SAN JOSE -- The bunting was unfurled, the playoffs logos adorned the Municipal Stadium field, and everyone in the park enjoyed the feel-good vibe.
And there was no buzz-kill response from the Modesto Nuts.
San Jose rode almost game-long momentum Saturday night, ignited by starting pitcher Justin Fitzgerald, into a convincing 7-3 win. The Giants, the defending California League champions, lead the best-of-five North Division Final Series 1-0 in a game watched by Cal League Commissioner Charlie Blaney and a clapper-wielding crowd of 2,807.
The loss snapped an eight-game winning streak for Modesto, which trailed 5-0 after five innings. Fitzgerald (11-6), mixing his fastball and breaking pitches and throwing them all for strikes, retired 15 in a row between the second and the sixth innings. He struck out five and walked only one.
"He (Fitzgerald) was good. He located well," Modesto manager Jerry Weinstein said. "We didn't throw enough strikes."
The Nuts liked their chances, given their 11-4 edge over San Jose, the first time in seven years they beat San Jose in the season series. Unfortunately for them, that means nothing now, especially after starter Josh Sullivan (3-4) wild-pitched home a run in the first and yielded three more runs in the third.
Before the game was three innings old, the Giants touched Sullivan for four doubles and four runs. Not all were scorched -- two nestled safely among Nuts defenders in shallow center -- but all proved lethal. Jose Flores (3-for-5), the league's third-leading hitter, spiced the big third inning with an RBI double to left-center, and Charlie Culberson soon drove him home with a single.
San Jose stranded nine base-runners during the middle innings, so it could have been worse. Right fielder Jimmy Cesario's outstanding diving catch of Francisco Peguero's drive into foul ground with the bases-loaded in the fifth -- he dove onto the dirt and later received applause from the San Jose crowd for his effort -- kept Modesto in the neighborhood.
"I just like to go all out," Cesario said. "One of the best trademarks of this team is keep an even keel. Give him (Fitzgerald) and San Jose credit. They were the better team tonight. We'll be back, though."
Fitzgerald, a Santa Rosa product and former UC Davis pitcher, pauses at the top of his windup and clearly enjoys a comfort zone against the Nuts. He was 2-1 with a 2.18 ERA against Modesto going into the game, and Tim Wheeler's ground ball up the middle in the first was Modesto's only hit off him through the first six innings.
"This was a statement game for us," Fitzgerald said. "They had beaten us, they had swept Stockton and had won eight in a row. They were hot, so we had to send a message with our bats and arms."
Modesto finally solved Fitzgerald in the seventh. Mike Zuanich sent the inning's first pitch far over the wall in left for the Nuts' first run. One inning later off reliever Ryan Verdugo, Tim Wheeler crushed a two-run homer to right to bring the Nuts to within 5-3.
San Jose stabilized, however, on Brandon Crawford's bases-loaded double off Isaiah Froneberger. Giants closer Jose Casilla, all arms and legs, retired Modesto in order in the ninth.
The loss was Modesto's first in September which, by the way, is the reason the Nuts are still playing.
Said Weinstein, "It's only about the next game."
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.