Henderson battles back after gruesome injury
MINNEAPOLIS -- Five years into his major league career, Matt Capps has his first chance to experience a pennant chase.
This is a real hands-on opportunity, too. His ability to seal the ninth inning will have a significant impact on Minnesota's defense of the AL Central title.
"I played in the playoffs in the minors a couple of years. Obviously that's quite a bit different, but with what we do we're all competitive," Capps said. "It doesn't matter what the situation is. Every time I go on the mound, nobody's going to put more pressure on me than myself. As far as meaningful team-wise, it's been a long time. But every time I took the mound, no matter what the situation was it meant something to me. I always did my best, and it's not going to change now."
Capps wasn't a part of late-season excitement while pitching for Pittsburgh and Washington. His trade to the Twins on Thursday night thrust him into a new league and a new situation, but the All-Star closer sounded comfortable before Friday's game against Seattle after meeting his Twins teammates for the first time.
"Everybody was very engaging and made me feel at home right away, so I think it's going to be a good, fun second half," Capps said.
After Capps was acquired from the Nationals for prized catching prospect Wilson Ramos and minor-league left-hander Joe Testa, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire called right-hander Jon Rauch and told him he would move back to the setup role he was in until Joe Nathan hurt his elbow and needed season-ending surgery.
"He says, 'Gardy, wherever you want me to pitch, that's where I'll pitch.' I'm sure he's a little disappointed, but like I said he's a professional and he wants to win," Gardenhire said.
Rauch declined to speak with reporters.
Capps downplayed any potential awkwardness about taking over.
"Bottom line: If we go out and put a ring on our fingers, nobody's going to care who does what," he said.
Capps was 3-3 with a 2.74 ERA and 26 saves in 30 chances for Washington, making his 5.80 ERA for Pittsburgh in 2009 look more like an aberration. The 26-year-old, who is making $3.5 million this year and won't be a free agent until after next season, has nine walks and 38 strikeouts in 46 innings. Better location has been a big help.
"He's a bulldog, a great guy, a great teammate, got a great arm," Gardenhire said.
Rauch will share the eighth-inning assignments, depending on batter matchups, with right-handers Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain and left-hander Jose Mijares. The trade for the Twins is also a measure of stability for 2011, when Nathan is expected back but without guarantee he'll be ready right away after coming back from ligament replacement surgery.
"That's just going to make this ballclub better," Capps said, adding: "If I'm the eighth-inning guy or the ninth-inning guy or the 10th-inning guy, that's all that matters."
To make room for Capps, the Twins optioned struggling right-hander Nick Blackburn to Triple-A Rochester. Blackburn made 18 starts and was moved to the bullpen last week. He has a 6.66 ERA in 104 innings, and the Twins want him to rediscover his sinker.
"It's about getting on the mound and pitching," Gardenhire said. "That's why we sent him down, and he agreed with it 100 percent."
Also, infielder Nick Punto was placed on the 15-day disabled list because of a strained left hamstring. The injury occurred in Wednesday's game. Shortstop Trevor Plouffe was recalled from Triple-A Rochester to fill in. With second baseman Orlando Hudson still on the disabled list, Plouffe was taking some pregame grounders at second base.