The Nuts asked Alan Johnson to be a stopper Friday night, but as he completed his warm-ups, the Nuts right-hander wasn't sure if he could even be a starter.
"Warming up, I didn't think I had it tonight," Johnson said. "I didn't have my legs under me until the fourth inning, and coming out of the bullpen, I went up to (catcher) Nelson Robledo and told him to just stay with me.
"It worked out."
Eight gutsy innings later, Johnson was safely in the dugout as the Nuts scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth to post a 6-3 victory over Visalia.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Modesto Bee
It was a big win for the Nuts on two fronts. Modesto now holds a three-game lead over both Visalia and San Jose in the race for the second-half crown in the California League's North Division.
It also comes on the heels of back-to-back sloppy losses at Stockton that threatened to take the edge off July's shining accomplishments.
"July was by far the best we've played all year," said Johnson (11-5). "You always want to carry that over to the next month, but it's so hard to keep up the intensity. We know we're not going to be great every game, so we're OK just as long as it's not a string of games."
The Nuts got a lot of help in the eighth inning from the Oaks, who kept pace with Modesto through July's hot streak, and whose starter Adam Howard (3-2) more than matched Johnson through seven innings.
Eric Young Jr. led off the eighth with a bouncer up the middle that was scooped by shortstop Derek Bruce, but thrown away at first base, allowing Young to take second. One out later, Justin Nelson was intentionally walked, and both runners moved up on a ground ball against reliever Vince Bongiovanni.
Jose Valdez was walked to load the bases, and the go-ahead run scored when Orlando Mercado was called for catcher's interference on Kyle Blumenthal's swing. With the bases still loaded, Nick Haley's line drive up the middle caromed off Bongiovanni and into right field for a two-run single — the only hit of the inning.
Johnson, the league's fourth 11-game winner, was not sharp early. He allowed four hits in the first, but a double play limited the Oaks' output to two runs — both coming on a long home run to right by Brandon Burgess.
He gave up two more hits in the second, but allowed only four more the rest of the way to give the Nuts a chance to rally.
"Early on I was trying to figure out why I was pitching only with my arm," Johnson said. "I got through it by throwing changeups, and they started rolling over on it and hitting ground balls. That was about my only pitch until I got my legs, and then I was able to go at them with hard stuff later in the game."
The Nuts pecked away with runs in the second and fourth, then took a 3-2 lead in the sixth when Justin Nelson doubled, took third on Carte's sacrifice bunt and scored on a single by Valdez. Visalia tied the game 3-3 in the seventh on a two-out single by Bruce and Bryan Byrne's double to left.
But all that did was set the stage for the eighth-inning uprising that snapped Modesto's first two-game losing streak since July 12-13, also ending a two-game stretch of sloppy play.
"Sharp baseball always is based on the starting pitching because they give you a chance to settle in on offense and defense," said Nuts manager Jerry Weinstein, who seemed surprised to hear that Johnson was struggling with his legs in the early innings.
"He was?" Weinstein said. "Well, he found them."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or at 578-2300.