By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010; D01
On Sunday morning, when Matt Capps learned he had been chosen for baseball's All-Star Game, he thought first about his father. "I wish he could see it," Capps said. Last October, Mike Capps died of a heart attack. Capps believes his father has been with him ever since, from one of the lowest points of his career to the highest.
"His daddy, I know, is in heaven just smiling ear-to-ear," said Kathy Capps, Matt's mother. "Nobody knows except us how much Matt loves baseball."
In his first season as the Washington Nationals' closer, Capps was the only National named to the all-star team. Capps may be joined in Anaheim, Calif., by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, whom National League Manager Charlie Manuel and the league placed on the final fan ballot. Around baseball, debate will focus on the exclusion of phenom Stephen Strasburg, who was chosen for neither the team nor the fan ballot to select the 34th and final member.
Capps, 26, made his first All-Star Game one year after his worst season and most turbulent offseason. Capps has 22 saves, second in the majors, in 26 opportunities with a 3.19 ERA. Despite living on the edge -- he's allowed 10.8 hits per nine innings -- Capps became a central figure in the Nationals' strong start.
"You work your whole life for it," Capps said. "To be voted on by the players, your peers and people you compete against, that makes it all the more special."
Strasburg, baseball's biggest attraction, posed a unique challenge for Manuel and the league. Should an utterly dominant and wildly popular rookie with a handful of starts make the midsummer classic? Strasburg has a 2.45 ERA and a 53-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but he's started only six major league games.
"As far as his numbers and his stats, I don't believe he deserved to be on the all-star team," Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "Too many people would have been left off if he would be put on."
This all-star break, as Capps put it, will be "the last three-day vacation he's going to have for a long time."
Manuel also concluded Strasburg's time will come. Strasburg "got quite a bit of consideration," he said. "I don't have to tell anybody, he's got a great future. What's he got, like five starts in the major leagues? He's gonna be an all-star for a long time, and I just felt like there are other guys out there who have started anywhere from 18 to 20 games. I felt like, 'Just leave him alone and let him get used to the major league level,' and he'll take care of himself."
The Nationals agreed with Manuel's assessment and, in some ways, felt relieved. Strasburg will relax with his family for four days.
"I think the rest will be really good for him, mentally and physically," reliever Tyler Clippard said. "For an organizational standpoint, and selfishly, I'm kind of happy he's not going."
Strasburg, who was not available for comment, seemed unconcerned with the matter. As the final starting pitchers were announced on a clubhouse television, Strasburg walked across the Nationals clubhouse and into the shower.
His nonchalance contrasted with Capps's elation. Last year, he went 4-8 with 27 saves and a 5.80 ERA. By season's end, he lost his grip on the Pittsburgh Pirates' closer position. In December, the Pirates did not tender Capps a contract -- they had an exclusive chance to negotiate with Capps or offer him arbitration, and they chose to let him to walk away.
"It shows what the guy is made of," Rizzo said. "He's a warrior. He's a tough guy."
Capps arrived early Sunday at Nationals Park. At 9 a.m., he sat down to eat breakfast in the clubhouse. He saw Rizzo walk into Manager Jim Riggleman's office. Pitching coach Steve McCatty called him into the room.
"That's usually not a good thing," Capps said.
It had not dawned on him that the all-star team announcement would come later in the day. The three men looked at Capps for a moment, and then told him he had been picked. In his first full season pitching without his father, Capps had become one of baseball's best.
"It kind of hit me this morning when they told me," Capps said. "I wish he could see it. He'll be with me."
First, Capps called his wife. Next, he called his mother. Kathy called all of her friends at Alexander High School in Douglasville, Ga., where she is a school administrator.
"It's just a dream come true for him," Kathy said. "It's more than I ever could have dreamed of."
For Zimmerman to join Capps, he'll have to beat out Padres closer Heath Bell, Rockies outfielder Carlos González, Reds first baseman Joey Votto and Braves closer Billy Wagner. Last year, Zimmerman made his first all-star team.
Rizzo said Zimmerman, catcher Iván Rodríguez, first baseman Adam Dunn and left fielder Josh Willingham also deserved spots.
The biggest snub among Nationals belonged to outfielder Willingham. While Zimmerman and Dunn have enjoyed comparable, if not better, seasons, Willingham has performed best compared to his position. He entered Sunday ranked third among oufielders in OPS, first in on-base percentage and tied for third in home runs.
"Those guys belong on the team," Rizzo said. "There are only so many spots on the team."
Only Capps, the closer dumped by his team in the offseason, the son who lost a father last October, has one of those spots.
"It's been a long, fun road," Capps said. "I wouldn't trade any of it, the ups or the downs. It's a pretty satisfying feeling right now."