Ron Cook: Mark Melancon firmly belongs as Pirates closer



The routine changed Sunday at PNC Park for Pirates closer Mark Melancon. He pitched again against the Colorado Rockies, the first time this season he has worked on three consecutive days. The results didn't change at all for Melancon. He worked a 1-2-3 ninth inning to get the save in a 5-3 win that completed a weekend sweep.

The Pirates can make a trade before the July 31 deadline and get better than Melancon?

I don't think so.

"I like your opinion," Melancon said, grinning.

There are many amateur general managers in Pittsburgh, just as there are in every baseball town. It seemed as if all wanted to see the Pirates put together a package of prized prospects for San Diego Padres closer Huston Street. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington made the obligatory telephone calls that he does for all potential trade possibilities, but Street was sent to the Los Angeles Angels over the weekend in a six-player deal.

You know what they say about some of the best baseball deals being the ones that aren't made?

This was one.

"We feel [Melancon] can close key games for us," Huntington said. "He has the pitches and the mentality to be successful in late-inning situations. He's done it for us in the past."

Melancon doesn't have the intimidating presence many closers do. He doesn't have the killer game face the Philadelphia Phillies' Jonathan Papelbon has. He doesn't have the wild hair and unshaven look former Pirates closer Jason Grilli has. He doesn't have the 100 mph fastball that Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman does.

If you look at Melancon on the mound, you would swear he is flatlining. "Quiet and business-like," Huntington described him. "He just goes out and gets the job done."

In parts of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Melancon shared a New York Yankees bullpen with Mariano Rivera, the best closer in baseball history. He said he learned from him that it's better to be calm instead of demonstrative on the mound, better to be humble instead of braggadocious off the field. "I'd like to ride the highs as much as anyone, but I don't want to wake any sleeping dogs, either," Melancon said. "I believe you can add fuel to the fire by the way you handle yourself out there. I think actions speak louder than words. I think my numbers speak for themselves."

Melancon's save Sunday was his 18th in 21 chances this season, his eighth in eight opportunities since Grilli was demoted and then traded to the Angels. He had 16 in 21 chances last season -- his first with the Pirates -- most coming when Grilli was injured. He had 20 in 25 chances with the Houston Astros in 2011.

Keeping the ball in the park and throwing strikes are what Melancon does best. He has allowed just four extra-base hits in 442/3 innings this season. He has walked one batter in his past 24 appearances.

"I like him. I like him a lot," manager Clint Hurdle said. "If you look at his overall body of work since he's been here, he's been efficient and dependable."

Melancon said he didn't spend any time worrying about the Street trade speculation and won't worry about a deal happening before the deadline. "It's not up to me. I just know that pitching the ninth is where I want to be. I think those situations are what I'm mentally cut out to do. That's when I pitch my best."

Closing games really does have its benefits. "You make more money pitching the ninth than you do pitching the eighth or seventh or sixth or fifth," Melancon said, grinning again.

Huntington will keep looking for ways to improve the Pirates. Another starting pitcher would be nice. So would a first baseman, although Gaby Sanchez hit the ball hard Sunday. Bullpen help always is welcome, although a big trade isn't necessary. The Pirates are just fine with All-Star left-hander Tony Watson and Melancon at the back end. Watson pitched another perfect eighth inning Sunday with two strikeouts.

"When we've been at our best, Clint has had four strong options out there," Huntington said. "We like Justin Wilson. He's proven he's more than competent. Jared Hughes has been throwing the ball really well. But, as always, we'll do everything we can to help our team."

Melancon almost certainly won't be available tonight when the Pirates play the Los Angeles Dodgers at PNC Park, although he said he won't rule himself out. "I pitched five days in a row in Houston," he said. Hurdle, of course, will make the final call. It's hard to imagine him using Melancon under any circumstances. Hurdle felt comfortable pitching him a third day in a row because Melancon needed only five pitches to get three outs Saturday night in a 3-2, 11-inning win.

"I'm tied to their arms," Hurdle said of his pitchers. "But they aren't just arms to me. They're people. I try to protect them as much as I can and not put them in harm's way. So far, knock on wood, we've been pretty successful."

That's sound strategy.

There should be many other save chances for Melancon after tonight. The Pirates are going to need him healthy to make the postseason for a consecutive year. There's no reason to think he won't be up to the challenge.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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