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Updated: April 11th, 2012 11:26pm
Zulgad's Roundup: Matt Capps provides much-needed relief for Twins

Zulgad's Roundup: Matt Capps provides much-needed relief for Twins

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS - Minnesota Twins set-up man Glen Perkins had terrific stuff on Wednesday night as he completed a 1-2-3 eighth inning by striking out Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols to preserve a 6-5 lead at Target Field.

Perhaps that was why it sounded like there were a few groans in the top of the ninth inning when Matt Capps was announced as the new Twins pitcher. The closer had pitched an inning in Monday's 5-1 loss in the home opener as his team dropped its fourth in a row, but this was the first time Capps had entered a game in 2012 when it had meaning.

Last season, of course, was a tough one for the veteran. Capps finished with 15 saves but tied his career-worst by blowing nine save opportunities.

After getting Kendrys Morales to ground to second to open the inning, Torii Hunter hit a ball up the middle for what looked like a single. However, Hunter saw that center fielder Denard Span was playing deep to avoid giving up an extra base hit and the savvy veteran hustled to second for a double.

Capps remained cool and got Vernon Wells to ground to short and Alberto Callaspo to pop out foul to third. The Twins had a 6-5 win and their season-opening skid was finished.

"It's nice to finish on top for a change," said Capps, who has posted a 3.00 earned-run average in his past 32 appearances, dating to July 19, 2011. "0h-and-four to start the season is never fun, but nobody in here is going to panic or throw in the towel or anything like that.

"It's a four-game losing streak. I don't know but I'd be willing to bet there have been a lot of teams that have lost four games in a row in a year and finish out pretty good. It's just a little more magnified at the beginning of the season."

Capps admitted that coming into a game in which the Twins had rallied to take a lead in the bottom of the seventh on Wednesday was far different than what he experienced Monday when Target Field had mostly emptied out by the time he took the mound.

"Quite a bit different," Capps said. "The crowd is into it and everybody's excited. You obviously know what's at stake and see how they respond."

Capps added a split-fingered fastball this offseason but he did not break it out on Wednesday.

"I didn't," he said. "I was pretty dry (out there), cold and dry (it was 50 degrees at first pitch). I was struggling all night with just trying to get a grip on the ball and get it over the plate. I think I threw one slider. Everything else was fastballs."

Capps did give thought to using the split-finger pitch with a three-ball count against Callaspo but decided not to do it.

"I had the grip in my hand," Capps said, "and like I said, taking a chance with the way I felt with it to walk him and put the go ahead run on base ... if I'm going to get beat there it's going to be with a fastball."

Bright future

Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher was disappointed to see his team miss the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season, but he is optimistic about the direction the franchise is headed.

The Wild is expecting to get an infusion of young talent next season - big-time prospects include center Mikael Granlund and winger Charlie Coyle -- and will have enough salary-cap space to be an aggressive player in the free-agent market.

There already has been speculation the Wild will make a run at big-name free agents Zach Parise (New Jersey) and Ryan Suter (Nashville). Both would be sure to receive plenty of interest on the open market.

Parise, a winger, would provide the Wild with much-needed scoring punch, and Suter would give them offense from the blue line. Parise had 31 goals in 82 games this season; Suter contributed seven goals and 39 assists in 79 games and was a plus-15.

Considering the Wild's leading goal-scorer had 24 this season (Dany Heatley) and the leading scorer among their defenseman (Jared Spurgeon) had 23 points, the team likely would pay big bucks for Parise and Suter.

Fletcher can't comment on specific players but he can speak in generalities.

"We have a lot of cap flexibility, we have a lot of room and that's one of the reasons we took our payroll back last summer," Fletcher said this week during an appearance on "Judd & Phunn" on 1500 ESPN. "We didn't sign any unrestricted free agents to long-term deals that may have impacted our cap flexibility. Obviously that hurt us a bit (this) season, but, as we said last summer, we wanted to leave cap flexibility for this coming summer.

"We wanted to play young players. We paid a bit of a price for it this year, but that's part of what we said we would do and we have that now. We have that flexibility and we do have young players coming in to give us some depth.

"That will be our challenge is whether it's through the trade market or through the free-agent market to land a couple ... certainly one if we can, if not two or three players to come in and help our club. We have the flexibility financially to do it.

"At some point we'll do it, whether it's this summer or it happens in the fall or the winter, time will tell. There's a lot of competition for scarce resources -- whether it's the trade market or the free-agent market -- there's a lot of teams that will be looking to do what we want to do so it's going to be difficult. But certainly we'll compete as hard as we can."

Despite the Wild's struggles in recent seasons, Fletcher thinks players on the market will like what they see when they exam his team's situation.

"I think there's a lot of knowledgeable hockey people in the industry and when they look at our team they see a team with a core of seven or eight players that are pretty darn good," he said. "A team that knows how to compete and play well defensively that needs one or two players to make a difference offensively. If you get a (Pierre-Marc) Bouchard back healthy and you add a Granlund and maybe a Coyle to your team and then you add a couple veteran players, this team has tremendous upside.

"The best days are clearly ahead of it and anybody that comes here is going to have a chance to make a real big impact on a team. There's a lot of situations around the league, but generally when you sign players to five-, six-, seven-, eight-, 10-year deals, they're not looking at where the team is going to be necessarily in November. They want to know where the team is going to be over a five-to-10 year pace.

"I guess (I would) say this in as humble of way as I can, but over the next five, six, seven years, I can't imagine there are many teams -- maybe just three or four teams in the entire league -- that have the potential that we have. We have a very good thing going and we're not far away. I think it's a very exciting opportunity for some veteran players to look at. I think there's going to be a lot of really good players in the trade market this year, too, and we'll do our best to add a player or two."

