Sports

Unseasoned Nuts

Jeff Kindel looks around the room and sees a lot of teammates sharing his attitude of wonder about this whole playoff thing.

Closer Tomas Santiago and catcher Neil Wilson are the only Modesto Nuts who have seen the postseason while in the Colorado Rockies organization.

So while the Nuts have worked hard as a team since March to turn themselves into winners, few players really know the feeling they will get when stepping on the field tonight for Game 1 of their first-round series against Visalia.

"I really don't know yet how we're going to approach this, and I don't think we'll know until we get there," said Kindel, the Nuts first baseman who played in the College World Series with Georgia Tech.

"I would treat it as a new season, just like we did in college with the regional, super regional and College World Series.

"Every game matters."

Indeed. The postseason could be as short as two games for the Nuts, or it could extend through 13 games and end Monday, Sept. 17, in a Game 5 of the League Championship Series. If the Nuts advance to that point, the California League's ultimate game would be played at John Thurman Field.

The championship ring would be nice. But even if the Nuts stumble to an early exit, Kindel has enjoyed one of the Colorado organization's breakout seasons, hitting .317 with 14 homers and 83 RBIs.

He hit a solid .278 in the first half, but when the Nuts' attack began to warm early in the second half, Kindel took off. He hit .417 in July and .370 in August, putting together a 26-game hitting streak that was the second-longest this season in the California League.

Even when the hitting streak ended, Kindel was an offensive force, reaching base safely in 50 consecutive games. That streak, which ended Aug. 29, was the longest this season in all of minor league baseball.

"I'd call him a late-bloomer as a hitter and he's just now coming into his own," said Nuts hitting coach Dave Hajek. "You can really see his confidence in the second half, like a lot of the guys here. He's allowed the game to come to him.

"I believe his power will come. He has a wiry frame that will hold more size as he gets older. I'm a believer that you become a good hitter first, and then a power hitter."

Four years ago, the thought of Kindel emerging as a major league prospect at first base was unthinkable.

Kindel, who turned 24 on Saturday, grew up a pitcher in Marietta, Ga., where his father was a police officer and mother was a schoolteacher. He went to Georgia Tech as a pitcher, getting into 15 games as a freshman in 2002.

"Going into my freshman year, I was going to pitch and hit, but I pitched really well in the fall season and I was the first reliever," Kindel said. "I stuck with pitching as a sophomore, but things didn't work out."

He redshirted in 2003, and did not get into a game as a pitcher during the 2004 season. But late that season, during a blowout win, Kindel's fortunes changed.

"There was a game when we were beating a team 25-2 or something like that," he said. "They put some pitchers up to hit just to get some outs and get the game over, and I got two hits. Since I wasn't pitching at the time,they told me to grab a bat. I've been a hitter since then."

Georgia Tech moved Kindel to right field, where he hit .359 with six homers and 59 RBIs to earn second-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors. He followed that up by hitting .337 with 14 homers and 55 RBIs as a senior co-captain in 2006, ending his career at the College World Series. He was drafted in the 14th round by the Rockies.

Colorado saw a first baseman in the 6-foot-3, 210-pound left-hander, and sent him to short-season Tri-City. He hit .287 in 47 games, with a homer and 30 RBIs, then made the jump to High-A this season.

Don't take that last fact too lightly. Not only is the talent level in the California League much higher than that in the Northwest League, but this is Kindel's first full professional season -- his first taste of the 140-game everyday grind -- which makes his second-half numbers that much more exceptional.

"When you're in the game, you're never tired at the plate," Kindel said. "There are days when your bat may be dragging in batting practice, or maybe your swing doesn't feel good. But I've been able to keep a consistent approach in batting practice and take that into the game, where it's paid off."

Starting tonight, Kindel and the Nuts are looking at a chance for a large payoff. It's non-financial, since the players simply have their $1,050 monthly stipend extended for as along as they stay alive in the postseason.

No, the ring's the thing. And even more than that, it's earning the feeling of accomplishment that successful teams share, no matter the sport or level.

And Kindel can't wait.

"I know there are a lot of guys in here who have never experienced the playoffs, but I have a feeling we're not going to be too nervous," Kindel said. "We have (Brandon) Hynick pitching in Game 1 and Alan Johnson in Game 2, and I'll take my chances playing behind those guys every day."

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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