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Eighth wonder: Melancon near perfect in Pirates' setup role

| Thursday, July 18, 2013, 11:27 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates reliever Mark Melancon pitches against the Tigers earlier this season at PNC Park.

Pirates pitcher Mark Melancon rode six hours in a minivan to the All-Star festivities in New York, which might have seemed bothersome except that he got to enjoy his family's company. Also, he probably would have walked if he had to.

Last year at this time, Melancon was buried in the bullpen of the faltering Red Sox. This week, he became a first-time All-Star — replacing injured teammate Jeff Locke — on a club with the second-best record in Major League Baseball. He is vital to a relief corps, nicknamed the “Shark Tank,” whose ERA (2.78) is second lowest among the 30 teams.

Melancon expertly has filled the eighth-inning setup role manned last season by Jason Grilli, now the Pirates' closer. With an 0.81 ERA in 45 appearances, Melancon is making the December trade with Boston look like a steal.

“Mark's been phenomenal,” said Grilli, who has 29 saves in 30 chances and pitched in his first All-Star Game on Tuesday (Melancon didn't get in). “If I wasn't here, he'd be closing.”

When leading after seven innings, the Pirates are 42-2.

The Pirates got Melancon and three prospects from the Red Sox for closer Joel Hanrahan and infielder Brock Holt. Twice an All-Star himself, Hanrahan struggled with his new team before undergoing two arm surgeries that ended his season in May. Holt has started at third base in Boston's past nine games, hitting .300, since his recall from Triple-A on July 6.

A 28-year-old right-hander, Melancon had problems with the Red Sox last season. Acquired in a trade with Houston, he had a 6.20 ERA in 41 games and spent nearly two months in the minors. Melancon said “five or six” bad outings skewed his numbers and his season wasn't as awful as it looked.

But those outings, and being sent down, represented “huge reminders, huge learning points,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself and what a real tough time in the game is. I learned that maybe my approach going into the game needed to change a little bit.

“I don't think you can tell that my attitude on the mound has changed, but it has a little bit,” he said. “I don't want to say anger, but a fierce, competitive ... more of an attack-mode type of approach.”

In other words, a closer's approach, which was familiar to him. In 2011, Melancon went 8-4 with 20 saves and a 2.78 ERA with the Astros.

“His arm always played, his stuff always played,” Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said. “Me being a reliever in the past, I can see having a bad year. Once you get out of sync, it's hard to get back in.”

Searage and special assistant Jim Benedict, a pitching Mr. Fix It, solved minor flaws in Melancon's mechanics during spring training. One change was keeping his head fixed straight ahead instead of veering to the side as he delivered the ball.

“It just puts your whole delivery in line,” Melancon said.

Melancon's money pitch is a cut fastball, which he said was inspired by watching Mariano Rivera when they were Yankees teammates in 2009. He also gets good results from what catcher Russell Martin calls a “swing-and-a-miss curveball.”

Martin describes Melancon as “studious, very cerebral about the game” but added that what Melancon does best isn't complicated.

“He's very aggressive throwing strike one,” Martin said. “For me, the game is simple. Go get strike one as quickly as possible. We talked a lot about pitching, what pitch to use. And I'm like: ‘You know what? I don't care what pitch you use. Just get strike one, quick.' I think he's taken that mindset and run with it. He's super aggressive. He attacks hitters all the time. I'd like to know what the percentage is of him getting strike one.”

It's nearly 68 percent, tops among Pirates pitchers who have thrown at least as many innings as Melancon. The league average is about 60 percent. Yet far from seeing pitches served on a platter, hitters are chasing when he gets ahead.

“You gain confidence as you gain results,” Martin said, “and I don't think his confidence could be higher right now.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter@BCohn_Trib.

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