Nuts open important home series tonight against Bakersfield

The Modesto Nuts no longer have a chance to grab the first-half title, yet much remains at stake as the California League team hits the midway point of the season.

Coming off Wednesday's 4-3 10th-inning loss at Visalia, the Nuts will be looking to put space between themselves at the rest of the North Division as they play five games in three nights at John Thurman Field against Bakersfield.

San Jose clinched its unprecedented sixth straight first-half divisional crown on Tuesday, while Lake Elsinore wrapped up its first first-half South Division crown since 2001 on the same night.

The first-half championship is the California League's golden ring, with the bearer receiving a first-round bye in September's playoffs plus home-field advantage and guaranteed weekend home games in the best-of-five second round.

The last North Division team other than San Jose to win a first-half title was the 2004 Modesto A's, who used that homefield divisional advantage to defeat the Giants in a decisive Game 5 en route to the franchise's only league title since 1984.

With half the divisional series participants already locked-in, the other eight teams will be jockeying the rest of the season for the second-half title or a top overall record. Either would be their ticket to a first-round playoff berth.

And that's where the Nuts' series against the Blaze becomes important. Modesto has dominated the Blaze this season, winning all seven meetings. By winning three of the games in the weekend series, Modesto could put a 10-game cushion between itself and Bakersfield — a significant cushion heading into the second half.

Tonight's game is a 7:05 p.m. start, with $1 sodas and draft beers available until 8 p.m. The doubleheaders on Friday and Saturday all will be seven-inning affairs, with fireworks following the second game on both nights. A series of rainouts in April forced these twin bills.

Fireworks continue to be a solid drawing card for the Nuts, who are maintaining a record pace at the gate and are well on their way to setting a franchise attendance record for the fourth straight season.

While California League attendance is virtually unchanged from 2009, Modesto's per-game attendance is up a whopping 15.8 percent over last year and the team remains in second place in league average attendance at 3,032 per game.

Through 29 dates, the Nuts have drawn 87,943 fans to John Thurman Field, and with a strong showing this weekend could exceed 100,000 in first-half attendance for the first time in franchise history, despite losing three April dates to rainout.

In Wednesday's game, Ryan Wheeler hit a two-out home run off Michael Marbry in the bottom of the 10th in to lift the Rawhide.

NOTES: Turlock High's Tommy Mendonca continues to have trouble finding his groove at the plate for Bakersfield. The Texas Rangers' second-round pick in the 2009 draft comes into tonight's action hitting .228 with two homers and 21 RBIs, but is hitting .269 away from Bakersfield's Historic Sam Lynn Ballpark.

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at 578-2300 or