Fresh start for Pirates' setup reliever

Rob Biertempfel
| Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, 11:43 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Professional athletes often fight to keep their emotions in check so they don't get too amped up in the heat of competition. Pirates reliever Mark Melancon used to have that problem — only in reverse.

“Sometimes, I wouldn't use that energy as much as I should and could,” Melancon said. “I've always been the guy who doesn't want to stand out. It's a team game ,and no individual is going to win that game on his own. I still have that mentality, but it's important to use that energy. Instead of pushing it away, start using it.”

That approach still is a work in progress for Melancon. Once a top prospect in the New York Yankees and Houston Astros systems, the right-hander notched 20 saves in his first full season in the majors. Last year, however, he struggled and spent much of the season in the minors.

Rather than tweak his mechanics, Melancon sought other ways to earn a trip back to the big leagues. That's when he started to channel his emotional energy into every pitch.

“I tried it midway through the year, and it really worked for me to use that energy in a more positive way,” he said.

Melancon, 28, joined the Pirates in late December as part of the trade that sent Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox. One ripple effect of that deal was Jason Grilli's promotion to the closer's role with the Pirates.

This season, Melancon, Jared Hughes and left-hander Tony Watson will fill Grilli's old job. When a righty is needed, Melancon likely will be the first choice as he has a bit more major-league experience (147 games) than Hughes (78).

“I love the depth we have,” manager Clint Hurdle said.

Melancon has an over-the-top delivery and can hum his fastball at 92-94 mph, sometimes touching 96 mph. He also uses a cutter (a relatively recent addition to his arsenal), a changeup (which has room to improve) and a 12-to-6 curveball (his out pitch).

Pitching coach Ray Searage was encouraged this week after watching Melancon throw his first two sides of spring training.

“I said, ‘Dude, whatever you ate today, make sure you eat it the rest of the year. Because you're on,' ” Searage said. “The fastball is there. It's got good angle and carry to it. He was spotting up the cutter. The curveball was real, real good. All he's got to do is trust his stuff ... easier said than done, I know.”

Melancon was switched from a starter to closer at the University of Arizona, where he set the school's single-season (11 in 2005) and career (18) saves records. He had Tommy John surgery in October 2006 but rose rapidly through the minors after he healed.

After a breakout season (8-4, 20 saves, 2.78 ERA) with the Astros in 2011, Melancon was dealt to the Red Sox for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland. He had an up and (mostly) down career with Boston — the low point coming April 17 when he allowed six earned runs without getting an out against Texas.

Melancon is happy to be back in the National League and eager to show he can handle high-leverage outings.

“I enjoy the later innings more, simply because that's my mentality,” Melancon said. “When the game's on the line, it's more that childhood dream feel.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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