BY JOE CONROY Special to the Californian
The Bakersfield Blaze hadn't taken the field for nearly a week and the franchise hadn't seen playoff baseball in three years, but you wouldn't know it from Saturday night's California League Division Finals opener.
In the first postseason play Sam Lynn Ballpark has seen since 2009, Bakersfield smacked a pair of home runs among six hits to defeat Modesto 5-4 and take a 1-0 lead in the five-game series.
Searching for its first league title since 1989, Bakersfield jumped all over Modesto starting pitcher Kennil Gomez early and often, scoring four runs in the first three innings.
Shortstop Devin Lohman ignited the offense by slugging a one-out offering from the right-hander for a no-doubt solo shot to center field in the first inning. Then, No. 9 hitter Chris Berset lined an RBI-single to right over a drawn-in infield to plate Ryan Wright in the second. The catcher would later score on a wild pitch.
Travis Mattair added to the Blaze's total with a homer in the third, a blast that landed in an almost identical spot to Lohman's.
Trailing 4-1 in the fifth, the North Division's second-half champs countered Bakersfield with a two-run frame that included a run-scoring triple by center fielder Rafael Ortega, who later scored on a Blaze throwing error. The Nuts tied the game an inning later on Jayson Langfels' first homer of the postseason.
But Blaze leadoff hitter Theo Bowe would untie the game in the seventh with an RBI-double to left center that sliced just out of Ortega's reach to find outfield turf.
Modesto threatened to tie the game again in the ninth against Bakersfield closer Carlos Contreras, sending a runner to third with two out. Contreras then snagged a bullet off the bat of Dustin Garneau to spectacularly end the game.
The Nuts similarly dropped the first game of the first-round mini-series against the San Jose Giants, rebounding to win the next two to advance.
Bakersfield had six off days leading up to Game 1 of the Division Finals, having earned a first-round bye as the California League first-half North Division champs.
And the Blaze weren't the only winners to appear on the field.
Jake Varner, Olympic gold medalist in wrestling and Bakersfield High alum, threw out the ceremonial first pitch and then stuck around the park to sign autographs, taking in the game.
Even the grappler's toss was straight and true, reaching the plate with no problem.
Bakersfield will again host Modesto today at 1:15 p.m. The Blaze will send right hander Tim Crabbe (5-2, 3.28 ERA in the regular season) to the mound against right-hander Juan Gonzalez (6-13, 6.03). Bakersfield has a four-game winning streak.