Melancon gets two-week closer role for the Pirates

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For at least the next two weeks or so, the Pirates' closing duties will fall to quiet, even-keeled Mark Melancon. The demeanor hides the competitive nature.

"There's an intense fire that burns in this guy that I don't think many see or many realize," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's on a mission."

The Pirates enter their two-game road series against the Baltimore Orioles with Melancon as the closer while Jason Grilli is on the 15-day disabled list because of a strained left oblique muscle.

What Melancon's personality can't hide is his effectiveness. Melancon has allowed two runs and seven hits through 12 innings, most of them in the eighth, as the set-up man ahead of Grilli. He has blown only one lead in 12 appearances, which occurred April 12 against the Milwaukee Brewers. He has not allowed a home run since April 14, 2013.

"It's like Mr. Briefcase," Hurdle said. "He checks in, checks out, gets it done, never too high, never too low."

Melancon generally has had good control in his career, but the command became elite when he joined the Pirates before the 2013 season. He walked eight batters in 71 innings in 2013, compared to 12 walks in 45 innings a season earlier, and has issued only one walk this year.

"It's a basketball player shooting free throws," Hurdle said. "Melancon's got a stroke that's pure, that's clean, that's repeatable. And it's strike, strike, strike. It's pretty much not [a ball] unless he wants it not to be. He does throw pitches out of the zone with intent and with conviction because he wants to."

Hurdle compared Melancon's delivery to that of Philadelphia Phillies starter Cliff Lee, with whom Hurdle worked when both were members of the Texas Rangers organization. Lee, who won the Cy Young in 2008, has led the league in fewest walks allowed per nine innings among qualified starters four times.

"It's so pretty to watch," Hurdle said of Lee. "It's the same delivery. Every pitch that comes out of his hand. And for me that's as critical as anything."

The injury to Grilli slid everyone in the bullpen back a spot. With Melancon closing, the seventh and eighth innings will fall to Tony Watson, Bryan Morris and possibly Justin Wilson.

"They've been fantastic," Melancon said. "Tony's consistent just like he was last year. B-mo's really throwing a power sinker now. He's always had that but his velocity's up. He's going right after guys."

Morris' fastball has increased in average velocity from 93.9 mph in 2013 to 95.3 mph this year. Watson has struck out 15 in 111/3 innings.

"It speaks to the quality of the pitchers out there," general manager Neal Huntington said of the strength of the late-inning relievers. "Those individuals and how they're able to just continue on speaks to the quality of the job our coaching staff does, our advance staff does, the job that our scouting staff has done, because those weren't real high-priority, high-profile guys. It's been a great team effort to get those guys on line."

Melancon saved 16 games in 2013, many of them coming when Grilli missed time due to a forearm injury. He also recorded 20 saves with the Houston Astros in 2011.

"Every opportunity to him is meaningful," Hurdle said. "He's had some challenges in this game as well and dealt with and experienced good doses of adversity. And come through the other side."

Bill Brink: and on Twitter @BrinkPG.

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