The Modesto Nuts have had since September to revel in their 2017 California League Championship Series win, but the team is ready to turn the page and focus on a new season of baseball beginning this week.
It was less than seven months ago that Modesto completed a perfect 6-0 run to capture the team’s first pennant since 2004, ending their success with an 8-1 victory over the Lancaster JetHawks. Entering its second season as the High-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, Modesto will travel to Lancaster to once again face the JetHawks for the season’s Opening Night on Thursday.
Nuts Manager Mitch Canham, who was named the 2017 California League Manager of the Year following last year’s successful season, anticipates this season’s group can once again top the standings if they focus on the basics.
“We’re going to continue to do the same things as far as our work ethic, our attention to detail and a family environment,” Canham said. “A vast majority of these guys are new to being a Modesto Nut, and a handful are new to being a Seattle Mariner, so this is going to be an exciting year as far as having a new group and starting a new season.”
Just five players from the Nuts’ 2017 championship squad are returning this season, including 20-year-old Joe Rizzo, the MVP of the California League Championship. Rizzo is ranked as the sixth best prospect in the Mariners organization according to MLB.com, and made an impression in 2017 by joining the Nuts with just five games left in the regular season. After going 4-20 at the plate during that time, Rizzo batted .421 in the postseason while driving in six runs.
Returning with Rizzo to man the Nuts’ infield are Donnie Walton and Kevin Santa, and San Jose native Bryson Brigman is sure to stand out among the new faces on the infield after spending all of last year with the Clinton LumberKings in Iowa.
The cold weather in Clinton took some adjusting, Brigman said, and he’s happy to be back in California. He’s even familiar with the area, too, he said, having played some youth baseball at Rainbow Fields in Riverbank.
“I wanted to be back in California – I feel comfortable here,” he said. “I’ve heard good things about the team and obviously they really good last year, so hopefully it can be the same this year.”
From what he’s seen of his new team so far, Brigman believes they could go all the way to the championship again this year.
“A majority of us were together during our spring training workouts and during our games, we were really good,” Brigman said. “These guys care, and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun playing with these guys. I’m looking forward to it.”
Canham said fans this season can expect to see a team that competes to the best of their ability every pitch. While the team has play-related strengths that can put them ahead of their opponents this season, like a versatile roster with players that can play various positions and a knowledgeable pitching staff, Canham believes the team’s number one advantage is its chemistry.
“If you watch these guys for more than five minutes, you can see they have a lot of fun together. I think the brotherhood is very strong with this group,” Canham said. “They’re able to joke around, but always hold each other accountable.”
The Nuts’ 2018 starting rotation is highlighted by experience. John Richy is new to John Thurman Field’s mound this year, making his Mariners debut after reaching as high as AAA with the Phillies. 21-year-old Ljay Newsome is the youngest member of the rotation and made 25 starts in Clinton last year, finishing the season with a 3.01 ERA over his final ten starts.
“Our pitchers are well-informed and know how to control the strike zone,” Canham said.
As the 2018 Modesto Nuts prepare for the start of their season on Thursday, the team’s lone returning outfielder Logan Taylor and other returners are working to make newcomers adjust to the Central Valley. Whether its how to get a read on the ball in their new stadium or the best places to eat in town, the new Nuts can count on their teammates to show them the ropes.
“Any way I can help these guys, I’ll help them,” Taylor said. “We’ll show them where the good spots are at, which ones to avoid and all that good stuff.”
In between sightseeing in Modesto, however, the Nuts have one thing on their mind.
“It’s a new team, but the end goal is the same,” Taylor said. “We’d obviously like to dogpile after a win at the end of the year, but we’re just going to play for each other like the previous team did and see where it takes us.”
The Modesto Nuts start their 2018 campaign in Lancaster against the JetHawks on Thursday. Their first home game at John Thurman Field is set for 7:05 p.m. April 12 against the Visalia Rawhide. Tickets for the home opener and any of the 70 home games this season are available for purchase online at www.modestonuts.com or by calling the Nuts' box office at 209-572-HITS (4487).