Photo by Rachel Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Matt Capps had a rough spring but looked strong tonight in his first save situation.
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."