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Pirates notebook: Cutter a boon for Melancon

| Saturday, May 25, 2013, 5:48 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates reliever Mark Melancon closes out the Cubs for his first save as a Pirate during the ninth inning Wednesday, May 22, 2013, at PNC Park.

MILWAUKEE — One pitch changed Mark Melancon from being just another reliever to becoming one of the game's best setup men.

That pitch — the cut fastball — has altered a number of major league careers in recent years, such as Cliff Lee's and Roy Halladay's. It has dramatically improved Melancon's effectiveness.

The right-hander has allowed just two runs and one walk in 25 innings this season while employing his cutter at 61.8 percent rate, a career high usage, according to Baseball Info Solutions. He threw the cutter at a 41.3 rate in 2012 and at a 23.3 percent clip in '11, when he first started throwing the pitch while pitching for Houston.

But it was while with the Yankees for several weeks in 2009 that Melancon first thought about adding the cut fastball. He watched the renowned master of the pitch, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, work.

“I'd see Mariano in the bullpen every day and watch him throw,” Melancon said. “I didn't have it then, but I watched him throw it and talked to him a little bit about it. … It just blew me away how consistent he was. How good of a pitch it could be, and how hard it is for hitters to hit. I kind of learned how he used it and how he saw hitters react and how he counter-reacts. It taught me a lot about pitching just watching.”

After being traded to the Astros in 2010, Melancon learned various cutter grips from Brandon Lyon. Melancon's grip is slightly different than most. He keeps his index and middle fingers together and releases the ball like a fastball, resulting in less movement than most cutters but more velocity.

“I think my cutter is a little different than a lot of other cutters; it's more like a fastball as opposed to a slider,” Melancon said. “It's has just a little bit of cut to it. ... It's helped me. It's just a good pitch.”

McDonald, d'Arnaud begin rehab assignments

Pirates reserve infielder John McDonald (back spasms) is scheduled to travel to Indianapolis on Sunday and begin a rehab assignment. He's been on the disabled list since May 15. McDonald is scheduled to play two games at second and two games a short before the Pirates make a decision regarding their roster.

“Six, seven days from (Sunday), we'll try to make an evaluation if all goes well,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Saturday.

McDonald has taken groundballs and said his back has improved. Fellow shortstop Chase d'Arnaud began rehabbing with Indianapolis on Saturday.

The old switcheroo

Prior to arriving in Pittsburgh, Francisco Liriano had spent his entire major league career with clubs in the AL Central Division. He matches up against Detroit's Justin Verlander on Monday. Liriano is off to a 3-0 start with the Pirates, and Hurdle said the organization thought he would enjoy some success simply by switching leagues, where batters are less familiar with his three-pitch mix.

“Liriano is one guy, as we worked through all the names, we felt very confident he would be able to bounce back,” Hurdle said. “Getting out of the American League, there's no DH in the middle of the lineup. The bottom of lineups are (typically weaker), plus our park has shown a history of playing well for left-handed pitchers.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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