PEORIA, Ariz. — A funny thing happened to the opposing hitter who stepped in for the final at-bat of the game against Carter Capps the other night.
Capps is the young Mariners flamethrower everybody knows can bring fastball heat up near 100 mph. So, when Capps sent a first-pitch, knee-buckling, 82 mph curveball to San Diego Padres hitter Rene Rivera, all the onetime Mariners catcher could do was stare at a called strike.
This spring has seen a lot of hitters freeze up on improved secondary pitches from Capps and fellow Mariners right-handed relief pitcher Stephen Pryor. They appear poised to open the season in the team’s bullpen and have worked all spring on honing secondary offerings to offset the fastballs their opponents attempt to lock in on.
“Guys are hunting my fastball so hard, especially on fastball counts,” Capps said. “It’s not even a thought in their mind, so it definitely helps. It speeds up (the look of) my fastball a little bit, so that helps it out, too.”
Opponents posted an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .849 against Pryor in 26 debut games with the Mariners last season. Capps fared better, but opponents still hit .260 and appeared to be figuring him out as his 18-game debut wore on.
But this spring, hitters appear increasingly confused about what pitch they’re about to see next.
In the Rivera at-bat, Capps followed up the first-pitch curve with a fastball clocked at 94 mph that Rivera swung at and missed. The next pitch was an 83 mph curve that Rivera took an off-balance swing at for the game-ending strikeout.
Capps has also been honing his slider into what he calls a “slider/cutter” because it has elements of a cut fastball to it. He’ll throw it even when he’s behind in a count and “steal a strike” from both right-handed and left-handed batters.
“I’ve been falling in love with it,” he said.
Capps has struck out five of the six batters he’s faced his past two Cactus League outings, including all three Padres seen the other night.
Throw in a minor-league outing and he’s fanned seven of his past 10 hitters.
Pryor has enjoyed similar success, striking out six of 10 batters his past three Cactus League outings and allowing just one hit over that span. He’s spent the spring honing his curveball and changeup to give him something softer to go with his fastball-slider combo.
“I was in situations last year where I was going five or six pitches to a guy and he was fouling them off a lot because he was seeing hard, hard, hard,” Pryor said. “So, I figured if I had something soft, I could set him up with either my fastball or my slider and it would help my pitching quite a bit.”
Facing the San Francisco Giants the other night, Pryor started left-handed hitter Ricky Oropesa off with a 73 mph curveball for a called strike. In that same at-bat, Pryor had his fastball up at 98 mph.
“I’m getting more consistent movement with it, I guess,” Pryor said of the curve. “I’m not throwing it 100 feet in the air anymore, so it’s good. I’ve been working on it. Now, I’m just trying to get to where I’m comfortable with it in a game situation.”
Mariners manager Eric Wedge said he loved the confidence with which Capps and Pryor are throwing their breaking pitches as camp winds down. Wedge feels more confident using both in late-game situations now than he did last year.
“Very confident,” Wedge said. “With Carter (Capps) or Pryor, or obviously the lefties who gained a lot of exposure late in games last year. It’s nice to have multiple options late in the game, and you need that if you’re going to stay fresh over 162 (games).”