville in 2006.
And this team seems built to win more with speed than power. The 2006 Asheville team stole 266 bases with a roster that included 18 players now wearing Modesto uniforms.
"We were aggressive and opportunistic out there, and we got four of our runs playing that way," Weinstein said.
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