Matt Capps has reduced the toughest job in baseball to a simple formula.
"The bottom line is I have to get three outs before they get one run," Capps said. "I enjoy it. It's fun. Every time I'm in the game, the game is on the line."
That condition could be a stomach-churner for some guys but not Capps, who led the Majors with 13 saves in 13 opportunities and had a 0.98 earned run average through the season's first five weeks. He's one of the key players in Washington's strong start in the NL East this season.
Capps signed as a free agent with the Nationals last winter after three years as closer for the Pirates. After becoming the No. 1 arm in the Pirates' bullpen in June 2007, he had an 85-percent success percentage, converting 66 of 78 chances.
Even though he led the Pirates with 27 saves last season, his earned run average was an inflated 5.80, and Pittsburgh decided to release the 25 year old rather than offer him salary arbitration. It wasn't a big problem for Capps. There were more than a dozen teams on his trail, and he settled on the Nationals because they promised he could close for them. After all, he had become a big fan of tiptoeing through the minefield of baseball's most treacherous job.
"To be successful, it requires a different mentality, a different mindset." Capps said. "It's something I like a lot."
The job also requires a short memory. Closers can't dwell on their failures. They must move on to the next day. And Capps sees that as a positive.
"If you're a starter and have a bad outing, you got to sit around four, maybe five days, before you go out there again," he said. "Not us. No matter how you do, good or bad, you live with it. If you give up a hit or a run, you just try to limit it."
Capps has been on the other side of the pitching equation. Coming out of high school, he seemed headed for LSU on a baseball scholarship. But Pittsburgh drafted him in the seventh round and signed him. He had so-so success as a starter over the next three years. In 2005, that all changed.
"At the end of Spring Training, they said I was going to the bullpen," he said. "I wasn't given a choice. It was low A ball. My hands were tied."
Capps' bullpen assignment started as the thankless job of middle reliever, a sort of hold the fort role. Gradually, he moved to the back end of the bullpen, and he embraced the job of closer. He made rapid progress after that, moving from A ball at the start of the season to Double-A, Triple-A and finally as a September callup to the Pirates.
The next season was a breakout one for him. He was 9-1 out the bullpen in 2006 with 15 saves for a team that won just 67 games. Armed with a sharp slider and a fastball in the mid 90s, he became one of the league's best relievers. And the difference between that role and starting was dramatic.
"It's a lot different physically," Capps said. "To throw every five, six, seven days is one thing. To try to be at your best every day, that's another."
Last season's high ERA was perplexing for Capps and the Pirates and led to his release. "The trick is to not create any damage of your own," he said. "If they get hits, you've got to forget about it. That's baseball. It's a quick turnaround."
Perhaps the toughest part for Capps this season is having to go through it without the safety net of his father, who died of a heart attack last October at the age of 61. Capps and his father talked all the time, analyzing every outing, trying to figure how he could be better the next time out.
Now Capps is figuring out that puzzle by himself.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.