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Blaze enters playoffs off a strong finish

By MIKE READLING

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 5, 2001


If this weekend was a California League playoff precursor, the Bakersfield Blaze should feel pretty good.

The Blaze split a four-game series with the San Jose Giants, which won the North Division with a 4-3 win Sunday. Bakersfield opens today at Mudville, with the winner of the best-of-three series facing the Giants in a best-of-five.

If there is anything negative to draw from the season-ending showdown, it's Bakersfield saw its six-game winning streak end as San Jose took the final two.

Bakersfield finished 71-69, racked up its second-best hit total in franchise history (behind the 1970 Bakersfield Dodgers) and saw Matt Diaz and Nate Kaup contend for the batting crown.

TOE-TALS: It took him time to adjust to his first pro season, but Princeton's Toe Nash finished with decent numbers.

Nash, plucked from the sugarcane fields of Louisiana and billed as the Rays' big find of the offseason, batted .240 with eight home runs and 29 RBI. As expected, the 6-foot-5 outfielder struggled at first and ended with 69 strikeouts in 171 at-bats.

Nash will be joining Rays minor-leaguers at the Raymond J. Naimoli Complex in St. Petersburg for instructional league beginning Sept. 17.

HAPPY RETURNS: While Bakersfield was priming for its playoff run, Blaze pitcher Tim Coward was just happy to be on the mound.

Coward, a 14th-round pick in 2000, returned from a shoulder injury to pitch Sunday for the first time since Aug. 1. The 22-year-old pitched his two scheduled innings, allowing one hit and striking out two.

After being promoted from Charleston, Coward was 2-2 with a 2.00 ERA. In 671/3 innings he struck out 65, walked 22 and allowed 59 hits.

The one rough patch came after his promotion April 19, when he had a 6.00 ERA after two games with Bakersfield. Coward came on strong and finished May with a 1.13 ERA, walking nine and striking out 24 en route to being named organizational pitcher of the month.

MAKING A NAME: While Nash garnered the preseason attention in Princeton, it was outfielder Jonny Gomes who raised eyebrows once the season started.

Gomes, the Appalachian League MVP, batted .291 with 16 homers.

PASSING POSSUM: Durham's 5-2 win over Charlotte on Sunday moved manager Bill Evers into first place on the Bulls' all-time win list with 318 wins. Evers' record of 318-255 in just under four full seasons put him ahead of George "Possum" Whitted, who was 317-405 in five-plus seasons ending in 1932.

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