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Despite injuries, defending Cal League champion Modesto Nuts clinch playoff spot
Modesto Nuts
After leading the California League in nearly all offensive categories through the first three months of the 2024 season with the Modesto Nuts, Seattle Mariners top prospect and fan favorite outfielder Lazaro Montes was promoted to High-A Everett on Tuesday morning (DAN ROGERS/@DopeShotDan).

For the second straight season, there will be playoff baseball played in Stanislaus County come September.

On June 16, the Modesto Nuts, the Seattle Mariners’ Single-A affiliate, clinched the California League’s North Division first-half title with a 15-3 win against the Visalia Rawhide, the Single-A squad of the Arizona Diamondbacks. After wrapping up a six-game series with the San Jose Giants this weekend, the Nuts finished the half with a 41-23 record, 3.5 games ahead of the second-place Fresno Grizzlies (Colorado Rockies).

It was widely expected for the Nuts to dominate the first half of the 2024 campaign considering their Opening Day lineup consisted of three 2023 first-round picks in Colt Emerson (Rd.1 #22), Jonny Farmelo (PPI #29) and Tai Peete (CB-A #30), and three other organizational top prospects per MLB Pipeline in Lazaro Montes (4), Michael Arroyo (9) and Aidan Smith (14). But before long, the roster was depleted by injuries.

Emerson was placed on the injured list on May 21 with a fractured foot and is expected to be out for at least another month. In his 19 games, the 18-year-old slashed .271/.441/.414/.855 and drove in 14.On June 15, the Mariners announced that the 19-year-old Farmelo would miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. He had a .264 average with 17 extra-base hits, including a league-high 10 triples and four homers while driving in 25 from the leadoff spot.

Nevertheless, the offense remained a force to be reckoned with, many thanks to Montes, Smith and Arroyo.

"It’s obviously tough to see some of our guys go down and to be without them, but at the same time I’m excited for the guys in our clubhouse and the opportunities they’ll get,” said second year manager Zach Vincej. “These guys are ready and they'll make sure we don't miss a beat as a team."

Smith, a third round pick in last year’s draft, has hit just .249 in 225 at-bats over 59 games this season, but has come up big, driving in 31 runs. The 19-year-old has also displayed patience at the plate, drawing 38 walks and pressuring opposing pitchers with 18 stolen bases.

“It’s pretty fun to have a guy like Lazaro Montes hitting behind you,” Smith joked. “I just get on base and let him drive me in.”

Montes, also 19, has quite literally been Modesto’s biggest star. Standing 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, the Cuban outfielder slashed .309/.411/.527/.938 in 65 games. Of his 79 hits, 10 were doubles and 6 were home runs. The fan favorite who also seemed to make time for fans before and after games drove in a league-high 72 runs. As for the 19-year-old Arroyo out of Colombia, he had a .279 average in 244 at-bats over 60 games. 11 of his 68 hits were home runs.

The offensive dominance of Montes and Arroyo forced the hand of the Mariners organization on Tuesday morning as they announced that the duo were promoted to High-A Everett (Washington). 

Recent call-ups to Modesto from the Arizona Complex League are Carlos Jimenez and Jarrod Belbin. Jimenez, a 21-year-old outfielder out of the Dominican Republic, led the Complex League in hits (36), average (.391), OBP (.509), slugging (.509) and runs (29). In Thursday’s 11-8 loss to San Jose, he introduced himself to the John Thurman Field faithful by making a diving catch in center field. Belbin, 24, comes to Modesto from Melbourne, Australia. The first baseman had a .347 average (43-for-124) and 33 RBI in 32 ACL games.

On the pitching side of things, the Nuts have leaned on front-end rotation arms Will Schomberg, Tyler Gough and Ashton Izzi. Schomberg, despite going undrafted last year, has achieved a 6-1 record and a 2.62 ERA over 65 1/3 innings for the Nuts. The 23-year-old right-hander out of Davidson has struck out a team-high 89 batters. Gough, a 20-year-old San Diegan and this year’s Opening Day starter, has a 6-2 record and a 2.82 ERA in 58 innings while striking out 70. The righty Izzi, also 20, has a 5-3 record and is top ten amongst starters in the California League with a 2.69 ERA.

On Tuesday, the Nuts kicked off their first six-game series of the second half against the Stockton Ports at Banner Island Ballpark.

The first game of the California League North Division Series, a best-of-three set against the second-half North champion, is slated for Tuesday, Sept. 10. In the event the Nuts also win the second half, the club with the next best winning percentage in the second half will advance. The divisional round will be followed by a best-of-three Championship Series against the South Division champion.