Cutter Above: Melancon makes seamless transition to Nats
WASHINGTON (AP) When Dusty Baker first played in the minor leagues at age 18, he had only seen curveballs and never a slider.
''When I went to swing at it, it would like move right at the right time and I thought it was like an anti-bat repellant-type pitch,'' Baker said.
Almost 40 years later, that's what the Washington Nationals manager sees in new closer Mark Melancon's cutter. Melancon has continued to use that Mariano Rivera-inspired cutter, his curveball and fastball to near perfection since the Nationals acquired him from the Pittsburgh Pirates at the trade deadline.
In his first five appearances for Washington, Melancon retired 15 of the 16 batters he faced, striking out seven and walking none. He has come precisely as advertised and looks to be the consistent solution to the Nationals' closer problem.
''He's not doing anything different than he was before we got him,'' Baker said. ''He doesn't give up a lot of hits. He gives up very few walks.''
Melancon is Mr. Steady and Dependable, having converted 30 of 33 save opportunities for the Pirates this season and now 2 of 2 for the Nationals. That's a stark contrast to usurped Washington closer and 2015 trade deadline pickup Jonathan Papelbon, who allowed eight runs on seven hits in his final three outings before the trade and has three blown saves and a 4.37 ERA.
In 50 games, Melancon has a 1.35 ERA, and he's spotless so far with the Nationals. He credits the seamless transition to catchers Wilson Ramos and Pedro Severino being on the same page with him.
''I'm just attacking guys and trying to get ahead,'' Melancon said Wednesday. ''It's been smooth and great attitudes back there and willingness to learn on both ends of that. I think when you have those things, things usually click pretty well.''
Melancon knows a thing or two about adjusting to new catchers and new teams. The trade from Pittsburgh to Washington for left-handed reliever Felipe Rivero and pitching prospect Taylor Hearn was the fourth of his career.
He was traded from the New York Yankees to Houston at the 2010 deadline, from the Astros to the Red Sox in the winter of 2011 and from Boston to Pittsburgh in the winter of 2012. As a pending free agent, the 31-year-old righty wasn't shocked he got traded.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington knew he was giving up a stable back-of-the-bullpen piece, saying, ''While we anticipate he will be very productive for the Nationals over the next two months, the reality is he's staring free agency in the face.'' Melancon is making $9.65 million and will almost certainly get a substantial raise this offseason.
With Papelbon's contract up after the season, the Nationals could be among the top suitors for Melancon. But for now, they're in first place in the NL East and trail only the Chicago Cubs for the best record in baseball, so the 2016 World Series is their focus.
Melancon's stability is a big piece of the road there for a team with a history of playoff failures, but he's still in the process of tinkering and trying to improve his arsenal. He has a strong rapport with Washington pitching coach Mike Maddux stemming from a 2014 trip to Japan that featured a series of exhibition games, and the two are working on adding a change-up and discussing mental aspects of closing.
''He's extremely knowledgeable and fun to listen to,'' Melancon said. ''Everybody has a different twist on things, but he brings things to light that you never even knew were out there. It's really cool to learn from him. His experience is as good as anybody's.''
Melancon, who led the majors with 51 saves last season, has plenty of experience himself and is arguably at his peak as a professional pitcher. Baker has seen plenty of closers in his decades in baseball and comes away impressed.
''He mixes it up: fastball, cutter, curveball,'' Baker said. ''Before he had a super curveball, which was his main pitch, but now you can't sit on any one of those pitches. And he's pretty smart about what he's doing.''
Melancon learned the smarts from Rivera during his time with the Yankees. Melancon has carried on the tradition of the dominant cutter that Rivera made nearly unhittable.