ATLANTA -- If the Braves can navigate their way to the ninth inning with a lead in Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday night, if they can get within three outs of their first NL Championship Series since 2001, they will likely put their fate in the right hand of Mark Melancon.
Who saw that coming when Atlanta spent months seeking a solution in the ninth inning?
Who saw that coming when Melancon struggled through his first significant injury with the Giants over the last two years? Or when the formerly rock-steady closer spent the first few months of this season working lower-leverage situations in San Francisco?
It’s been a roundabout journey back to the ninth inning, but it’s a familiar destination for Melancon.
“This year, I felt like me,” Melancon said on Tuesday. “The last two years, it hasn’t felt like me, just arm stuff. This year, it has. I think the new scenery was good, too.”
Vizcaíno, who entered the season with the job despite lingering concerns about his right shoulder, made four appearances during the first week of April then underwent season-ending shoulder surgery on April 17. While fans clamored for free agent Craig Kimbrel, the Braves stayed the course.
A.J. Minter took over as Atlanta’s primary closer, a stint ended in late April. Jackson, the next man up, blew seven saves leading up to the Trade Deadline. General manager Alex Anthopoulos acted aggressively to reconstruct the bullpen by bringing in Martin from the Rangers, Greene from the Tigers and Melancon from the Giants.
Greene, who cost the Braves a pair of former first-round Draft picks, struggled during his first week in Atlanta and he quickly lost the closer’s job he had earned in Detroit.
Getting Melancon as a middle/setup reliever came at the price of reliever Dan Winkler and prospect Tristan Beck, though the Braves also agreed to assume responsibility of the approximately $18.7 million remaining on Melancon’s contract through the end of next season.
Within two weeks of the trade, Melancon was the Braves’ closer.
“He's one of those guys that had done it. He'd been there, done that. He'd been traded into a contender,” manager Brian Snitker said. “He'd been through that, and I think was equipped to handle it.
“When we got him, he probably had thrown his best baseball that he has in a year or so, I would think. His stuff has been really, really good. He's provided some really good stability at the back end of our bullpen."
Ask around about what Melancon has brought to the Braves, and you’ll hear that word a lot: stability. It was Melancon who finally stopped the rotating cast of characters in the ninth inning and he solidified the most important spot in the bullpen on a team preparing for close games in October.
“When you put together a bullpen, you work backward -- from your closer back, right?” Tomlin said. “Once you have that guy in the ninth inning who locks it down, and it’s like, ‘OK, he’s the guy,’ it gets everybody set in a certain role.”
For years, Melancon was a rarity. He was a safe bet in the volatile profession of relief pitching.
He was traded three years in a row, from 2010-12, from the Yankees to the Astros to the Red Sox to the Pirates. In Pittsburgh, Melancon developed into one of the Majors’ most reliable late-inning arms. From 2013-16, he recorded a 1.80 ERA, a 0.91 WHIP and 147 saves while averaging 74 appearances per season. The Nationals acquired him in July 2016 to serve as their closer come October, when he finished four games without allowing a run in the NLDS.
That durability and dependability got Melancon paid after the 2016 season. The Giants signed him to a four-year, $62 million contract with the expectation that he’d be their next closer. But an injury intervened, as Melancon served two stints on the injured list in 2017, and he wound up on the 60-day IL in '18 due to a complicated injury to the pronator muscle in his right forearm.
Before the 2017 season, Melancon had never spent a day on the injured list. One of his career goals was to avoid the injured list entirely. It took six months to figure out the source of Melancon’s injury, which was comparable to lower-body compartment syndrome. He had surgery in September 2017, and doctors told him he’d be fully recovered from the fasciotomy in three months. It took a year.
“It stunk,” Melancon said. “But I’m through it.”
This season, Melancon has returned to form. He made 66 appearances during the regular season, averaged a strikeout per inning, cut down his walk rate and kept the ball in the park. He had a rare lapse in Game 1 of the NLDS, allowing four runs on five hits, but he bounced back with a pair of redemptive saves in Games 2 and 3.
“It's really exciting. To be fair, I don't think I realized how good this team was until I got over here,” Melancon said. “And all three of us that came in the bullpen together, we all just kind of looked at each other and were laughing for the first two weeks, just, ‘Wow, this is impressive.’”
There’s another word you hear a lot regarding Melancon: intensity. Most of the day, he’s a thoughtful, mild-mannered father of three and an approachable leader in the bullpen. When Max Fried asked him how he felt after working back-to-back days in this series, the 34-year-old Melancon joked that he probably felt worse than the 25-year-old Fried because he threw so many pitches to get through his outing.
But when the seventh inning rolls around, you can see a competitive switch flip.
“He’s a completely different person when he’s out there,” Tomlin said. “That mindset, you can see his face kind of change into a different, Mysterious Mark kind of persona. It’s fun to watch. That intensity he brings is huge, and it magnifies it for everyone else.”
If the Braves are going to get the job done against the Cardinals in Game 5 and get where they want to go after that, they’ll need Melancon back where he belongs, pitching at the back end of the bullpen.
“It’s been great. I really enjoy the guys,” Melancon said. “It’s playoff baseball, so everything’s pretty intense.”