Shortly before noon yesterday, and Matt Capps was getting ready for another potentially long, lonely day as the Pirates' closer. He affixed his cap, thumped his glove and began a playful dash out of the clubhouse toward the PNC Park diamond.
Why the visible rush?
"I just want to pitch today," he replied with the familiar smile. "I'm ready."
Such is the life of the Maytag repairman of Major League Baseball: He always has to be ready, in the odd event the phone rings. And nothing less than perfection is expected.
Alas, the bullpen phone did ring a few hours later, and Capps followed the script in the Pirates' 6-4 edging of the Arizona Diamondbacks: He allowed a soft two-out single to Augie Ojeda, then got Orlando Hudson to ground out and shook hands after his 14th save in as many opportunities.
But who noticed?
- Game: Pirates vs. Arizona Diamondbacks, 12:35 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV/Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Zach Duke (3-4, 4.19) vs. LHP Randy Johnson (4-2, 3.88).
- Key matchup: It is always a big test against the Big Unit. In 14 meetings with Johnson, the Pirates are 9-5 with a .204 average, 141 strikeouts and 19 walks.
- Of note: The Pirates now are 6-0 when wearing the pinstripes they wore yesterday.
The 22,222 likely paid more heed to Phil Dumatrait turning in another solid start, with two runs over 5 2/3 innings. Or Jason Bay's two-run double that capped a five-run fourth inning. Or quality defense from corner infielders Adam LaRoche and Jose Bautista. Or LaRoche shrugging off a 4-for-39 slide to go 3 for 4.
But there was this element to the game, too: It never fully felt within the Pirates' grasp until the final out. And that is how Capps, as usual, made his mark.
A quick rewind ...
The Pirates trailed, 1-0, before chasing Arizona starter Doug Davis with the big fourth. That began with back-to-back doubles by LaRoche and Bautista and continued with an RBI single by Raul Chavez, a sacrifice fly by Jack Wilson and Bay whacking a two-out full-count slider into the left-field corner to put the home side ahead, 5-1.
In the Diamondbacks' next turn, though, Mark Reynolds took Dumatrait deep, and it was 5-2.
In the sixth, there was more trouble when Dumatrait was pulled with two aboard and two outs. Tyler Yates entered and walked his first batter to load the bases, then went 2-0 on Reynolds.
Yates felt home plate umpire Jerry Meals was not giving him strikes at the knees, and Chavez, noticing this, visited the mound.
"Raul told me to keep throwing the same pitch," Yates recalled.
So, Yates did. After a ball ran the count to 3-0, he fired two strikes and got a groundout to strand everyone.
Still, no time to exhale.
Wilson's RBI single in the bottom half made it 6-2, but Damaso Marte found trouble in the seventh with two walks. He escaped.
In the eighth, Franquelis Osoria gave up another Reynolds home run, this a two-run shot that made it 6-4. He needed John Grabow to finish the inning.
Enter Capps for the ninth.
"Seeing him come in, that's just the best feeling on our side," Dumatrait said. "You give him a lead, and you feel comfortable."
There is cause for that:
• Capps is one of three closers in the majors with double-digit saves who has yet to blow one. The Philadelphia Phillies' Brad Lidge is 17 for 17, the New York Yankees' legendary Mariano Rivera 16 for 16.
• Since becoming the Pirates' closer June 1, 2007, Capps has converted 32 of 34 save opportunities. Only Rivera has a better rate in that span, at 41 of 43.
• In a key variable for any closer, Capps has retired the first batter faced 19 of 26 times, including a swinging strikeout of Stephen Drew yesterday on a 92-mph fastball that crackled upon hitting Chavez's mitt.
• In another key variable, since walking two in the season opener, he has issued one walk in 102 official at-bats.
• Opponents are batting .235, with one home run.
The list of superlatives goes on, but what undermines all of the above is the one statistic he cannot control: His 14 save opportunities rank 23rd among the majors' closers, and the Pirates' 17 total opportunities rank 29th of the 30 teams. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers have fewer, at 16.
Largely because of starting pitching that was miserable until the past week, Capps could go several days at a time without a meaningful appearance. And still, somehow, he would look no less sharp for the layoff.
"That's the thing that stands out," manager John Russell said. "He works really hard everyday, with his conditioning and throwing. And he's got that chip, too."
"When he gets out there, it's his inning. It's his game. That's what the good closers do. And this guy, he's done a phenomenal job."
Russell also pointed out, as has pitching coach Jeff Andrews, that Capps now is a more complete pitcher for having developed a changeup in spring training. That is especially true, they say, since he had to pitch three innings May 24 in that 14-inning victory against the Chicago Cubs.
"He was forced to use everything," Russell said, "and that's really helped him feel good about his other pitches."
Capps' explanation for his preparedness is simple.
"I come in every day believing we're going to win, to be honest," he said. "I do want to play every day. I understand, with my job, that there will be a lot of days that I don't. But the competitiveness in me is there every day."
Sometimes, as he confessed, he can carry it too far.
"It's funny, but I find myself ... well, you don't ever want your own guys to do badly but, if we've got a three-run lead, I don't want us to score the fourth."
A save can be registered only with a lead of three or fewer runs. Without a save opportunity, Russell might summon someone else.
"It's a little selfish, but ... hey, I just want to pitch."
Which explains why, particularly on this day where Reynolds' second home run forced the save issue, he was smiling wider than usual.
"It's a good day for me. I got in there, and we won the ballgame."
No fluke there, either: The Pirates now are 21-5 when he pitches.
Today, they will try for a split of the four-game set with first-place Arizona.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com . First Published June 9, 2008 4:00 AM