A big addition

Coyle, who is playing for Saint John of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League after starting the season with Boston University, had 15 goals and 23 assists in 23 regular-season games with the Sea Dogs.

He has been teammates with center Zack Phillips, another Wild prospect who was taken in the first round last June. In fact, Phillips and Coyle are 1-2 on Saint John's in scoring in the QMJHL playoffs in scoring. Phillips entered Wednesday with 23 points (six goals, 17 assists) in eight games and Coyle has 21 points (11-10) in eight games.

Fletcher admits he is looking forward to seeing what Coyle can do.

"Obviously, (Brett) Bulmer and (Jason) Zucker have had a taste of (the NHL) this year," Fletcher said, "and (Johan) Larsson was just named the rookie of the year in the Swedish Elite League and he finished in the top-20 in scoring over in Sweden in the men's league.

"But I've got to be honest with you, the guy I'm most excited about seeing is Charlie Coyle just with his skill and his size (6-foot-2). He's a 215-, potentially 220-pound power forward with skill. We just don't have a lot of those types of players, nor does anybody. He could obviously make a very positive impact on our club. Over the long run we expect it, but if he could do it in the short term that would be an unbelievable boost."

So how many of the Wild's prospects will be expected to crack the roster next season?

"A lot of these kids, potentially seven of them, are turning pro that will be 20 years old," Fletcher said. "They're not 18, they're not 19, they are 20. But they will be turning pro. They'll either be in Minnesota or Houston (with the Wild's AHL affiliate). It's really going to be up to their performance. If they can earn a spot on the team, they will.

"I'm pretty comfortable in saying we certainly expect Granlund to do it. And we hope one or two others will surprise us. But we're going to take the long-term view, and I do think that over the course of the season quite a few of them will get games in the NHL even if they don't start with us in October. That will help our depth and that will help our talent base.

"If we do have a run of injuries like we did the last few years, we'll have some young, energetic talent that we can bring up at certain points of the year that might infuse some offense into our lineup even with injuries. ... I think over the next one or two seasons, you should see a lot of these players make a bid for our lineup. That's the exciting thing and it's not going to happen overnight, but some of it will happen right away."

Yeo gets credit

The Wild was in first place in the NHL in mid-December, but plummeted out of the playoff picture in part because of injuries and just an overall collapse. They finished with 81 points, placing them 24th in the NHL and slated to draft seventh this coming June in Pittsburgh.

Nonetheless, Fletcher felt Mike Yeo did an outstanding job in his first season as the Wild's coach.

"I shudder to think where we would have been without him," Fletcher said. "We may have been 10 or 15 points less without him. Coaches are judged on how quickly they bring a team together and how a team defends. Coaches can't create goals, they can't make players score. Talent leads to offense and good coaching leads to defensive structure and goals against.

"Our goals against was very good this year, we were in the top 10 for the most of the year. We fell, I think, to 12th or 13th at the end after we had a 10-game stretch there about three weeks ago where we really struggled.

"But when you really look at our team defense and our identity, how hard we played and how committed we were to each other, the unity in the room and the communication that went on, he and his staff did a very good job. He's one of the bright young coaches in the game. As we add more talent and give him more tools to work with, I think we're going to be very happy with the results."

Asked about the season as a whole, Fletcher said:

"It was a very strange season. We came into the season probably with very low expectations in a sense where we got younger over the summer. We let (Andrew) Brunette, (Antti) Miettinen go, (Chuck) Kobasew, (John) Madden, traded Brent Burns to add (Devin) Setoguchi and a couple of future prospects. Really we were building as much for the future as we were for the present.

"So I think we came into the season trying to build a team, trying to build an identity, become a hard working team and then all of a sudden 30 games in you're on top of the league. So it was a very quick rise to the top and pretty unexpected I would say by most people.

"And then we couldn't sustain it with the injuries we had. We just didn't score enough goals the last 50 games to win games. We still defended pretty well for the most part this year. Our team defense and goaltending are still in the top half of the league, and I think are strengths of our organization.

"The last 40 or so games we scored about 1.7 goals a game and you need to score almost a goal a game more than that to win in this league. We weren't close to being strong enough offensively once we lost three top six forwards for the majority of the second half of the year. It was pretty easy to see why we weren't winning at the end. But it was frustrating to be that strong early on and then have it all go down the tube pretty quickly."

End notes

The Twins became only the third Major League team in the past 40 years to begin a season with four consecutive losses while scoring two-or-fewer runs in each game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The two other teams to do that over the last four decades were the 1988 Baltimore Orioles and the 2003 Detroit Tigers. The '88 Orioles started the season with 21 consecutive losses en route to a 54-107 record and the '03 Tigers finished 43-119, the worst record for any Major League team since the 1962 New York Mets.

The Twins sellout for Monday's home opener was their 139th at Target Field and first since Sept. 5 of last season when they played the Chicago White Sox. The Twins did not sell out their final 11 home games of the 2011 season. The announced attendance Wednesday night for the Twins' second home game of the season was 31,413.

Brian Dozier's stay at Class AAA Rochester could be a short one. The shortstop was hitting .474 (9-for-19) in his first five games with a home run and four RBI.

Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio, who is rehabbing from a torn anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligament in his left knee, said it isn't easy to watch games on television now but that's all he can do. "It's hard to watch TV and watch games, and you know you can't play, even if you want to play so bad," Rubio said. "But you just have to enjoy watching basketball, 'cause it's the only way you can do it now. You can't play, but you can watch 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
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