Kinston's Capps reaches major leagues a year after being drafted

Mount Olive's Carter Capps pitches during their game against Millersville in the first round of the national finals in 2011.
Mount Olive's Carter Capps pitches during their game against Millersville in the first round of the national finals in 2011.

There isn’t a direct flight from Kinston to Seattle, but Carter Capps found an express route nonetheless.

The Seattle Mariners called up Capps last week -- 13 months after they selected him in the third round of the baseball draft. The former Mount Olive College standout is just the second player from the 2011 draft class to reach the major leagues.

Capps barely had time to unpack at any level. He started the season in Double A and appeared in one game in Triple A.

Friday, he made his major league debut against the New York Yankees. He recorded his first out against Derek Jeter.

The ultimate promotion came as a huge surprise. After striking out three of the four batters he faced in Triple A on Monday, the 21-year-old Kinston native expected only a pat on the back when manager Daren Brown summoned him to his office.

Instead, Capps received news that every baseball player dreams of hearing.

“Obviously I was excited and shocked when they told me,” Capps said in a telephone interview. “No tears, because I had to make sure he wasn’t joking with me.”

He can thank a near-100 mph fastball for his rapid ascent. That, and a college coach who convinced him that he should be throwing pitches, not catching them.

Capps was a backup catcher for much of his prep career at North Lenoir High.

“He didn’t even get to play that much in high school,” said Mount Olive coach Carl Lancaster, who welcomed Capps onto the college team after the young catcher expressed a desire to stay close to home. “From the first time we laid eyes on him, we thought he had a chance.”

The coaching staff again saw potential during Capps’ redshirt freshman year in the bullpen. He wasn’t among the pitchers warming up, but rather the third-string reserve catching them. He’d throw some pitches afterward as well, and the results confirmed Lancaster’s hunch.

“He was a bit defensive actually – he didn’t want to do it,” Lancaster said. “I told him there’s no way you need to be behind the plate, but it took us a while to convince him that’s probably what he needed to do.”

Capps’ progression was fast and rigorous. His breakout performance came on July 13, 2010 against Team USA, the national college all-star team. Pitching for a local college summer league team, Capps struck out five in three innings and allowed one run on four hits. Team USA won 8-3, but Carter earned himself a spot on scouts’ radars.

Lancaster said Capps saw the future too.

“At 6 a.m., he’d be there waiting for them to open the weight room,” Lancaster said. “Early on, he knew what his goals were, and he was going to give everything he possibly could to reach them. I never had a kid that worked liked he did.”

Capps set an NCAA Division II record with 24 consecutive wins, going 10-0 in 2010 and 14-1 in 2011. He was also named the ACBA Division II player of the year in 2011.

He started four games last season in Class A. He opened this season at Double A Jackson (Miss.), handling the different level as easily as he has his previous steps along the way.

The Seattle organization converted him to a closer. He appeared in 38 games in Jackson and recorded 19 saves with a 1.26 ERA.

Tuesday, he waked into Safeco Field, and admitted being nervous. After a good night’s sleep and return trip to the ballpark Wednesday, all was well again.

Asked whether he expected to make it from Mount Olive to Seattle so quickly, Capps held his ground.

“It’s something I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid,” he said. “It becomes more and more real the higher up you go and then you realize it’s within reach. They haven’t told me how long I’m going to be here. I’m just here to make the most of the time I have.”