No matter what it looked like, Matt Capps is not 100 percent.
After missing nearly two months of this season to shoulder trouble, the Pirates' closer still has to rear back for something extra just to reach his standard zip and, more often than he likes, has to lean on the slow stuff.
Still, somehow, in cementing his 20th save through a 6-4 victory against the Houston Astros last night at PNC Park, that rearing-back process was in full throttle.
"Capps was giving 'em the heat," fellow reliever Sean Burnett said. "He was way fired up."
"How 'bout the closer?" outfielder Nyjer Morgan said.
Capps' explanation began and ended with the capacity crowd of 36,621, which, though clearly lured by the postgame Lynyrd Skynyrd concert, offered him an uproarious welcome as he came out of the bullpen gate for the ninth inning to protect that two-run lead.
"It was just a fun feeling right off the bat," Capps said. "The electricity was just ... great. I can't even imagine what it would be like around here if we were in contention, playing for something."
Kazuo Matsui singled to lead off for Houston, but Capps quickly retired Michael Bourn and Miguel Tejada.
- Game: Pirates vs. Houston Astros, 1:35 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV/Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Ross Ohlendorf (0-2, 7.62) vs. RHP Roy Oswalt (15-10, 3.57).
- Key matchup: Ten days ago, the Pirates looked badly overmatched against Oswalt, who faced the minimum 27 batters in his three-hit shutout and 6-0 victory in Houston.
- Of note: The Pirates are one of just six teams in Major League Baseball guaranteed to finish with a losing home record. They are 39-41 at PNC Park.
Next was Lance Berkman, stunningly stuck in an 0-for-27 slump but still one of the National League's most respected hitters. It was there that Capps shifted gears: He got ahead, 1-2, using some not-so-special 91-mph fastballs, then reared back to find 95.
Just missed, outside corner.
"I have no idea how he took that pitch," Capps said.
Two more 95s and a changeup, and Berkman stubbornly fouled off all three before singling up the middle to put the tying run aboard.
Next was Geoff Blum, and Capps came with another 95 that Blum popped up near the left-field line. Looked like the most routine of plays, at least until everyone noticed that Morgan had been positioned all the way by the North Side Notch in left-center as part of the no-doubles defense.
Morgan, as few others in the National League could have, covered the ground, caught the ball and playfully leaped in celebration.
"Sure felt good to get there," Morgan said, grinning.
Capps and catcher Ryan Doumit shared a similarly spirited moment on the mound.
Perhaps no one could appreciate it all more than Burnett, who has spent more time in rehabilitation than all the rest of the Pirates' pitchers combined.
"It was the first time in Matt's career he was hurt, and he was having a heck of a year before that," Burnett said. "The frustrating part, if you're a competitor like Matt is and like I am, is that you want so badly to push it. But you have to patient."
In this game?
"He was pushing it."
Capps' 20 saves, 12th-most in the league, have come in just 25 opportunities, none since Sept. 3 until last night. He has made nine appearances since re-emerging from the disabled list Aug. 23, is 3 for 3 in saves and has been charged with four earned runs in 11 1/3 innings, with nine strikeouts and no walks.
"I did want to end this one with a strikeout," Capps said.
One other thing: Capps' overall 3.14 ERA is third-lowest of all closers with 20 or more saves, and his five walks -- none in his past 17 appearances -- are the fewest.
Nate McLouth's first-inning single brought his 94th RBI, and Doumit rapped a two-run double for the first of his three hits. Brandon Moss tripled to drive in Doumit, then scored on Andy LaRoche's sacrifice fly for an instant 5-0 lead.
Houston manager Cecil Cooper, whose team's 1-6 plunge has all but pulled on wild-card contention, pulled Brian Moehler after one inning, but the Pirates got another in the second off Joe Borkowski on another Doumit RBI double.
Jimmy Barthmaier, making his second major league start, fared better than his disastrous debut June 27: He lasted just three innings and allowed his first two batters to reach in each, but he mostly tidied up in limiting the damage to two runs.
Jason Davis, T.J. Beam, Sean Burnett, John Grabow and Capps followed with scoreless relief, with Grabow meriting special mention: He inherited two runners from Tyler Yates with two outs in the eighth and got Jose Castillo to fly out.
"Our bullpen did an outstanding job," manager John Russell said.
The sellout was the ninth of the season, most since PNC Park's 19 in its opening year, 2001.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published September 21, 2008 4:00 AM