In 2004, the Modesto A's said goodbye with a California League Championship. In 2005, the Colorado Rockies came to town and the Modesto Nuts were born. It was the beginning of a very fruitful 12-year partnership with multiple MLB All-Stars coming through the Central Valley, but Nuts Nation was unfulfilled.
Plenty of people will tell you that winning in the minor leagues does not matter. After all, many of the prospects that played to a 170-250 record from 2014-2016 are now making a name for themselves in The Show. That ambivalence may describe other fan bases, but it is not representative of Nuts fans. They longed for a winning team and were ecstatic to hear Seattle Mariners Director of Player Development Andy McKay say, "We do not believe winning and development are two separate things," during the introductory press conference in September of 2016. "The number one criteria for developing a baseball player is to develop a winning culture." The Sacramento native went on, "We're trying to win championships in the major leagues so why aren't we trying to win championships in the minor leagues?"
Nuts fans were rightfully optimistic about the 2017 season when Mitch Canham was named manager. "Hands down, Mitch is one of, if not the best, leaders I've ever been around in my life," McKay explained during a midsummer pregame interview with the Nuts' radio voice, Keaton Gillogly.
Canham and his squad entered 2017 with a chip on their shoulder. After producing the winningest season in the over 90-year history of the Clinton LumberKings, his squad fell to the Dodgers farm team in the Midwest League Championship Series. Right away, Canham, his staff, and his players spoke openly of that heartbreak and their desire to bring Nuts Nation their first title and the ninth in franchise history.
The path to the postseason had its share of bumps along the road. The Nuts had to fend off a late surge by the Stockton Ports to secure their first First-Half Championship since 2004. After a roaring start to the second half,the Nuts caught their first slump when they went 6-18 in the middle of the second half. Despite the struggles, Modesto finished strongly and clinched the best record in the North.
Through those struggles came a resilient squad ready to attack the postseason. "The men are doing a really good job of focusing on the positives," Canham explained during a postseason pregame interview. "[They're not looking at] a challenge in front of them or a hardship, but [viewing it] as an opportunity to get better and to grow."
That positive mindset proved vital to the Nuts' preparation for the Stockton Ports in the Divisional Finals. Modesto went just 12-17 against the Ports during the year without winning any of the seven regular-season series.
Game one began as a pitcher's duel with Nathan Bannister retiring the first 12 batters he faced. After the Ports took a slim one-run lead in the top of the fifth, Jordan Cowan blasted the go-ahead, three-run home run in the bottom of fifth to propel the Nuts to their first postseason victory since 2012. One win down, five to go.
The Nuts jumped out to an early lead in game two taking advantage of two errors to plate four unearned runs. From there, the Nuts' offense turned the game into a blowout winning 11-5. Two wins down, four to go.
With three days off after the sweep, the Nuts' offense picked up right where they left off by exploding for 13 runs to back up six shutout innings from Nathan Bannister. Four wins down, two to go.
Game two provided the most dramatic game of the Nuts' postseason run. It was the first and only game in which the Nuts' opponent struck first. Garret Hampson delivered a lead-off home run before Eric Filia put the Nuts in front in the third with the first of his two home runs that night.
Heading into the ninth, the Nuts sent their all-star closer, Matt Festa, to the mound with a three-run lead. The JetHawks came back to tie the game on Scott Burcham's two-run double in the ninth to put the potential winning run at third base with nobody out. Canham stuck with Festa who eventually stranded the bases loaded to get the game into extra innings.
After the Nuts dodged more trouble in the tenth, Jordan Cowan smashed the go-ahead three-run homer to send the series back to Modesto with three tries to clinch the title. After launching just two home runs during the regular season, it was Cowan's second go-ahead dinger of the postseason.
In front of a home crowd of more than 3,000 for game three, the Nuts jumped on the JetHawks right away with two runs in the first inning. Robert Dugger earned the start for the Nuts and surrendered just one run on an RBI infield single over 5 2/3 innings of work. Even with the Nuts' early offense, the game stayed tight until the seventh inning.
The offense continued to carry Modesto in game three to complete the sweep of the Ports. Joe DeCarlo smashed a three-run homer and opened a 6-0 lead after just three innings. In all, the Nuts batted .305 as a team and scored almost eight runs per game to punch their ticket into the California League Championship Series for the first time since 2012. Three wins down, three to go.
Three singles and an error brought in an insurance run before Arturo Nieto smashed the party-starting, three-run home run to open an 8-1 lead. The Nuts' bullpen was lights out allowing just two hits with seven strikeouts over the final 3 1/3 innings.
Art Warren struck out a former member of the Nuts, Wes Rogers, for the 27th and final out to clinch the first title of the Nuts' 13-year history and the ninth in franchise history.
After their 6-0 run through the postseason Canham spoke on the field with emcee Natalie Winters about this collection of players. "I have never seen a group of men prepare this hard all year. I wouldn't call this a team I'd call this a family," stated Canham "They pull for one another. They push for each other. This is a very special group."
After the first perfect postseason in the last 20 years of the California League playoffs, the page turns to 2018. The roster is different but the majority of the coaching staff of that special group has returned to Modesto for their second season with the focus turning from ending the championship drought to defending their California League Championship.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.