Jason Grilli has been the big story out of the bullpen for the Pirates this year, he of the 27 saves and likely All-Star berth after spending a decade toiling in the minor leagues. He's the closer, the guy with the cool nickname and the loud warm-up video. In terms of relief pitchers, he's the man.
But without one of the best set-up men in baseball before him, without Mark Melancon, Grilli would be having a very different season.
"[Joel] Hanrahan said the same thing to me last year, that I made his job easier," Grilli said. "Mark is doing just that, doing every bit of setting me up to get the last three outs. It seems like he's chewing up the middle of the order in the eighth, it seems like the way the lineup falls through, it seems like the eighth inning guy has a harder job."
Melancon was lost last year, banished to Class AAA after a miserable stretch with the Boston Red Sox, seemingly miles away from his success in Pittsburgh.
He had only been in the majors a couple years, but was carving out a role as a reliable arm out of the bullpen. After starting in the Yankees organization, he was traded to the Houston Astros, where he saved 20 games with an ERA under 3.00. His spot in the majors seemed to be rising.
Then the Astros needed positional depth and traded him to the Red Sox, where it all fell apart. He had an ERA over 6.00, couldn't get anyone out and couldn't return to the form he showed in Houston.
He was sent down to Class AAA Pawtucket, a move that turned his career around. It took the demotion to make Melancon realize what he was missing, and how he never wanted to be out of the majors again.
"It was one of those times when you realize, 'OK, my back is kind of against the wall. I need to produce,' " Melancon said. "It was good for me in the sense that it kind of flipped a switch in emotions and the way I approached the mound going into the game. Not that I wasn't giving it my all before, but when you get put in a situation where it could be a career-altering thing, it's really a humbling experience."
He dominated in Pawtucket, saving 11 games with an ERA under 1.00. During the offseason, the Pirates traded Hanrahan to free up the closer role for Grilli, acquiring Melancon in the process.
So far, it has worked out perfectly. Melancon has a 0.89 ERA, and his 23 holds lead the majors. Between him and Grilli, late leads tend to stay late leads.
Part of the reason Melancon has been so successful is that he treats the eighth inning the exact same way he used to treat the ninth. He prepares like he is in Grilli's role, then goes out and does many of the same things Grilli does.
"Virtually, it is the same thing," he said. "If you put a nine on top of my inning, it's not like it's any different. I like that, and I accept the role to that extent."
He wants to be back in the closer role, as do most middle relievers, but insists there are no hard feelings between him and Grilli. Even though he's ready to step into Grilli's role at any given moment, he's learned to treat the eighth as his own personal ninth.
"I think people want to think there's animosity between the set-up guy and closer," Grilli said. "There's no bad blood -- he and I get along tremendously. There's no competition between us, we wouldn't work well together if that was the case."
It would be tough for Melancon to make the All-Star team because of Grilli's success. It could still happen, even though it's rare for two guys in the same bullpen to get the nod.
He's aiming for that closer role, to be back in the spotlight, but for now, Melancon is just happy to be back to where he knew he always belonged.
Everett Cook: email@example.com and Twitter @everettcook. First Published July 3, 2013 4:00 AM