Phone-a-friend: Nats' Capps heeds ex-mates' advice

Published Feb. 24, 2010 7:51 p.m. ET

New Washington Nationals closer Matt Capps picked a new team the way some folks might choose a restaurant, accountant or auto mechanic. He listened to recommendations from his friends.

Shortly after the Pittsburgh Pirates, the only team the burly right-hander had ever known, chose not to offer him a contract in December, Capps' cell phone started buzzing. A hard sell followed, in the form of text messages and wireless calls from former Steel City teammates-turned-Nats Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett, who helped sway the 26-year-old Capps Washington's way.

Capps' choice came down to the Chicago Cubs and Nationals. The Cubs, reinforcing their bullpen for a run at the NL Central title, wanted him to set up for closer Carlos Marmol. Washington, needing a steady ninth-inning arm to replace released closer Mike MacDougal, offered a meatier role.

``Burny and Nyjer, they gave me the insight on what it was like around here and how the guys were,'' Capps said. ``That plays a factor. You want to go to somewhere where you're comfortable, you have fun playing and you have fun coming to the park every day.''

But the phone-a-friend option meant weighing other variables.

Supporting role or setting up? Rejoin Morgan and Burnett in Washington, or reunite with ex-Pirates pitchers John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny in Chicago? A rebuilding team coming off successive 100-loss seasons or playing for a contender?

``The toughest part is you're trying to sell him to a team that lost a hundred games,'' said Burnett, who came to Washington with Morgan in a June trade with the Pirates. ``Coming from Pittsburgh, where you lose so many games every year, to finally be free and get to go to somewhere you want, why would you choose to go to the one place that might be worse?


``I tried to tell him we were making changes. It's a whole different atmosphere, it's a positive outlook and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.''

Morgan pointed out that playing in the NL East could get Capps' competitive juices flowing and that the Nationals' divisional schedule would frequently take the right-hander to his hometown of Douglasville, Ga., near Atlanta.

``He's a workhorse. He's going to battle with you every day and he isn't going to take a night off,'' Morgan said. ``He's coming to work every day and he's got a bulldog mentality. He's going to come right at you and he's going to throw strikes. ... He's going to understand what it's going to take to get that 27th out.''

The one-year, $3,5 million pact agreed to on Christmas Eve also affords Capps a chance to redeem himself after a couple of tough seasons in Pittsburgh.

A promising 2008 campaign was interrupted by right arm soreness and a two-month stay on the disabled list, though Capps still managed to save 21 of 26 games. Last year, he lost the zip on his fastball, battled elbow discomfort and converted 27 of 32 save opportunities despite a career-worst 5.80 ERA - more than two runs a game higher than his career average.

``I left a lot of pitches up. I felt like I tried to rely on my breaking ball and my changeup a lot more than I had in the past,'' Capps said. ``I went away from what got me to the point I was at. Being my first year coming off an injury, there was a lot of doubts and questions in my mind. I went out and proved to myself that I was healthy. It was just statistically a bad year for me.''

So far this spring, his fastball has returned, much to the relief of Nationals manager Jim Riggleman.

``He has a history of being in that role and he's throwing the ball nice and free and easy here. He throws strikes. ... I'm just real glad he's on board,'' Riggleman said.

Capps feels like he made the right choice because being with Washington gives him the opportunity to return to a familiar role for a team he thinks is on an upswing.

``With the moves we made here, I don't see why this team can't be in consideration for the playoffs. You got a future Hall of Famer (Ivan Rodriguez) behind the plate, you go out and get a guy like (Jason) Marquis, you bring in some guys to help out in the bullpen,'' Capps said. ``With the offense they had last year, which was already good, I don't see why this team can't be talked about.''

NOTES: Washington general manager Mike Rizzo said RHP Stephen Strasburg, the No. 1 pick in June's draft, would make his first exhibition start on March 9 against Detroit at Space Coast Stadium and will pitch every fifth day, regardless of where the game was to be played. ... RHP Livan Hernandez rejoined the Nationals for a third time, signing a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training Wednesday. Hernandez will compete for a spot in the rotation.