Freddy Sanchez scores ahead of a tag by Giants catcher Steve Holm in the third inning yesterday at PNC Park.
By Dejan Kovacevic Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Matt Capps got quite the alarming phone call from his father late Wednesday night.
"He asked me if my arm was hurt," the Pirates' closer recalled early yesterday morning at PNC Park. "I told him that, physically, I feel fine. But ... it's just not there."
The "it" in question was Capps' fastball, which checked in at a well-below-standard 88 mph Wednesday, when he allowed three hits on four pitches and barely clung to a save. Moreover, that velocity had been lagging for a couple weeks.
Red flags all around, right?
Not for long.
Capps climbed right back on the mound yesterday afternoon and pounded San Francisco's hitters with fastballs to finish off the Pirates' 5-4 victory, as well as a three-game sweep, while registering his eighth save in as many chances.
Game: Pirates vs. Atlanta Braves, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: RHP Ian Snell (2-2, 5.09) vs. LHP Tom Glavine (0-1, 4.50).
Key matchup: Everyone vs. Chipper Jones, owner of Major League Baseball's best average at .419, 16 multi-hit games, and 10 home runs.
Of note: The Braves, who lost two of three to the Pirates to open the season, have won a season-high six in a row, all at Turner Field. They are 14-4 at home, but only 4-11 on the road.
Adam LaRoche delivered the tiebreaking single as part of a three-run rally in the seventh to overtake the Giants. Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez chipped in that inning, too, each with his third hit.
Ultimately, though, it was up to Capps to protect that one-run lead in the ninth. And, to be sure, his "it" factor was very much in place: The upper extreme on his fastball was 93 mph, some of his best this season.
That included the heat he used to fan pinch-hitter John Bowker with the tying run at second and the crowd of 16,816 on its feet. This after Bowker fouled off three full-count pitches.
Capps, who threw 23 pitches in the inning, celebrated with an extra-animated fist pump.
"That felt better," he said afterward. "A lot better."
So, what had been amiss?
Capps' explanation is simple: His workload, with just 12 appearances in the first 31 games, had been much lighter than the past two seasons, when he ended up with 85 and 76.
The explanation for that is simple, too: Save opportunities are precious for the Pirates, and manager John Russell had tried to keep Capps available. Of late, though, he has used Capps more often in non-save situations, such as the 12-6 rout in the series opener. Capps' outing yesterday was his third in less than 72 hours.
"The ninth is a tough inning to pitch, and it's tough to maintain that sharpness if you're not out there for saves," Russell said. "Matt hasn't been seeing it regularly, so we're going to make sure he gets the action he needs."
Capps, predictably, maintained his poise throughout, even when his father raised the most uncomfortable topic any pitcher can discuss.
"I'm not panicked or worried about it, and I never was," Capps said. "You develop arm strength by throwing, and I haven't been doing that. Now, I will."
The Pirates took a 2-0 lead in the third on Ryan Doumit's two-run single, but starter Paul Maholm -- and some subpar defense -- allowed the Giants to go ahead, 4-2, in their next at-bat.
The inning included four hits, a walk, a misplay by Maholm on an infield single that he surely should have allowed to go by him to a teammate, plus a two-run double by Steve Holm that might have been an out had center fielder Nate McLouth not broken incorrectly.
Maholm was done after putting up zeroes in the fifth and sixth, charged with four runs on six hits and two walks.
One key negative to his line: He fell behind 19 of his 25 batters, this against the National League's weakest lineup, one that, on this day, featured a combined nine home runs ... including one by the pitcher.
"Overall, I was satisfied," Maholm said. "I thought I threw well and threw strikes. But give it to the offense. They came back."
His counterpart, Matt Cain, pitched into the seventh, which might have been an inning too long.
Pinch-hitter Nyjer Morgan led off with a bunt single up the third-base line, one he called on his own.
"Wet surface," Morgan said. "No-brainer."
He might have benefited, too, from a generous call by first base umpire Ron Kulpa, as the throw from Jose Castillo appeared to beat him.
"No doubt in my mind, he was out," San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy said.
Sanchez's ground-rule double put men at second and third, McLouth's sacrifice fly scored one run, and Bay's RBI double to the left-field corner tied it at 4-4.
That chased Cain, but the Pirates were not done.
After a second out, Xavier Nady was intentionally walked, and Jack Taschner's wild pitch gave each runner an extra base. LaRoche's liner narrowly eluded the diving reach of second baseman Eugenio Velez, and the Pirates had the 5-4 lead.
Taschner had followed a first-pitch strike with three consecutive balls, forcing him to throw a fastball down the middle.
"Just bad pitches. Horrible pitches," Taschner said. "Poorly executed. Terrible."
For Bay, 3 for 23 with runners in scoring position before that at-bat, and LaRoche, 7 for 34 in those situations, hitting in the clutch was quite the sight.
"I've hit a couple balls like that this year in big situations right at people. And that eats at you," LaRoche said. "I'm just getting to where I feel comfortable."
John Grabow put two aboard with two outs in the eighth, but Tyler Yates and third baseman Jose Bautista bailed him out, with Bautista making a terrific stop on pinch-hitter Bengie Molina's bouncer down the line to end the inning.
The Pirates have taken 13 of the past 15 meetings with San Francisco.