Alan Johnson toed the rubber to start the second inning, finding himself in a very unfamiliar yet comfortable situation.
The Modesto Nuts' pitcher had given up two unearned runs, then relaxed in the dugout to watch his teammates plate five runs in the bottom of the first inning. And there it was — a rare substantial lead early in the game for a Nuts starter.
Johnson shrugged off his team's good fortune and cruised through seven innings in Sunday's 9-2 victory over the Bakersfield Blaze.
"Between starts you see that the team isn't hitting that much," said Johnson (2-1). "But when they do hit you start thinking you want them to save some hits for your start. It is nice to pitch with a lead but you still have to pitch like it's 0-0 and get through the game."
Johnson prolonged the recent hot streak for Nuts starters. Since the Blaze came to town four games ago, Modesto's starters have allowed only two earned runs in 23 innings. Not coincidentally, the Nuts ride a four-game winning streak into tonight's series finale.
"We do have it going," Johnson said. "Maybe it's coaching or a combination of things. But we are making quality pitches, throwing strikes and getting ahead in the count. When you do that you're going to have success."
Modesto's offensive success also helped the cause. The Nuts got two bunt singles and a walk to load the bases in the first against Blaze starter Michael Schlact (1-1). Jose Valdez chased home two runs on a single, and Neil Wilson followed with a two-run double for a 4-0 lead.
Two pitches later, Schlact delivered a pitch in the dirt that scooted to the backstop. As catcher Brian Valichka searched in vain for the ball, Wilson scored all the way from second base to give the Nuts five runs before they made their first out.
Modesto finished with 15 hits. Eric Young Jr. and Chris Nelson collected three hits apiece, while Wilson had two doubles.
"We need these kinds of games," Nuts manager Jerry Weinstein said. "We're starting to take more competitive at-bats with less over-swinging. Once everybody in the lineup figures that out, it will pay some long-term dividends."
Staked to the lead, Johnson focused on making pitches and working quickly. He allowed only two hits in innings two-through-six and left having allowed seven hits (six singles and a double) with no walks and four strikeouts.
"The Rockies do want us to work fast, and I like to work quick," he said. "It keeps me in the game and helps me stay focused. I know that when I played defense in high school I wanted pitchers to work fast so I could get in to hit."
To comment, click on the link with this story at modbee.com. Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.