The Modesto Nuts looked very much like a team that had turned the corner.
After the worst start to a season in franchise history, the Nuts had been playing good, competitive baseball for the last three weeks, giving them hope for the fast-approaching fresh start that is the second half.
On Wednesday night, turning the corner meant only they had stepped into the path of more oncoming heartbreak.
Lake Elsinore bludgeoned the Modesto bullpen for five eighth-inning runs – all scoring after two out – to forge a 7-7 tie, then the Storm walked away with a 9-7 win in 13 innings.
Of all the 41 losses suffered by the Nuts so far this season, this ranks among the worst because of the combination of the large lead blown late and the gift-wrapped game-winning rally.
Peter Tago, the sixth Modesto pitcher, walked the first two Lake Elsinore batters in the 13th, and with a wild pitch mixed-in, walked a third to load the bases with one out.
The move backfired when he hit Gabriel Quintano on the next pitch to force home a run. When Jeremy Baltz followed with a sacrifice fly, the Storm had scored two runs without a hit.
Modesto had the game in hand, riding the strong six-inning start of Ryan Carpenter to a 7-2 lead entering the eighth inning.
But Lake Elsinore, very much in the first-half race in the California League South Division, teed off against the Nuts’ bullpen.
It started innocently enough, with a walk and a two-out homer off the top of the scoreboard by Gabriel Quintana off John Keck cutting the lead to 7-4.
Alving Mejias entered for Modesto and gave up doubles to all three batters he faced, and when Rayan Gonzalez was greeted by a bloop single, the Storm had come all the way back to forge a 7-7 tie.
The Nuts got homers from Pat Valaika and Jordan Ribera in a four-run third to take a 4-1 lead, added a run in the fourth on Valaika’s sacrifice fly and plated two more in the fifth when Dean Espy’s two-out RBI triple was followed by Sean Dwyer’s single for a 7-2 lead.
At that point, not only was Modesto cruising to an apparent victory, but was riding a streak in which it had collected hits in 13 straight innings against Lake Elsinore.
And then it all crumbled against the bullpen.
In the sixth through 13th innings, the Nuts managed only two hits against the Storm bullpen, after roughing up starter Bryce Morrow for 12 hits and seven runs.
NUTS NOTES: This was Modesto’s third extra-inning game of the season, a league low, and the Nuts are 0-3, leaving them as the only Cal League team without an extra-inning victory. On the other side, Lake Elsinore is a league-best 9-2 in extended games ... Ribera’s home run was his fourth overall and second at home, but his first that cleared the fence at John Thurman Field. He had an inside-the-parj homer April 24 against Bakersfield.