Capps holds lead; Nats top Phillies, 6-5

By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 2010

Matt Capps took the lonely jog from the Washington Nationals' bullpen in right field to the pitcher's mound at Nationals Park to perform the task he was given a $3.5 million contract in the offseason to achieve. Capps needed to preserve a one-run lead in the ninth inning for the Nationals, which he did in a 6-5 win over the Philadelphia Phillies to avoid a sweep in the season-opening series.

The Nationals overhauled their bullpen during the offseason, with the acquisition of Brian Bruney and signing of Capps the highest-profile of the transactions. The organization's future plans include 2009 first-round pick Drew Storen closing games, but it is Bruney and Capps who are currently in charge of securing leads like the one the Nationals possessed on Thursday.

"I think as we saw Bruney really battle there in the eighth and Capps, what he was firing there in the ninth, it's really encouraging to see that," Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman said. "Because our pitching is coming together and it's making strides. When it does hit stride, it's going to give us a real good chance."

Too often during consecutive seasons with more than 100 losses, the Nationals' bullpen surrendered leads. Bruney and Capps both caused some tense moments -- the game-tying run was on third base in both innings -- but neither allowed the player to advance the 90 feet the Phillies needed.

Capps faced the heart of the Phillies' batting order and did not waver. Even with runners on first and third base and one out, Capps never departed from challenging the hitters.

"If I'm going to get beat," Capps said, "I'm going to get beat with everything I got."

Nyjer Morgan watched from center field and saw the fearless closer who was his teammate with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Excluding four pitches on an intentional walk, Capps threw 10 pitches, nine of which were fastballs and all between 94 and 96 mph.

"He's a bull rider," Morgan said. "Comes right at you."

Riggleman said it was the best he's seen Capps pitch in the closer's two months with the team, and that Capps "reached back and got a little extra in that inning."

Capps attributed it to the situation. Closers become accustomed to pitching when games are on the line, and that is difficult to simulate in spring training. Bruney agreed that a higher-pressure environment provided a better indication of what the back end of the Nationals' bullpen could achieve.

During the two losses to open the season, the Nationals' starting pitching did not provide the bullpen an opportunity to preserve leads. Starting pitcher Craig Stammen left Thursday's game with a 5-4 advantage through five innings created after a three-run first inning and Willie Harris's two-run home run in the fourth.

Relievers Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard could not maintain the lead in the top of the sixth inning, but Clippard pitched effectively after a shaky start to give way to Bruney and Capps. None of the three relievers allowed a run in the game's final three innings.

"Good defense, hitting, pitching, it was a good team win," said Stammen, who allowed nine hits and four runs in five innings, the longest a Nationals starting pitcher lasted during the series.

The Nationals broke the tie in the bottom of the seventh when Ryan Zimmerman looped a flyball toward the right field line, where Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth dove for the catch but came up a few inches short. By the time Werth fetched the ball and turned to throw, Zimmerman reached second base for his second double of the game. More importantly, Alberto González scored from second and the Nationals held a 6-5 lead.

"Kind of got lucky," Zimmerman said of a seven-pitch at-bat in which he fouled off two pitches before blooping his double on a pitch that jammed him inside.

Even though Zimmerman finished with two doubles, a run and an RBI, Harris was awarded player of the game. After home victories this season, the Nationals' player of the game must wear a silver "Elvis wig" -- a cap in the shape of Elvis Presley's hair. It was Morgan's Halloween costume, and is something he has instituted this season.

It provided laughs throughout the Nationals' clubhouse, and Morgan and Zimmerman both said they plan on wearing it often this season. But wins will only arrive if leads are preserved, and that's why Bruney and Capps were brought to Washington.

"For Bruney and Capps to come in and do what they did," Zimmerman said, "it gives us a lot more confidence."

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