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Updated: May 13th, 2012 6:08pm
Zulgad: Simple suggestion has made a big difference for Matt Capps

Zulgad: Simple suggestion has made a big difference for Matt Capps

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS - Eddie Guardado ranks third on the Minnesota Twins all-time saves list with 116 recorded between 1993 and 2003.

It might be fitting to add a 117th save to Guardado's total, only this one would have been earned in the spring of 2012. Guardado's save in this case doesn't involve a game but, rather, fellow pitcher Matt Capps.

Capps, coming off an extremely rocky 2011 season in which he blew nine of 24 save opportunities, lost the job as closer and finished with a 4.25 earned-run average, was playing catch in Fort Myers as pitching coach Rick Anderson and Guardado looked on.

Guardado, who was serving as a special instructor for the first two weeks of spring training, approached Capps with a suggestion.

"Eddie comes over and says, 'Try and throw this (pitch) right here,'" Capps recalled on Sunday. "I threw one and it kind of fell off and I was like, 'Oh, all right.' It was something Andy and I worked on the second half of spring training and something we continue to work on pretty much on a daily basis."

That something was a split-finger fastball and for Capps it has helped make a significant difference.

He closed out Sunday's game by pitching a scoreless ninth in the Twins' 4-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays at Target Field, giving him his seventh save in as many opportunities. He has thrown five scoreless innings with two hits given up and no walks in his last five appearances.

The final batter Capps faced in Sunday's game was Blue Jays second baseman Kelly Johnson, who struck out swinging. Capps threw six pitches to Johnson and said four or five of them were of the split finger variety. That included all three that Johnson swung and missed on.

"It's been a big part of things," Capps said of the split finger. "I think if anything it gets guys off the fastball. Even if the split finger is not the pitch that gets the out, it kind of gets them off the heater and opens up other opportunities with the fastball and things like that. I think that's probably more important than throwing the split for strikes."

Veteran starter Carl Pavano credits Capps with making the adjustment.

"He's a totally different pitcher this year," Pavano said. "He's always had a great fastball and could locate his fastball, but he's using his secondary pitches to make his fastball that much better, and I think that's what's going to be the key to his success moving forward.

"He's always been a guy that's been aggressive, that's gone after the hitters with his good stuff. But I think now that he's using his secondary pitches and he's having confidence in them it's given him the ability to play with hitters a little more and get the job done a lot quicker."

It's also given Capps the ability, so far, to forget what he calls a "nightmare" of a 2011 season.

The 28-year-old Capps found himself the subject of much of the anger that was vented at Target Field last season - although not as much as Joe Mauer -- as the Twins lost 99 games. This would have made it easy for him to bolt town as a free agent last offseason, looking for a fresh start somewhere else.

But when general manager Terry Ryan called Capps and told him he wanted to retain his services, the veteran instructed his agent that he wanted to remain with the Twins and try to erase that memory.

Capps signed a one-year, $4.75 million deal in December that includes a $6 million option for 2013. If the option is declined, Capps would get a $250,000 buyout.

"Last year was pretty much a nightmare, and I caught it from every angle and every corner of the ballpark and things like that," said Capps, who battled a forearm injury during 2011 but refused to use that as an excuse. "I know what that's like and certainly I feed on not experiencing that again because it wasn't a whole lot of fun. Like I said coming into spring training, this is 2012, not 2011 and we'll take it a day at a time, a pitch at a time and see what happens."

What makes things interesting for Capps is the fact that the more success he has, the more likely it is that the Twins won't keep him around.

Sunday's victory was only the Twins' 10th of the season in 34 games, leaving them in last place in the American League Central. This is a team that is going to need as much help as it can get when it comes to building organizational depth and yet there aren't a ton of tradable parts on the major league roster.

If Capps can keep closing out games, his value will be such that a contender very well might be interested in him and Ryan would have little choice but to listen to all incoming offers. A successful closer is not exactly the most important priority on a rebuilding team.

So does Capps think about possibly landing elsewhere?

"No you don't, but that's the situation with all of us," he said. "Even winning teams, and championship teams, and teams that at the trade deadline are in first place, they're making moves and it's usually not the 25th man on the roster that gets traded. It usually is a guy that contributes. That's part of it. That's just part of the way the game is. So it's not something I put a whole lot of thought in."

Capps is familiar with being in this situation.

He had saved 26 games for Washington in 2010 and had a 2.74 ERA when the Twins dealt catching prospect Wilson Ramos and pitcher Joe Testa to the Nationals at the trade deadline so Capps could step in as the closer for a team that went on to win the AL Central.

Capps had 16 saves in 18 opportunities for the Twins that season before things unraveled for him and the team in 2011. While he's attempted to move on from those struggles, Capps also provides a word of caution to anyone who thinks the split-finger fastball and the change in years means that things have completely turned around.

"With me last year, April, May I was pretty healthy and felt good and threw the ball well," he said. "It's a long season, that's the thing about this game is staying healthy for 162 is pretty tough to do. It's what we have to focus on."

And if Capps is able to succeed, there would appear to be a good chance he could be pitching for a contender come late summer. 

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
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