Updated: March 7th, 2012 12:00am
Zulgad: Closer embraces challenge of rebounding from tough 2011 season

Zulgad: Closer embraces challenge of rebounding from tough 2011 season

SportsWire Daily

Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports

Signup!
by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Matt Capps couldn't have been blamed if he had elected to get as far away from Minnesota as possible this offseason.

He certainly had everybody opportunity to do so.

After blowing nine saves and hearing a consistent chorus of boos at Target Field during the Twins' 99-loss season in 2001, the closer found himself fielding offers from about eight teams this winter on the free-agent market.

"When it came down to it, there were two or three other teams that we felt like they were good opportunities," Capps said.

But presented with the chance to put a trying experience behind him, Capps instead embraced the chance to return to the Twins after new general manager Terry Ryan called and made it clear he wanted the veteran to return.

In early December, Capps reportedly agreed to a deal that will pay him $4.5 million for 2012 and contains a $6 million option for 2013 that can be erased with a $250,000 buyout.

"Once Terry Ryan took over and he called and said they were interested and going to make a push to have me back here, I called my agent and said that this is where I wanted to be," Capps explained.

"With the group of guys that are in here, I feel like this team is going to be competitive and going to be a very good ballclub. (The chance) to come back and do better by everybody and kind of reprove myself to this organization and this group of fans was very appealing to me."

Capps' and the Twins' sudden free falls last season basically mirrored one another.

With Joe Nathan out for the year after having Tommy John surgery in 2010 and concern growing about having Jon Rauch close in a pennant race, the Twins sent top catching prospect Wilson Ramos and a minor league pitcher, Joe Testa, to the Washington Nationals in late July for Capps.

The righthander was fourth in the National League at the time with 26 saves. He converted 16 more save opportunities with the Twins, including 12 in a row at one point, as the team finished 94-68 to win its second consecutive American League Central title.

Capps then opened last season as the setup man for Nathan before the roles were changed when Nathan struggled in his return from the arm surgery. Capps, however, began to have his own issues and soon the same fans at Target Field who had been cheering him were either booing him or holding their breath when he entered from the bullpen.

After posting a 2-0 record and a 2.00 earned-run average in 27 appearances with the Twins upon his arrival in 2010, Capps went 4-7 with a 4.25 ERA in 69 games. He struck out only 34 batters.

"It's never fun," Capps said when asked about the boos he heard. "You kind of get used to being booed and being yelled at on the road, but when you're in the safe haven of your own ballpark and your own stadium, it sucks. There's no other way to put it. It sucks and it's not something I appreciated or enjoyed.

"But it's certainly something I understand and I think that's the right of any fan and any person that spends good money on a ticket. ... I'm not upset with them for doing it by any means at all, but it drives you, it sucks, it leaves a bad taste. Certainly something that if you can change it you want to and coming back here and pitching is the only way to change it."

That's an attitude that Twins manager Ron Gardenhire respects. Gardenhire also defends Capps' performance in 2011, pointing to the fact that the pitcher was dealing with forearm and wrist discomfort.

"I know what happened," Gardenhire said. "If you were there and watching him pitch with injuries, (he) took the ball every time and never backed away from anything. I watched it all last year, the guy wasn't healthy. We beat him up early and he never recovered from it. But he got his treatment, he went out and took the ball."

Said Capps: "It's not something that I felt every day or went out and threw through every day. It was something in the back of my mind and certainly something that I think affected me at certain times. But when it was all said and done, and looking back, I wouldn't change anything.

"I still would have taken the ball, I still would have gone out and given everything I had and hopefully had a better outcome than what we had. I don't think it's something that I look back on and go, 'Man, if I'd been 100 percent the year would have been completely different.' But you never know."

Nathan signed with the Texas Rangers as a free agent this offseason, leaving Capps as the Twins' primary closer entering spring training. Expectations for the team are far lower than they were a year ago and suddenly the prospect of not having a dominant closer isn't near the top of the list of things to worry about.

Nonetheless, it's important that Capps' rebounds for a variety of reasons. One is that if he pitches well and the Twins fall out of the race, he could be moved to a contender near the trade deadline for a prospect.

"It's such a fickle thing," Capps said when asked about any assurances of having the closer's job. "Anybody who is saying, 'The job is yours, the job is yours,' it's mine to lose. It's everybody's to lose. Bottom line, we don't get that job done they're going to find somebody that will. You don't take any of it for granted. Go out and prove to everybody and earn the job day in, day out. That's what it's all about."

Capps, 28, attempted to do that in part by altering his workout routine after he returned home following last season. Listed at 6-2, 260 pounds in the Twins' media guide, Capps looks about the same as he did physically last season.

However, there is no rule saying a closer in baseball has to have a great physique. Getting people out ... now that is another matter.

"I started working out about two weeks earlier, I started throwing about two or three weeks earlier and just physically tried to prepare a little bit better," he said. "I found that it was easier to kind of clear my mind when I was in the gym, whereas the first couple of weeks just sitting on the couch or hanging out with friends or family, the mind is still going.

"I felt like once I got in the gym and started getting back after it my mind started to clear itself and let go of the bad times of last year and started focusing on where I was going to be and who I was going to be pitching for. Once that was settled, I started focusing on this team and this organization and getting ready to come down here."

Capps made his second appearance of the spring on Tuesday in Port Charlotte, giving up one hit in a scoreless fifth inning. He has pitched two innings this spring and surrendered three hits with no walks and no strikeouts.

"This guy has a track record," Gardenhire said in expressing his admiration for Capps. "He took the ball for us, he stayed in there and never walked away from anything. He's gotten people out and he helped us win in 2010. I saw those statements about coming back and sure we talked to the general manager about it. 'We'd love to have this guy back.' That was before we knew whether Nathan was going to stay or go.

"We liked the guy, we like the makeup, we like the courage. Then his statements about saying he wants to come back and show people he can pitch, that's even better. He's not running from anything, which I didn't expect him to. He's not one of those guys that runs away from the tough situation."

That is something in which Capps had no interest in doing.

"You've got to turn the page," he said. "There's a lot of people in this clubhouse that are trying to forget 2011 and I'm certainly one of them. Turn the page, focus on this year and getting ready for it."

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
4213