Thursday, April 8, 2010

A "bulldog" with no fear

Photo by Rachel Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Matt Capps had a rough spring but looked strong tonight in his first save situation.
Matt Capps knows only one way to pitch: With everything he's got, every time he lets go of the ball.

There are closers who dance around the plate, try to fool hitters into swinging at something out of the zone. Francisco Rodriguez with his slider. Trevor Hoffman with his change-up.

That's not Capps. When he needs to finish off a game, he doesn't mess around. He unloads his 95 mph fastball, puts it in the general vicinity of the strike zone and trusts that it will be good enough to get the job done.

"Oh, yeah. Come right at you," said Nyjer Morgan, Capps' former teammate with the Pirates. "He's a bulldog."

And as a crowd of 20,217 saw this evening, Capps isn't afraid to go after the very best the National League has to offer. He may have flirted with disaster against the heart of the Phillies lineup. But when it counted most, he got the job done and secured the Nationals' first victory of the season, 6-5.

"He knew who he was facing there, so he was firing," manager Jim Riggleman said. "That's the best he's thrown since we saw him in spring training. He really reached back and got a little bit extra for that inning."

Indeed, Capps' performance today bore little resemblance to his string of subpar outings in Florida, when he allowed 10 runs on 17 hits and (most surprisingly) seven walks over only 11 2/3 innings. The right-hander has never been one to hand someone first base without even trying. In 79 innings with the Pirates in 2007, he issued a grand total of SIX unintentional walks.

As Capps put it tonight: "My mentality is: There's no defense to a walk."

(Perhaps the rest of Washington's bullpen should take note of that, seeing as how that unit has now walked 15 batters in a combined 14 1/3 innings.)

Right about the time Ryan Zimmerman blooped an RBI double down the right-field line in the bottom of the seventh this evening, giving the Nats a 6-5 lead, Riggleman started anticipating what it would take to record the game's final six outs. With the bottom of the Phillies lineup due up in the eighth, the manager knew mashers Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth were almost certain to bat in the ninth.

"You could see where that was probably going to happen," Riggleman said.

Sure enough, Utley led off the final frame and smoked a double on a 1-2 fastball from Capps. Rather than tempt fate with Howard, Riggleman elected to intentionally walk the cleanup hitter and take his chances with Werth, Raul Ibanez and Shane Victorino.

Here's how the rest of the affair played out...
Werth: Swinging strike on a 94-mph fastball. Lineout to center on a 95-mph fastball.
Ibanez: Foul ball on a 95-mph fastball. Flyout to left on a 95-mph fastball.
Victorino: Called strike on a 95-mph fastball. Popout on a 95-mph fastball.

Yes, that's six straight fastballs from Capps, all of them either 94 mph or 95 mph, all of them strikes.

"My back's against the wall right there," he said. "So if I'm going to get beat, I'm going to get beat with everything I've got."

Thus, the Nationals managed to avoid a crushing loss and a season-opening sweep at the hands of a Philadelphia club that had won 20 of the last 23 head-to-head matchups between these two division foes.

It required a well-played game from the home team, in all facets of the game. Starter Craig Stammen would have preferred to go six innings, but at least he made the most of his five innings and attacked the Phillies lineup. Washington's offense would have liked to do a little more damage to Kyle Kendrick but was content to score five early runs off the right-hander and knock him out after only four innings. And the Nats bullpen would have liked to put together some cleaner innings but still was content to hold Philadelphia to one run over the final four frames.

Put that all together, and Washington finds itself in the win column for the first time in 2010.

"I think it's encouraging for us to realize, [the Phillies] are real good," Riggleman said, "but when we play tough, we're right there."

Of course, it still required one gutsy ninth inning from Capps to pull this one off. One gutsy inning from a guy who isn't afraid to challenge some of the best hitters in the game and trust that he's better than they are.

"He's a closer, man," said lefty Sean Burnett, another former teammate from Pittsburgh. "If you're a closer, you can't have fear."

23 comments:

Doc said...

I have the last pitch/pop out to Victorino at 96---but who's counting. Let's hope he keeps it up. The BP is better than the starters at this point. Both starters and BP will get better in time, even if that means a few of the starters have to leave town. The hitters, along with Rick Eckstein, will be close to the top of the league. Look at how Riggs is able to shuffle hitters in and out. Even Gonzo is doing well off the bench.

P.S. MarkMeister: How about a little article on Rick Eckstein. He's the most valuable commodity on the Nats coaching staff!

Anonymous said...

Mark said -- "a well-played game from the home team, in all facets". I beg to differ. Morgan played a single into a triple and cost the Nats and Stammen dearly. The game would've been much less hair-raising if Morgan would've watched the ball into his glove, a little league skill.

Anonymous said...

Ya I was at the game, and like the previous ones...a total Philly Invasion. Man there would have been like 5 people there if Philly wasnt in town....though it was a 4:35 game on a thursday, adn there was the threat of rain...

but i think the nats may have pertty bad attendance till strasburg gets up here.....though winning will help the cause.

