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Originally Published: April 29, 2010

Capps leading much-improved Nats bullpen

Kurkjian By Tim Kurkjian

The Nationals recently passed the one-year anniversary of something they'd like to forget: In April 2009, they became the first team in history to lose all three games of a three-game series despite leading in the ninth inning or later in each game. That series against Florida was the beginning of what would be one of the worst seasons ever by a bullpen.

[+] EnlargeMatt Capps
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastMatt Capps has allowed only one run in 13 1/3 innings this season.

And now everything has changed, just as the Nationals planned. On Wednesday, new closer Matt Capps recorded his major league-leading 10th save, needing only 10 pitches to finish off a 3-2 victory over the Cubs. The Nationals didn't record their 10th save last year until June 17, and those 10 were recorded by five different pitchers: Joel Hanrahan, Kip Wells, Julian Tavarez, Joe Beimel and Mike MacDougal. Every reliever that was with the club as the season started was gone by year's end, partly because the Nationals had recorded a bullpen ERA of 5.09, the highest in the National League, and 1.09 above the league average.

The Pirates surprisingly released Capps after the 2009 season in part because of his salary (he is making $3.5 million with the Nationals) and in part because his ERA had jumped from 3.02 to 5.80, and his seamless control had gone haywire. Teams lined up to sign Capps, 26, but the Nationals got him mainly because they gave him an opportunity to close. And has he ever. Through Wednesday, he had not blown a save and had a 0.68 ERA.

The Nationals used 24 different relievers last year, and most of them are no longer in the organization. New GM Mike Rizzo vowed to improve the team for 2010 by starting with the bullpen for two reasons: (1) nothing is more demoralizing to a team than having a game won late, then losing it with the bullpen, and (2) Stephen Strasburg in on his way to Washington.

Strasburg might have one more start at Double-A, then he's on to Triple-A for three or four starts, then he'll be headed for the Nationals in early June. When he arrives as the savior of the pitching staff -- and a co-face of the franchise with Ryan Zimmerman -- Rizzo wanted to make sure the Nationals would have a bullpen that wouldn't blow his first major league win. Just a guess: Strasburg's first start comes against the Pirates on June 8, a Tuesday night at home. He throws seven strong innings, and Capps, a former Pirate, is there to record the save.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and an analyst for "Baseball Tonight."

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