On the Pirates: Great beginning for Pirates' set-up man Melancon

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Every player added to a baseball roster means a corresponding player lost.

Sometimes the equation occurs on a small level, swapping the final man on the bench. On a more macro level, a personnel change can affect roles, and that is what the Pirates dealt with this offseason.

The team made a choice to re-sign Jason Grilli and make him the closer after a dominant season as a set-up man. That left them in search of an eighth-inning reliever. When they decided to trade Joel Hanrahan, entering his final year before free agency and due around $7 million in arbitration, they found one.

Mark Melancon was coming off a rough year. After a successful 20-save season with the Houston Astros in 2011, Melancon struggled after a trade to the Boston Red Sox and found himself in Class AAA Pawtucket not too long into the season.

June went well, July and August not as much. Once September rolled around, though, he allowed only one run.

After Melancon joined the Pirates in the Hanrahan trade, he stepped into Grilli's eighth-inning role and thrived.

"I think at the end of last year I was similar to what I'm doing now," Melancon, 28, said. "Just being aggressive and the attitude that I take out on the mound. In 2011, I think it was the same way."

Entering the weekend, Melancon allowed one run in his first 13 outings. He struck out 11 without walking a batter. Each outing has been one inning, almost always the eighth, just like Grilli last year.

"Obviously they've both thrown the ball very well and have shown quality stuff," general manager Neal Huntington said of his late-inning duo. "They've commanded the baseballs, they've been quick and efficient in their outings, they've thrown the ball very well and been what we've hoped and expected."

The duo pitched so well during the first three weeks of the season that neither of them was available during Thursday's game against the Philadelphia Phillies. Melancon had 13 appearances through the Pirates' first 21 games. He was on pace for 100 innings in 100 appearances. Hurdle said Melancon's early usage concerned him and he wanted to limit it.

"It has everything to do with us having the lead late in the game back-to-back nights and those guys being pitched," Hurdle said.

Melancon credited discussions with pitching coach Ray Searage and special assistant to the GM Jim Benedict during spring training with offering a new perspective on his style.

"In spring training, we talked a lot about my personal delivery and just kind of broke it down," Melancon said. "It was a new look on things. I hadn't seen it before."

Melancon throws a fastball, curveball, cutter and occasionally a changeup. Huntington said Melancon's cutter has improved since his days with the Astros, even though his velocity hasn't hit full gear yet this season.

"The little cutter was a good solid pitch for left-handers [in Houston] because it looks like it's in their happy area and then it gets in a little tighter," Hurdle said. "It looks like it's on the barrel of a right-hander, it's just off."

Melancon, like many pitchers, credited his excellent start to getting ahead in the count more.

"He's a strike thrower, so he gets strike one more often than not and everything else has just been crisp," Hurdle agreed.

Melancon has been a strike thrower for a while. After missing the 2007 season due to Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, he walked only 22 batters in 95 innings in the New York Yankees' minor league system in 2008 -- 2.6 batters per nine innings in the minors, 3.0 in the majors.

The Yankees, who drafted Melancon in the ninth round in 2006, sent him to the Astros for Lance Berkman at the 2010 trade deadline. The Astros traded him to Boston after the 2011 season. Melancon joined Ivan DeJesus Jr., Stolmy Pimentel and Jerry Sands in the Hanrahan trade and was the only one to make the Pirates' major league roster.

"Stuff-wise, our guys have always liked the stuff," Huntington said. "We felt it was a good gamble for us and a good guy to get with multiple years of control."

Hurdle and Huntington hope those years of control have a double meaning for the man who hasn't walked a batter this season.

Looking ahead: Brewers

Doug Melvin must be smiling.

When the Milwaukee general manager decided to trade ace Zack Greinke last summer, he got Los Angeles Angels shortstop Jean Segura, pictured above, in return. The 23-year-old Segura was hitting .356 with six stolen bases entering the weekend.

Carlos Gomez had a career .294 on-base percentage and 44 home runs in six major league seasons before this one. The Brewers signed him to a three-year, $24 million contract extension during spring training. He entered the weekend hitting .324 with a .370 on-base percentage.

It's all starting to work for the Brewers, who started 2-8 but won nine consecutive games to give them an 11-9 record entering the weekend. The Pirates travel to Miller Park to begin a three-game series Monday.

Though Kyle Lohse and Marco Estrada have pitched well, the rest of the Brewers' rotation hasn't. Yovani Gallardo and Wily Peralta have ERAs of 4.97 and 5.16.

The Brewers went 11-4 against the Pirates last season and outscored them, 85-59. They went 16-12 in August, 18-10 in September and played their way into wild card contention before falling short.

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First Published April 28, 2013 4:00 AM


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