This team is certainly better than 2009, but our starting pitcher really needs to rebound in NY or the Nats are screwed.

Positively Half St. said...

Mark-

Thanks for an uplifting recap. I will add my more than 2 cents tomorrow to keep you going.

+1/2St.

natsfan1a said...

I was watching on tv. I did watch the 9th, although sometimes I get so nervous that I only watch the bottom of an inning late in home games and not the top. Somehow it's less frustrating to see the team fail to score a run than give up a run and fall behind. Go figure.

I was pleased to see Capps get the save.

Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_for_Me said...

Capps seems to be the ideal closer for me. I always like to toast out closer with a bourbon and Maalox. Shades of the Chief! Bring it on, fat man!

As for the crowd, it was very 215. Lots of unfiltered Camels smoked in the parking lots filled with rusted-out 1967 Cutlasses with Pennsylvania license plates. Just sayin...

Anonymous said...

Nyjer hits .323, Capps saves 37 ... and the Nats win the division. They still need legitimate #1, 32 starters ... that would be Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. Lannan would then be a #3 starter which would be just about right for him.

Could it happen? And if it did would it be in time for this year?

natsfan1a said...

I'm behind in reading blog posts, but I wanted to say "thanks" for the link to the Loverro piece re. Frank Robinson's number. At least we fans gave him a good send-off at RFK.

Jim Webster said...

So Cardiac Cordero's title now passes to Capps.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the SP lineup the other Anonymous predicts for numbers 1&2 but I would put Stammen 3rd and Lannan 4th. Last nights win served as a great asprin, but my stomach is still a little upset.

dale said...

I blame Nyjer's error on Johnny "Disco" Holliday's pregame interview with Morgan in which he brought up the fact of only four errors for the centerfielder in 2009. Next I expect Holliday to mention to Zimmerman that his throwing problems have ceased.

Wally said...

One thing that I have noticed this year is more willingness to 'take the out' when things are going badly, trade a run for an out, rather than trying to make an heroic play, fail to do that and prolong an inning unnecessarily. Lannan's scoop attempt in the first game, plus maybe Morgan's attempt to catch the 1b +2 base error yesterday, are the only times I can remember the team not playing within itself defensively. They seemed to try to do that all the time last year. I consider it an improvement in fundamentals and give Riggs the credit for instilling that.

On the other hand, the walks, sheesh. Seems even worse than last year so far. I give Stammen credit for yesterday, though. Even though he was getting hit often by a scary lineup, he kept challenging them. I think that he is going to have a good year.

Hendo said...

Did either McCatty or Riggleman address exactly why Stammen was pulled after only 5 innings and 75 pitches? Did they think he was losing it after giving up a pair in the fifth, or are they just trying to stretch out his innings over the season or what?

FOTB said...

Best game I have been to in a long time. We said to each other at the start of the Ninth that it was shaping up just like Rizzo might have drawn it up during Spring training ... Clippard to Bruney to Capps ... and the Nats win! Now that's how the game should be played.

alm1000 said...

Love our first win!

I have to admit that I didn't think it would happen as I watched Capps close it out.

Someone said the stadium was full of Philly fans but that's not how it sounded or looked on TV. There were some cheers when they scored but the cheers for the Nats were louder and it looked like the stadium was rocking for Capps the whole ninth inning.

Jeff said...

Have to say that I'm looking forward more to the series against the Mets, as I would LOVE-LOVE-LOVE to see the Nats finish ahead of them this year. Talk about a team that's in disarray, "the Mess" is quite the appropriate appellation for them for 2010. That said, the Phils are a DAMNED good team, and taking 1 out of 3 from them, at this stage of the Nats' development, is a moral victory of sorts. Would've rather not been embarrassed on Opening Day like that, but the big picture ain't so bad. Now they just need to make hay on the lesser teams and take 2 out of 3 (or more) in New York.

nats rising said...

The Nats scored more runs (1,4,6) and allowed fewer runs (11,8,5) than in each of the previous games of the Philly series. A good indication of a team settling down after a fiasco of an opener. You have to wonder how out of sorts the team must have felt on opening day facing arguably the best team in baseball while being disrespected by the large Philly contingent and their distinguished guest, the President, wearing a Chicago hat. Winning the final game at least eliminates the chance of a long losing streak to open the season.

cadeck13 said...

nats rising - I was thinking the same thing. Not only did we fans hate what happened opening day, it had to affect the players psyche a little bit too. The players looked determined to beat the Phillies last night and from the sounds on TV it appeared that the Nats fans weren't backing down to the Phanatics chants either. I woke up in a great mood this morning! Hope springs eternal ;)

Aeoliano said...

I like the silver wig ...

natsfan1a said...

The wig is awesomely cool.

MikeHarris said...

Nats 1-0 with me in the house. Took until early May for me to see a win last season.
I'm not going back. I'm retiring unbeaten.

hondo69 said...

Jim Webster, thanks for the link to that excellent New Yorker piece!

Melissa McCart said...

What's up with Jason Bergmann's socks?

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