Spring Training: Pirates expect Capps to make an even bigger impact this season
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Matt Capps remembers it as if it were yesterday -- which in a way it almost was.
Last March 29 in City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Fla., Capps came of age and cemented his spot on the Pirates' opening-day roster.
Pitching against Manny Ramirez, Capps clipped the Boston slugger on his elbow with a pitch, only to have it ruled a foul ball off the knob of his bat. The mano-a-mano contest resumed, and eventually the Pirates' right-hander struck out Ramirez swinging with a fastball on the inside part of the plate.
Capps then retired to the clubhouse and was immediately greeted by a wildly enthusiastic Sean Casey -- which could be sort of a redundant phrase.
Anyway, Casey high-fived Capps.
"Capper, that was really awesome!" Casey shouted. "I came up in the minor leagues [with Cleveland] with that guy, and I'd see him get hit and they didn't call it and he'd get [mad] and hit the next pitch 500 feet!
"But you kept going after him. You showed somebody something today!"
Capps savored the moment.
"Sean was so pumped up about it that he just pumped me up," Capps said the other day. "I get chill bumps just thinking about."
Indeed, Capps looked down at his right forearm and rubbed the goose bumps for emphasis.
"The excitement Sean had," Capps said, shaking his head. "I was feeling good about myself. I struck out Manny Ramirez, arguably one of the best hitters in the game right now -- if not all time. And I struck him out swinging. And Sean Casey's in my corner, pulling for me. Sean Casey -- a guy I grew up watching and looking up to. Having him cheer for me was a great feeling."
Capps had an even greater feeling a couple days later when he learned for sure he made the Pirates' opening-day roster, the first step toward a solid rookie season.
Capps, who as recently as the spring before had contemplated forsaking baseball for football, in 2006 set a Pirates rookie record with 85 appearances. He had a 9-1 record, and his 3.79 earned run average brought him greater responsibility as the season wore on.
"And we think there's more to come," manager Jim Tracy said. "His slider's getting better. He's still using his changeup, which we're encouraging. Down the road, if that changeup develops, we feel very confident that this guy [can be] a legitimate ninth-inning pitcher."
That's baseball-speak for closer.
Pretty heady stuff about a guy who in 2004 had a miserable year as a starting pitcher, who repeatedly that season called his father, the scout who signed him (Jack Powell), his high school baseball coach and his high school football coach to try to decide if he made the proper decision to opt for baseball over football.
Then just before spring training in 2005, Capps learned the Pirates planned to make him a reliever.
That, no pun intended, was just about the capper.
"I wasn't happy about going to the bullpen," Capps said. "And I didn't seem to have that 'drive' about baseball."
He remembered as a high school athlete he attracted interest from -- among others -- Georgia Tech, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia and Georgia Southern (the latter for baseball and football). Maybe he could go back and start over on the gridiron as a tailback or fullback.
"When I was in high school, I could run a little bit," Capps said somewhat sheepishly.
Then -- like that -- Capps, a seventh-round choice in the 2002 draft out of Alexander, Ga., turned the switch.
"I started busting my tail to do the best I could, and things started to take off," he said. "Before I knew it, I was wanting to be the best relief pitcher ever to play the game."
In 2005, 14 saves and a 2.35 ERA for low Class A Hickory earned Capps a jump past high Class A Lynchburg and a spot in Class AA Altoona's bullpen. Seven more saves and a 2.70 ERA with the Curve -- not to mention impeccable control -- earned Capps a late-season, four-game promotion to the Pirates.
Then came last spring when Tracy noticed something early on about Capps.
"Fastball command," Tracy said. "His ability to throw strikes with his fastball, plus his aggressiveness in getting after hitters."
Those are huge pluses for Tracy, so the intrigued Pirates kept sending Capps to the mound as other relievers were sent to the minor-league complex.
"I was still here, and the hope kind of grew and grew," Capps said.
The Pirates began thinking that Capps could be brought along slowly because veteran right-handers Salomon Torres and Roberto Hernandez were available to pitch the tough innings.
"We wouldn't have him in harm's way in the early part of the season," Tracy said.
And so it was that Capps made the opening-day roster -- "he basically pitched his way onto the club," Tracy said -- and thrived.
"In the first part of the season, we just found win-win scenarios for him," Tracy said. "If it didn't work out for him [in a game], he didn't have to walk into the clubhouse and feel bad about the fact he was directly involved in the outcome of the game not in our favor."
That's Tracy-speak for Capps not having to feel as if he had cost the Pirates a loss.
At the All-Star break, Capps was 3-1 with a 3.21 ERA.
General manager Dave Littlefield had a question for Tracy.
"Where are you with Capps?" Littlefield asked.
"I think it's time to give him some more leash and see where this is going to take us," Tracy said.
Satisfied, Littlefield dealt Hernandez to the New York Mets for first baseman/outfielder Xavier Nady.
Capps moved up significantly in the bullpen pecking order -- to co-setup guy, the role just before closer.
Make no mistake, Capps would love to pitch in the role someday.
He remembers well what it was like to be on the mound when he got his first major-league save last season with a perfect ninth inning against Colorado, July 17.
"Being on the mound when the team comes out and everybody shakes hands, that's pretty cool," Capps said. "The fans are on their feet when you get that second out. It's kind of a rush."
Sometimes that rush can happen before the ninth inning.
Capps remembers a game in Los Angeles last Sept. 20. The Dodgers, in the thick of the National League West race, needed to win, but they trailed, 6-4, in the seventh inning.
Capps entered the game with two outs and runners on first and second.
"It was Dodger Stadium, sold out," Capps said. "The announcer said, 'Now pitching, Matt Capps. And now hitting for your Los Angeles Dodgers -- No ... Mar ... Garcia ... parra!' And the place just erupts. That's the loudest I've ever heard any stadium.
"I was standing on the mound thinking about how awesome it was."
Capps got Garciaparra to pop to the infield.
"I was yelling and screaming and jumping up and down running into the dugout," Capps said.
The Pirates finished the game with that 6-4 lead. Capps knew he'd had a large right hand in that. And he thought back to that troublesome 2004 season.
"I think about it a lot actually," he said. "If I give up a run or blow a lead, I think back to that. It kind of puts everything into perspective. I'm going to wake up tomorrow morning and the sun's going to be out and I'm going to have another opportunity. I learned how to deal with adversity a lot and how to put things behind me that year."
Capps paused, reflecting again.
"It's been a roller coaster ride," he said, "but it's been nothing but fun -- the ups and the downs, the people I've met, the places I've gotten to go, to be 23 years old and experience all the stuff I've experienced so far, it's been incredible."Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Right-hander Matt Capps delivers against the Braves March 2 in a spring training game in Orlando.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published March 14, 2007 12:00 am