FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — After getting booed out of Target Field more times than he’d care to remember in 2011, it would be understandable if Minnesota Twins closer Matt Capps grabbed the first airplane out of the Twin Cities and never looked back.
Instead, Capps couldn’t say yes fast enough when the Twins gave him a chance to return.
Much to the chagrin of many Twins fans, general manager Terry Ryan re-signed Capps to a one-year, $4.75 million contract after Joe Nathan left for the Texas Rangers. Now, after perhaps the worst season of his career, the closer’s job is all his.
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“I feel like I let a lot of people down last year, myself, the fans, especially (former GM) Bill Smith and the organization when they made the trade that they made,” Capps said. “They expected me to perform at a level higher than what I did last year and that didn’t happen.”
The right-hander saved just 15 games, the fewest since he became a closer in 2007, and he blew seven other chances. He went 4-7 with a 4.25 ERA and lost his job when Nathan finally returned to full strength from Tommy John surgery.
He didn’t look like the same pitcher who was acquired from Washington at the trade deadline in 2010 for prized catching prospect Wilson Ramos. Capps came over to a new league and stabilized the back end of the Twins’ pitching staff with 16 saves and a 2.00 ERA to help them make the playoffs.
Some minor injuries zapped some of the life from his pitches, and Capps thinks he’ll be back to normal this season.
“When the opportunity came about for me to come back here, I jumped on it as quick as I could,” Capps said.
After losing longtime closer and clubhouse pillar Nathan to the defending AL champions, manager Ron Gardenhire was delighted to see Capps return. The old-school Gardenhire is big on personal accountability and professionalism, two traits Capps has in abundance.
“Letting people down? No,” Gardenhire said. “I think you let people down when you don’t give it everything you have. And that’s never been the case with Matt Capps, so he didn’t let people down. Maybe he didn’t get the job done that he was asked to do. But he didn’t let people down. He gave it everything he had. His full heart and courage and everything he has is into it.”
This time around, Capps and the Twins coaching staff are hoping a more defined role will help him return to form.
Last spring, Nathan was dubbed the closer right off the bat even though missed all of 2010 because of the surgery. He struggled early in the regular season and had to be sent down for another rehab stint, moving Capps from a setup man back into the closer’s position.
Poor defensive play and inconsistent starting pitching taxed the Twins’ bullpen heavily, forcing Gardenhire to use Capps for more than one inning far too often, something the manager likes to call “the domino effect.”
The struggles were weighing heavily on the closer, and Gardenhire could see it every time he had to make that long walk from the dugout to the mound to pull him.
“I’m not used to walking and taking a closer out of a game,” he said. “I haven’t done that too many times in my career. You could see that he was battling it out there and a couple times I had to do that.”
Capps pitched a second inning nine times last season. If the starters can pitch deeper into games and the defense plays better behind them, the Twins hope to trim that number significantly this season.
“I’m certainly not going to shy away from throwing multiple innings if that’s what they want me to do and that’s what they need me to do,” Capps said. “But we need to prepare for that and use this time in spring training to prepare for that. That’s something we didn’t do last year.”
In past springs, Capps said he would try to get one or two long outings — sometimes as many as three straight innings — to build up strength in his arm and have him ready for longer appearances. Pitching coach Rick Anderson said that won’t be a problem and that they’ll do whatever they need to do to make sure he’s comfortable to start the season.
“I certainly felt like I wanted to come back here and do better by everybody,” Capps said. “That’s the bottom line. That’s why I’m here.”