After the Modesto Nuts' stumble down the stretch cost them a chance at a first-half title, the team was in search of positives to carry it through the All-Star break and into the second half.
And with back-to-back wins to close out the half, including Sunday afternoon's 6-2 victory over Lancaster on the strength of the pitching of Cory Riordan and a five-run first inning, the reasons for the Nuts to feel good about themselves are plentiful.
In a Nutshell, here is what is going right for Modesto entering its three-day, mid-season break.
They finished the first half in second place with a 40-30 record -- the first time since Modesto became a Colorado affiliate in 2005 that they've won as many as 40 games before the break.
The good vibes extend into the stands, where Sunday's gathering of 1,637 pushed the team to 90,567 for the season -- the first time Modesto has ever drawn 90,000 fans in the first half. Their average of 2,664 per date is 320 fans (13.7 percent) over last year's record average.
The offense has improved to a point where the team ranks not at the bottom, but near the middle of the California League in batting average and runs scored.
The pitching, which has been the strength of this team since opening night, remains at or near the top of the league in every category.
And since pitching will remain key for the Nuts in the second half, the emergence of Riordan and Craig Baker -- both of whom pitched on Sunday -- will be a story to follow.
Riordan was the weakest of the Nuts starters in April and May, going 1-4 with a 6.26 ERA while averaging barely five innings per start.
But Sunday, he allowed one earned run in 8ª innings -- only the second earned run he's given up this month in four starts. For June, Riordan went 3-1 with a 0.62 ERA, giving up 23 hits against four walks and 23 strikeouts in 29º innings.
On Sunday, that run came on three hits in the ninth inning as Riordan took a shot at throwing the Nuts' first complete game this season.
Baker -- Modesto's lone participant in Tuesday's all-star game in Lake Elsinore -- came on with two runners aboard and got out of the jam on a strikeout and a ground ball to earn his 20th save in 20 tries. He's the first Modesto pitcher ever to notch 20 saves in a half and is nine saves short of Jim Brink's 1999 team record of 29.
So as the team devoured the post-game clubhouse spread and chatted about their plans for the break, there were plenty of smiles to go around.
"Overall, I think this is a maximum-effort group in terms of preparation and during the game," said manager Jerry Weinstein. "Winning 40 games is the reward for that."
Sunday brought a rare take-control first inning for the Nuts. Two walks were followed by RBI singles from Matt Repec and Lars Davis, a two-run triple by Maikol Gonzalez and a run-scoring wild pitch.
Riordan made sure those five runs would hold up. He allowed an unearned run in the second inning, but cruised from there into the ninth.
"I had 25 pitches left going into the eighth, so I needed to be economical if I wanted to pitch the ninth," said Riordan, who retired the JetHawks on six pitches in the eighth. "I went out there throwing strikes, and they got good wood on me in the ninth. I'm just happy we got the win and Baker closed it out for us."
And Baker, making plans to get to Lake Elsinore for today's workouts and Tuesday's game, was happy to oblige.
"Saves is a team stat, and I'm happy with 20 as I'm sure the rest of the guys in here are happy," Baker said. "The best part about a save is that it means it means we won those games."
Modesto added a run in the eighth when Jeff Cunningham's two-out single was followed by Michael Mitchell's double -- giving the Nuts yet another morale boost to take into the break.
"Forty wins is a good benchmark and it means we played good baseball," Riordan said. "San Jose just beat us by two games and we're looking forward to coming out in the second half and making the playoffs."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.