Notes: Capps excels in closer role
Reliever has been dominant since replacing Torres
PITTSBURGH -- With the way Matt Capps continues to pitch as the team's closer, it would be easy to forget that wasn't his bullpen role until just over a month ago. Oh, and don't forget he's also only 23.
Wednesday was just another example of the successful transition Capps has made from setup man to closer this season. He needed 11 pitches to shut down the Brewers in the ninth. All 11 were strikes.
"He's gone from [four] Major League innings at the beginning of 2006 to [being] a very good and reliable late-inning pitcher," Pirates manager Jim Tracy said. "That's a [tremendous] ascension in such a short period of time."
Capps went from those four innings in 2005 to 80 2/3 innings last year, a club record for a rookie reliever. Now Capps finds himself a perfect 8-for-8 in save opportunities since taking over for Salomon Torres at the beginning of June.
What has made the right-hander so successful? To begin with, there's his tenacity and propensity for throwing strikes, something that initially convinced Tracy that Capps would be an effective stopper. And he's throwing those strikes effectively to both sides of the plate, which has led to some ugly swings from opposing hitters.
And then there's that fastball.
"We're not talking about good control with a 94-96 mph fastball," Tracy said. "We're talking about pinpoint control."
Capps has developed a deceptive slider to complement his fastball, and a changeup is still in the works. With that type of three-pitch knockout punch and youth on his side, Capps has convinced his manager that the future is even brighter.
"This guy can become a special closer," Tracy said. "I mean, a real special closer."
That's not a bad compliment coming from a manager who watched one of the best game's best closers, Eric Gagne, pitch for him when both were with the Dodgers.
Bay back: After sitting out of Wednesday's game, Jason Bay returned to the lineup Thursday, though a little lower in the batting order than he is used to. For the second time this season, Bay was penciled in to the sixth spot, in part because of the left fielder's recent struggles, but also because of the recent production from the hitters in front of him.
Tracy wouldn't hypothesize whether he would continue to use Bay in the No. 6 spot until he emerges from his offensive funk, simply saying that where Bay hits will be dictated by what continues to happen in front of him.
This isn't the first time Tracy has knocked Bay down in the order, and the Pirates manager would be more than content to see the same results that he did when Bay hit sixth once last year.
Stuck in a similar rut last season, Bay batted in the sixth spot on May 12. And if you look back at Bay's statistics last season, that May 12 game stands out as a turning point to what would be an All-Star season for Bay.
Twice Bay came up with the bases loaded in that game, and he drove home four runs with a triple and a sacrifice fly. And from that point forward, Bay hit safely in 15 of his next 17 games, which included eight multi-hit games.
"If you're hitting four, five or six in the lineup, the game's going to find you at some point," Tracy said, alluding to that game last season.
Dazzling defense: Adam LaRoche and Ryan Doumit may have both knocked out key two-run home runs in Wednesday's win for the Pirates, but afterward, Tracy spent more time praising both of their defensive performances than he did their offensive fireworks.
First came LaRoche, who has made several tough defensive grabs this series.
"There's no question what this guy is about defensively," Tracy said. "He's a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman, and I think we all know that."
LaRoche has the statistics to back up his manager's Gold Glove claim. His .996 fielding percentage ranks second in the National League behind Colorado's Todd Helton, and he has a zone rating (which measures the percentage of balls fielded by a player in his typical defensive "zone") of 92.4 percent. That number is the highest in the Major Leagues.
Then came Doumit, who had played only three Major League games in right field coming into the year. But the outfield work Doumit put in while playing in the Mexican Winter League during the offseason quickened his transition to the new position and has earned him league-wide respect defensively.
"This guy continues to get better and better in the outfield," Tracy said. "And I think the reputation of that throwing arm is starting to get around."
That reputation evidently made its way into the Brewers' scouting reports, evidenced in the sixth inning on Wednesday when Milwaukee third-base coach Nick Leyva never hesitated to hold Prince Fielder at third when catcher Johnny Estrada knocked a base hit to Doumit in right.
The Pirates' defense as a team has also shined lately. The club has gone a team-record 97 consecutive innings without making an error, bettering the 96-inning errorless streak set back in 2004.
Oh, doctor: Pirates starter Zach Duke left Pittsburgh on Thursday to head down to Birmingham, Ala., where he will meet with Dr. James Andrews on Friday. Dr. Andrews will give a second opinion on an arthrogram that doctors in Pittsburgh used earlier in the week to diagnose Duke with irritation of the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow.
Vote for Gorzo: Pirates starter Tom Gorzelanny will find out on Thursday whether he received enough fan votes to earn a spot on the NL All-Star team. The Final Vote competition continues until 6 p.m. ET on Thursday. In the latest release of voting totals released Thursday morning, Gorzelanny was in fifth place, with San Diego's Chris Young holding the lead.
Rotation matters: Tracy has not set his rotation schedule for after the All-Star break yet, though the Pirates can expect Ian Snell to pitch the first game back against Atlanta, since it would be the right-hander's regular turn in the rotation. Gorzelanny will likely follow Snell, though that would change if Gorzelanny were to make the All-Star roster and pitch in San Francisco.
McLeary cleared: Right-hander Marty McLeary cleared waivers and has rejoined the Triple-A Indianapolis club. McLeary was taken off the 40-man roster on Saturday when the Pirates needed to make room for utility man Matt Kata.
On deck: The Pirates will close out the first half of their season with three-games against the Cubs, beginning on Friday night at 7:05 p.m. ET at PNC Park. Lefty Paul Maholm (4-11, 4.74 ERA) will face Chicago's Jason Marquis (6-4, 3.31 ERA).
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.