STOCKTON -- Anyone whose introduction to baseball was the Modesto-Stockton California League mini-series would walk away thinking that turning the double play is the game's most difficult feat.
Game 1 went Modesto's way when Stockton couldn't make the pivot. Game 2 was swayed in Stockton's favor when the Nuts couldn't complete two twin killings.
And while it might sound strange that a 12-3 decision could be swayed by the failure to turn two, that's exactly what started the Ports toward the rout that advanced them into the second round of the playoffs.
Stockton broke a scoreless tie with a four-run third inning, with three of the runs scoring after the Nuts bumbled a routine double play. With the momentum in hand, the Ports added five runs in the fourth inning and collected 17 hits to cruise into the best-of-five North Division finals against San Jose.
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"It happened to both sides in this series," said Stockton's Darren Bush, who will take the Ports into the second round for the first time since Oakland moved its affiliate from Modesto to Stockton in 2005. "Both teams, in order to get here, have turned those double plays all year. In the first game it cost us, and then it cost Modesto. It happens."
Modesto manager Jerry Weinstein agreed that the double play loomed large in this series, but downplayed its impact on the finale.
"The game turned there, but that was only a part of the story," Weinstein said. "What really happened is they kicked the heck out of us and we'll leave it at that."
Modesto starter Aneury Rodriguez labored through two scoreless innings, needing 45 pitches to get into the third. Meanwhile, Anthony Jackson had two of the Nuts' three hits through the opening three innings, but couldn't be pushed around the bases.
"Rodriguez was flat, and everything was cutting away from his arm side," Weinstein said. "We were fortunate to get through the first two innings with him, and it was inevitable they would get to him."
Rodriguez got in trouble when Archie Gilbert and Josh Horton hit back-to-back singles to open the third.
Slugger Chris Carter hit a hard two-hopper to shortstop, which forced Horton at second, but Jason Van Kooten's relay to first bounced past Mike Paulk and into the stands for a 1-0 Ports lead.
When Matt Spencer followed with an RBI single and Corey Brown lined a two-out two-run homer to right, Stockton had a 4-0 lead and Rodriguez was pulled in favor of Chris Malone.
But Malone was roughed up for five earned runs in the fourth, with the first five Ports batters reaching base and scoring for a 9-0 Stockton lead.
Since Modesto has scored in double figures only once since July, a nine-run deficit even in offensive-minded Stockton Ballpark would be too much to overcome.
Van Kooten would have a hand in all of the Nuts' offense. He tripled with one out in the fifth and scored on Nick Haley's single, and Haley would eventually score on a groundout.
Van Kooten, who had only four home runs during the regular season, would add his second home run of the series in the seventh -- the only postseason long balls struck by Modesto.
The game got very weird before its merciful end. Leading 9-2 in the sixth, the Ports were stealing bases. One of those steals landed Brown at third base, and he scored when Frank Martinez hit a ground ball to Paulk at first base.
The ball rolled into Paulk's shirt, and he ran to first for what he thought was the putout with the ball still in his shirt. But as soon as the ball was trapped in his jersey the ball was dead, and Brown was awarded home for the first of three Stockton runs in the sixth, which at the time gave the Ports a 12-2 lead.
Yeah, it was over.
"Modesto plays well in close games, but we knew we could take them out of their game by scoring a lot early, and we finally were able to do that tonight," Bush said. "They manufacture runs and they play good defense and it's been that way all year."
Well, up until it was time to turn a double play in the playoffs.
Read Brian VanderBeek's Inside the Shell blog.
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.