SAN JOSE -- Welcome back, Modesto Nuts, to the cliff's edge.
They know this place, where one loss means trips home and dugouts emptied. After what happened to them Sunday night, what could be worse?
"We've been at death's door and survived," manager Jerry Weinstein said. "I know it's not death, but we faced elimination for a week."
Today, they've returned to Win-Or-Else-ville. The Nuts lost 6-5 to the San Jose Giants on a bottom-of-the-ninth run so soft it could have been mistaken for silly putty.
Francisco Peguero, the fleet leadoff man who's dealt Modesto nothing but pain for two nights, beat out an infield bouncer to the right side. Then came an errant pickoff throw from reliever Casey Weathers and a trot to third on a groundout.
The first pitch to Jose Flores kissed the dirt and caromed to the screen -- a walkoff wild pitch -- sending Peguero to the plate and the Giants tumbling forward in a happy mass.
San Jose, the defending California League champion and its resident Godzilla, holds a 2-0 lead as the best-of-five North Division Final series buses to Thurman Field tonight. Yes, one more push by the Giants and the Nuts are falling, falling, falling ...
Two weeks ago, Modesto was a longshot to even reach the postseason. The Nuts won six straight to nab a wild-card berth, then swept Stockton in the first round. But they've again been stymied by San Jose, its longtime nemesis, and it seems the events at Municipal Stadium have been been repeated over and over.
Modesto trailed 1-0, 4-1 and 5-4 and drew even on each occasion. The third time ended a one-game morality play. Second baseman Joe Sanders committed two errors and had gone 0 for 3, including a strikeout as the Giants' designated "Beer Batter."
So, in the seventh, his first hit of the series sailed over the wall in left for a home run and a 5-5 tie. The same 2,112 that had toasted Sanders' good health two innings before now watched him circle the bases.
"I had to keep playing," Sanders said. "I had to be a wall and shut it out of my mind."
Modesto scratched from off the pace, yet never took the lead. In fact, the Nuts have not yet inched their shell in front of San Jose in the series despite swatting four home runs to the Giants' zero.
Their moment arrived in the sixth with the score 4-4 and the bases loaded with one out. The next two hitters were designated hitter Mike Zuanich, whose two-run shot in the fifth inspired the Nuts, and Ben Paulsen (3 for 3).
San Jose reliever Wilmin Rodriguez scrambled to find the strike zone but managed to stretch the count to 3-2. Rodriguez then struck out Zuanich looking on an 88-mph fastball that creased the outside corner, and also fanned Paulsen.
"He (Rodriguez) was all over the place. A couple of times he almost hit me in the foot," Zuanich said. "I was sitting on a fastball down the middle, and he just threw a good pitch."
The at-bats demonstrated why San Jose is one win away from a berth in the Cal League Championship Series. The Giants have done all the so-called little things better than the Nuts.
"That (Zuanich and Paulsen) was our chance to do it," Weinstein admitted.
The Giants scored Sunday night on two sacrifice flies, a groundout and, in the end, Peguero's zany chase. In two games, he's stroked five hits and touched the plate four times.
If the Nuts don't whisk him off the bases soon, they'll be packing their bags. Then again, they understand their position: Win tonight, win again Tuesday night and somehow force a Game 5 Wednesday night in San Jose.
"If you get tight, bad things happen," said Zuanich after his second homer in as many nights. "It didn't fall for us tonight, but we easily could have won."
At least Modesto is familiar with the cliff -- and its steep drop.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302.