Natural born closer: The journey of Mark Melancon

If Pirates closer Mark Melancon looks comfortable pitching in relief, it’s because he is used to it.

Over the past decade, Melancon has pitched in 487 games among the majors, minors and college. Of those, he started only two, both with the University of Arizona.

As a veteran of the bullpen, this right-hander is a rare breed. Among the Pirates seven relievers, he is the only one to have never started professionally. Nearly every Pirates reliever was primarily a starter for most of his career. Next to Melancon, the closest true reliever the Pirates have is recently acquired Ernesto Frieri, who started 54 games in his minor league career.

“I was kind of one of the first-generation relievers to be drafted and to continue to relieve all the way through the minor leagues,” Melancon said.

The previous time Melancon started regularly was in the early 2000s, when he was a high school standout in Golden, Colo. He has been relieving ever since.

As a freshman at Arizona in 2004, the team’s starting rotation was already established, so he was placed in the bullpen. That was when he got his first taste of closing, through trial by fire.

“Right before we got into the playoffs, our closer struggled and I’d been pitching well, so they put me into the closing role and I pitched in the closing role throughout the World Series in Omaha,” he said.

After being drafted as a reliever in the ninth round of the 2006 draft by the New York Yankees, Melancon strolled through the minor leagues, bouncing between closing and middle relief. Although he had discussions about possibly starting, one thing remained constant — he was always in the bullpen.

He worked as a middle reliever for the Yankees and the Houston Astros in 2009 and 2010 before he caught his break.

Astros closer Brandon Lyon went on the disabled list in May 2011, giving Melancon his chance to close. Melancon, whose primary pitch is his cutter, finished with 20 saves for a team that won 56 games. He expected to be the Astros closer of the future, but then was dealt to the Boston Red Sox.

“I didn’t see a trade coming by any means,” he said. “I definitely expected to stay there. We bought a house there, my daughter was born in Houston. That was a wild turnaround.”

Perhaps the change of scenery rattled the reliever because a few bad appearances spoiled his arrival in Boston and he spent all of May 2012 in the minors. Before the season, he was in the running to be the team’s closer, but allowed eleven earned runs in his first four appearances, which spanned two innings. He posted a 6.20 ERA in 45 innings that year and never had the chance to close.

“Not that you can do this, but you take five outings out and it’s not a bad year at all. It was just a few outings that killed me,” he said. “And I knew that so that’s how I was able to get through it because I knew that wasn’t me, it was just some bad nights.”

Last year, Melancon bounced back, and has since performed well as set-up man and as closer when former Pirates reliever Jason Grilli was injured.

Melancon took over as closer June 20 after Grilli blew his fourth save of the season. With Grilli traded to Los Angeles, the closer role now looks to be his indefinitely. But he doesn’t like to think of it as his position to lose.

“It’s my job and I’m going to keep it,” he said. “It’s not going to be lost.”

Melancon has allowed four earned runs in his first 81⁄3 innings since becoming closer, but most importantly, he has six saves in six chances.

To him, pitching the ninth is the same as pitching the eighth. He has the same approach and delivers the same pitches.

“It’s really not a whole lot different,” he said. “Sometimes the last three outs are emphasized a little bit more, and I don’t know if that creates a little bit more difficulty in getting outs. But for me, mentally, physically, it’s the same approach.”

Said manager Clint Hurdle: “He’s one of the few back-end guys I’ve seen where his mentality — one run, two runs, four runs — whenever he pitches, he’s consistent.”

In New York, Melancon had the good fortune to pitch in the same bullpen as Mariano Rivera and learned plenty from the legendary closer, who was also a right-hander with a dangerous cutter.

“It’s really cool to be able to sit down there with [Rivera],” he said. “Just watching him go through his routine is fun but also seeing how his demeanor was in tight situations and, you know, never to get on the roller-coaster ride too high or too low.”

It certainly appears that the mild-mannered Melancon keeps a cool head. Since the start of the 2013 season, he has allowed more than one earned run in a game four times.

“He’s as professional at getting ready, [approaching] and getting on the mound as any pitcher I’ve had in the bullpen,” Hurdle said.

After a decade of relief, Melancon has learned how to keep his game simple. He has one thing on his mind when he toes the mound late in a tight game: “Get outs.”

Hayes Gardner: or Twitter @HayesGardner.

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