WASHINGTON -- The mood in the Pirates clubhouse Tuesday was decidedly upbeat. Many of the players had talked with closer Jason Grilli earlier in the day before he returned to Pittsburgh to be examined by team orthopedist Dr. Patrick DeMeo and found him to be surprisingly optimistic. "We don't think it's the end of the world," general manager Neal Huntington said of the right forearm strain that forced Grilli to leave the game Monday night against the Washington Nationals and land on the 15-day disabled list.
There was another reason the players felt good about themselves. They like their chances of continuing their march toward the franchise's first playoff spot in 21 years even if they have to do it without Grilli -- the best bullpen hammer in baseball this season -- for a couple of weeks or more.
"We're lucky to have Mark," first baseman Garrett Jones said.
That would be Melancon.
"He's been in that role before," Jones said. "He's got a closer's mentality. He is a closer."
Melancon pitched like one in the Pirates' 5-1 win Tuesday night against the Nationals even if he didn't get a save. He needed just seven pitches to take down Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche in a one-two-three ninth inning.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said he went to Melancon in a non-save situation for a couple of reasons. The Pirates will face the Nationals' two best starters -- Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez -- in the next two games and might not have a late-inning lead to protect. The ball also travels well in Nationals Park -- "A four-run lead is like a three-run lead here," Hurdle said -- especially when it's hot.
"Who sets that [three-run save] line, anyway?" Hurdle asked. "They had the middle part of their order up. Let's put our best on it and see if we can move on."
Melancon and the Pirates did just that.
Melancon's experience as a closer should not be underestimated. He converted 20 of 25 save opportunities for the 2011 Houston Astros. Yes, that was a bad Houston team, and Melancon is pitching for a pennant contender now. But he knows the pressure that goes with the job. He knows how difficult it can be getting the final three outs of a game. He knows blowing a save after his team works three hours to build a lead can make for a hurtful loss.
"I did it in college [at Arizona]. I did it in the minor leagues. I did it in Houston," Melancon said. "I had more experience doing it coming into this season than Grilli had."
The Pirates aren't wrong for thinking Melancon will be just as successful.
"Look at what he's done in the eighth inning," Huntington said. "He not only doesn't give up any runs. He doesn't allow any baserunners."
That wasn't much of an exaggeration. Melancon's 0.95 earned run average is best among National League relievers. He has been scored upon just four times in his past 40 games.
"I hate the word perfect," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said. "But he's been damn near perfect."
That's why everyone on the Pirates was surprised when Melancon pitched into big trouble Sunday against the Cincinnati Reds by walking two hitters. Trying to protect a 3-1 lead, he had to face All-Star Joey Votto with the bases loaded and no outs.
"Votto in that situation? That's not a comfortable feeling," Huntington said.
Melancon got Votto to hit into a 3-6-1 double play, getting over quickly to get the second out at first base. He then got All-Star Brandon Phillips to bounce out to shortstop. Grilli came on in the ninth to get his 30th save in 31 chances in a 3-2 win.
"Mark is a lot like Jason was for us last season," Huntington said. "He's not afraid to face the heart of the lineup in the eighth inning."
Or the ninth inning, for that matter.
"I take the ninth inning the same way I do the eighth," Melancon said. "What could I do differently, anyway? My approach stays the same."
Walker put it into words.
"Pound the strike zone ... Strike one! ... Strike two! ... "
"It's all about attacking," Melancon said.
"He does the same thing every time. He goes right after the hitter," Walker said. "He knows what he's doing is working. So why change? He never tries to take it to a different level. That discipline is so important, especially for a late-inning guy."
It helped Melancon make it to his first All-Star Game last week, a difficult achievement for a set-up man. He's a big reason the Pirates bullpen has the second-best ERA (2.76) in baseball. The team is 45-2 in games when it led after seven innings.
Now, someone will have to fill Melancon's eighth-inning role. Hurdle said he will use a committee, deciding his man or men each game based on matchups and his gut feeling. Tony Watson, Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson and Vin Mazzaro each figure to take a turn. Morris pitched the eighth Tuesday night, giving up just a single.
"I feel like any of us in the bullpen can step up and get big outs," Melancon said. "I wouldn't necessarily say what we've done is amazing. It's a lot of hard work and a lot of talent plus some uncommon camaraderie. Some things have gone our way, but things tend to go your way when you work hard and have talent."
Melancon played for the 2009 world champion New York Yankees. He's not afraid to say these Pirates have similar potential.
"I know what a good team looks like. I know how it acts and how it feels. This is a standout group. We've got good people. Not just good baseball players, but good people. I really enjoy my teammates. There aren't many egos in here. It's a really good group that has a chance to do something really special."
Melancon's teammates share his positive vibes. They seem convinced he will keep the team on track until Grilli gets back, hopefully sooner rather than later.
"Mark doesn't have to change anything," Jones said. "He just has to be Melancon."
That should be plenty good enough.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published July 24, 2013 4:00 AM