MINNEAPOLIS — Matt Capps heard the boos. How could he not? He heard them on more than one occasion, raining down on him from the Minnesota Twins faithful at Target Field.
With closer Joe Nathan still recovering from 2010 Tommy John surgery, Capps was occasionally inserted into the ninth-inning role for Minnesota early in the 2011 season. But Capps struggled mightily. In a span of two weeks in May, Capps blew three saves, earning losses in two of those instances.
Again in early July, the Twins went to Capps to close games. Again, he struggled, blowing two more saves while getting booed off the mound at Target Field.
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But those memories, the boos and blown saves, those are in the past, Capps insists.
“What doesn’t kill us makes us better,” Capps said at the Twins’ winter fan event. “It was a tough year all the way around, mentally, physically. But move forward, take the lessons you can take out of it and try to get better.”
In 2011, Capps allowed 31 runs and surrendered 10 homers in 65 2/3 innings. He also had a career-low ratio of just 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings, and blew nine saves while successfully closing just 15 games in 69 appearances. Twice, Capps allowed four runs in one inning, with both occurrences resulting in blown saves for Capps and losses for Minnesota.
The Twins are banking on Capps to rebound from last season, which is why they re-signed the 28-year-old right-hander to a one-year contract in December. Minnesota is hoping it will have the Capps of 2010, the one that posted a 2.47 ERA and saved 42 total games, including 26 with the Twins after he was acquired from Washington for catcher Wilson Ramos.
Nathan, Minnesota’s all-time saves leader with 260, is gone after seven seasons with the organization. He signed as a free agent to pitch for the American League champion Texas Rangers. That means Capps will return to the Twins’ closer role, a spot he assumed in the latter part of 2010 after joining Minnesota from the Nationals. With Capps closing games that season, the Twins won the American League Central for the second year in a row.
“This guy’s got a good track record. He’s closed in the big leagues for a couple years,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Capps, who has 124 career saves. “Last year was a little bit rough, but there’s a lot of things that went into that that people really didn’t get.”
Like some of his other Twins teammates, Capps resumed his winter workouts ahead of schedule this offseason, eager to put 2011 behind him. He said he took about four weeks off to rest and relax after Minnesota’s 99-loss season but started throwing and lifting weights earlier than usual.
Capps and the rest of the Twins’ pitchers will report to spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., in just over a week. For him, it’s the chance to turn the page on a forgettable year.
“Day 1 of spring training usually means a new beginning for everybody,” he said. “I think once that happens, you get out there and everything from last year is automatically put behind you. You can’t dwell on it, think about it too much and just try to move forward.”
Moving forward is something Capps tried to do even amid his struggles in 2011. Whenever he would have a rough outing, Capps never shied from the media after games.
“He kept pitching all year long. He never complained about anything. He’s game on,” Gardenhire said. “We’ll take our chances with him. He knows how to do it, and hopefully he’ll get it done at the end. We have a lot of confidence in him, and we’re happy to have him back.”
Capps will anchor the back end of the Twins’ bullpen, with left-hander Glen Perkins likely to be the setup man once again after a breakout season in 2011. Beyond that, however, the rest of Minnesota’s relievers remain a question mark. The Twins acquired former Tigers flamethrower Joel Zumaya this offseason. While capable of hitting triple digits on the radar gun earlier in his career, Zumaya did not pitch at all in 2011 due to an arm injury.
The rest of the bullpen will continue to take shape during spring training in the upcoming months, but Capps is confident of the arms Minnesota will have coming out of the pen in 2012.
“You keep Zumaya healthy and Perkins in there, the guys that we had last year, (Alex) Burnett and Phil Dumatrait signing back, the potential there is incredible to have a very strong bullpen,” Capps said. “It just goes back to what we learned last year: health is everything. If we can keep people healthy and on the field, I think we’ll be alright.”