BRADENTON, Fla. — Too often last season, there wasn’t much for Pirates closer Matt Capps to do except sit around and wait.
Wait for the bullpen phone to ring. Wait for a save opportunity. Wait for a chance to record some meaningful outs.
Capps notched a career-high 21 saves last season, despite spending nearly two months on the disabled list. But his total was economy-sized, compared to National League leaders Jose Valverde (44 saves) of Houston, Brad Lidge (41) of Philadelphia and Brian Wilson (41) of San Francisco.
More than half of Capps’ outings were not save situations. In September, he went 16 consecutive days without getting the chance to nail down a victory. There also was a two-week dry spell from mid-May into June. After Capps came off the DL on Aug. 23, it was 10 more days before he recorded a save.
“I expect the same out of myself, whatever the situation,” Capps said. “You have to get your work in when you can, regardless of what the situation is — whether it’s a blowout one way or the other, the eighth inning, or the ninth inning at home with your team behind.”
Of Capps’ final 12 appearances of the season, only four were save opportunities. Despite the lack of chances, Capps was solid down the stretch — he did not blow a save after July 1, did not walk a batter in his final 19 games and gave up a hit in just three of his final 12 games.
“He’s trained himself very well to treat every game like he’s going to have the opportunity to come in,” manager John Russell said. “Not only does he prepare physically for it, but mentally he prepares every day. It’s a tribute to him that he’s prepared for it and he understands the role.”
Yet, that might not be enough to transform Capps into one of the game’s elite closers.
Kent Tekulve, who ranks second on the Pirates’ all-time saves list, believes Capps has the potential to excel — but only if he gets more chances.
“He’s not going to become a dominant reliever until he has a dominant number of (save) opportunities,” said Tekulve, who is in spring training camp as a special instructor. “Part of getting into that flow as a reliever is having opportunities on a regular basis. Then, it becomes second nature.
“What happens with a young guy in particular, is if you only get one opportunity a week, then it becomes a special thing. You get a little more anxious about it. You really want to capitalize on this one because you know you’re not going to get another one for four or five days. You’re not as relaxed.”
The Pirates have not had a true, slam-the-door closer since Tekulve in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
“We’ve had a couple guys who have had some decent years, but it’s not been a regular occurence,” Tekulve said.
Since 1990, the Pirates have had a single reliever notch 25 or more saves just five times. In 1994, the Pirates got 24 saves overall, including a team-high seven by Alejandro Pena.
During the team’s 16-year losing skid, the Pirates’ list of closers includes Dan Miceli, Francisco Cordova, Rich Loiselle, Mike Williams, Jose Mesa and Mike Gonzalez.
None of them — not even Williams, who had one stellar season (46 saves, 2.93 ERA in 2002) — was the answer. Most were either fading veterans or short-term fill-ins.
While winning three NL East titles in the early 1990s, the Pirates took a committee approach to saves. Bill Landrum and Stan Belinda shared the job in 1990 (Belinda eight saves, Landrum 13) and 1991 (Belinda 16, Landrum 17).
In 1992, Belinda was the lone closer. He got 18 saves that season.
General manager Neal Huntington pointed out teams can be successful, even in the playoffs, without a dominant closer.
“Tampa Bay, the White Sox … if you look at previous World Series participants, even winners, they’ve gone in with some question marks in the bullpen,” Huntington said. “We have a luxury in Matt Capps, in that we have probably the final piece that you look to put together on a championship club.”
Breaking down Capps’ 2008 season
Month: Appearances — Saves — Chances
March/April: 11 — 6 — 6
May: 11 — 4 — 4
June: 14 — 7 — 11
July: 1 — 0 — 1
August: 3 — 0 — 0
September: 9 — 4 — 4
Note: Capps was on disabled list from July 2 to Aug. 23
Pirates closers since 1993
Year, Closer: Saves — ERA
1993, Stan Belinda: 193.61
1994, Alejandro Pena: 75.02
1995, Dan Miceli: 21 — 4.66
1996, Francisco Cordova: 12 — 4.09
1997, Rich Loiselle: 29 — 3.10
1998, Loiselle: 19 — 3.44
1999, Mike Williams: 23 — 5.09
2000, Williams: 24 — 3.50
2001, Williams: 22 — 3.67
2002, Williams: 46 — 2.93
2003, Williams: 25 — 6.27
2004, Jose Mesa: 43 — 3.25
2005, Mesa: 27 — 4.76
2006, Mike Gonzalez: 24 — 2.17
2007, Matt Capps: 18 — 2.28
2008, Capps: 21 — 3.02