Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Gutsiest Performance Of The Year.

It doesn't get more gutsy than that.

Anyone that has followed Our Washington Nationals since the Inaugural Season of 2005 knows The San Diego Padres have owned us. Comeback after comeback seemingly every single game played between these two teams--most always late--to defeat Washington in demoralizing fashion. And it sure looked like that same finish was in store again this evening with Matt Capps on the mound. The African Queen's palpitating heart was beating a mile a minute in front of the television because we know, no matter how late it might be on the east coast, don't ever go to sleep until The Padres have completed their At-Bats in San Diego. For some reason The Baseball Gods never want these games to end easily.

And they made sure this one went down to the final out too.

Resetting the scene: D.C.'s Team led handily, 5-2, heading to the bottom of the 9th. John Lannan had pitched a solid seven innings of baseball, walking no one, was in line for his second personal win. Josh Willingham had pumped out a three run shot off San Diego starter Clayton Richard in the top of the 4th. And Washington's ever improving clutch RBI Man, Ian Desmond, added his fourth homer of the season in the 7th and then laid down one of the prettiest two out bunts in the top of the 9th you might ever see--to score pinch runner Adam Kennedy from third to give Washington what looked to be that commanding lead.

Everything looking good for Our Washington Nationals. But four batters into the bottom half of the 9th--San Diego had pushed across one run and now had the bases loaded with nobody out. This affair was quickly falling apart--although "Cardiac" Capps was not entirely at fault. You see, Yorvit Torrealba had led off the frame with a sharp single to center. But then Ian Desmond made one of those plays of youthful exuberance that can drive any manager crazy. Oscar Salazar followed and slapped a not so hard hit baseball right up the middle--behind the second base bag. Forgetting the situation at hand, Desmond tried to make the spectacular play, attempting to flip the baseball out of his glove to Cristian Guzman standing on second. Wanting to get the double play, Our Number 6 ended up getting NO ONE out--when his toss went nowhere but slightly up in the air and back down into the infield dirt.

That just can't happen in the bottom of 9th in a close ball game. Outs are precious and Ian Desmond forgot--Big Time!!

To make matters worse, former Baltimore Oriole, Jerry Hairston, Jr. stepped up to the plate next and proceeded to hit a 50 foot dribbler toward Ryan Zimmerman at 3rd base that The Z-Man had no play on. And when San Diego's Chris Denorfia singled to left center scoring Torrealba--things couldn't be much worse.

There Matt Capps stood on the mound, sweating it out, probably just like everyone still up past midnight watching at home on television in the Washington, D.C. Area. I know The African Queen and I were. Really, it was unbelievable to think that The San Diego Padres might rip the heart out of Our Washington Nationals and Our Fans again. How many heartbreaking losses can one team lay down on another?

Our Manager Jim Riggleman must have felt the same way too as he immediately sent Pitching Coach Steve McCatty out to the mound to settle Capps down. Matt Stairs was pinch hitting next for The Friars. Always dangerous, even at age 42, and 40 pounds lighter in weight--Stairs is not the guy "Cardiac" Capps wanted to face at this moment. Power against Power, the results of which might not be pleasant.

Yet what Our Number 55 does well, and he proved it over the next three batters faced, is that Capps ALWAYS challenges every single batter he faces. He doesn't back down to anyone. That's the mark of a good reliever. And that's the hallmark of a good closer. With Matt Stairs believing "dead red" (fastball) right down the middle of the plate with two strikes and the bases loaded, Capps threw him a curve ball that so surprised Stairs, he simply took the pitch for called strike three, dropped his head, and slowly walked away from the plate--dejected--just like those remaining Padre Fans in the very loud crowd of 23,468 still watching this thriller of a ending.

Matt Capps NEEDED that out, but he wasn't close to being out of trouble yet because Will Venable was next, the lefty swinging San Diego outfielder. A single would still probably plate the game tying runs. Thankfully, Washington's Closer seemed to regain some lost confidence after sitting down Stairs. And all he threw Venable was heat, heat and more heat. Three pitches that Venable couldn't handle--taking a seat himself on the bench--striking out for out number two.


Having been on the brink of disaster moments earlier, could "Cardiac" Capps actually make it all the way back and finish this game off? Could he record his 17th Save against all odds? Who wasn't holding their breath? We were because anything still could happen--especially with the biggest pest in The Padres lineup now standing at the plate. David Eckstein (Washington's Batting Coach Rick's Brother) is one of the hardest guys to strike out in the baseball. He never stops moving at the plate. He's a two-time World Series Champion and 2006 World Series MVP. And as Dave Jageler pointed out on WFED during this point in his broadcast, David Eckstein is the exact type of slap hitter that can hurt you in these types of situations--more so than the slugging San Diego 1st Baseman, Adrian Gonzalez, who was now standing on deck.

Eckstein can get his bat on most any thrown ball--that's why he's dangerous. Capps knew that. His brother, Rick Eckstein, knew that (in fact, Rick's nervous look on his face in the dugout was priceless by the way), Our Washington Nationals knew that. Heck, every single person still watching knew that--no matter what team they were rooting for.

And this is where Matt Capps EARNED HIS MONEY.

Many closers would buckle under such pressure, Our Number 55 did not. Again throwing nothing but fastballs, Capps tossed in a 95 MPH gasser that Eckstein took for called strike one. Then he followed that by upping the speed to 96 and throwing his next pitch right in on David Eckstein's fists. A pitch The Padres 2nd Baseman couldn't handle while swinging. The result: a soft grounder to Ryan Zimmerman at 3rd base--who promptly threw a perfect strike to Adam Kennedy at 1st base to end this game.

I don't think The African Queen and I have yelled so loudly in our house all year long over any Nationals Game. And by the looks of Matt Capps yelling and screaming on the mound, celebrating his insane accomplishment too this evening--Our Number 55 hadn't done so either.

Did that WIN EVER FEEL GOOD--because The Padres had finally not won out!!

What an ending though.

Final Score from Petco Park where Matt Capps performed his best 2010 imitation of "The Most Thrilling Closer In The Game": Our Washington Nationals 5 and The San Diego Padres 3. Chad Cordero had many similar moments facing The Friars in a Nationals Uniform from 2005 through 2008. And this one had the exact same feel of "The Chief Cardiologist". But just like when Our Former Number 32 was on the mound, Curly "W" Number 25 proved that a good closer can still shut the door, keep the opposition from scoring the game tying and winning runs, if he keeps his wits and doesn't give in to the pressure at hand.

Matt Capps' work over the final three hitters of this game was just phenomenal.

Few pitchers could have accomplished what this burly righthander did tonight in Southern California. Bases loaded, nobody out, one run in, up by just two--yet Our Number 55 finished off The San Diego Padres in style. That was great pitching with no margin for error. Matt Capps was courageous, gallant, maybe even a little spunky, but he was also clearly determined not to lose this ball game.

His fearlessness this evening-easily--The Gutsiest Performance of The Year.

Great Game. Even Better Win.

Tonight's In-Game Photo Gregory Bull (AP)

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