WASHINGTON -- Closer Mark Melancon showed Sunday why the Nationals acquired his services from the Pirates before the non-waiver Trade Deadline. He was dominant against the Giants, retiring the side in order while striking out two to record the Nationals' first save since July 29.
The Giants simply didn't know what to do when they faced Melancon. The right-hander threw 13 pitches in the ninth -- six were cutters and the rest were knuckle-curveballs. To show how Melancon sets up a hitter, look at how Giants outfielder Hunter Pence reacted at the plate. The first two pitches Pence saw were cutters, which he swung at and missed. And then Pence struck out to end the game on a knuckle-curve.
"My location has been key. That's a big part of my game," Melancon said. "Then you add some movement in there with the cutter, sinker and curveball. Add some depth and some down angle, those are the keys I'm trying to work on each night."
It's the cutter that has made Melancon one of the best closers in the Majors. Since July 24, 2013, Melancon has the most saves, with 129. He said he would not have been successful if not for people who encouraged him to throw that wicked pitch.
It started when he was with the Yankees. First, he sat in the bullpen by watching Mariano Rivera throw the cutter. Then Billy Connors, who worked in player development with New York, taught Melancon how to grip the ball.
Then after the Yankees traded Melancon to the Astros in 2010, former teammate Brandon Lyon showed Melancon the proper techniques of the cutter as far as its spin and rotation. The two played catch quite a bit to perfect the cutter. It took Melancon two months before he threw it in a game.
When Melancon arrived in Pittsburgh in 2013, catcher Russell Martin, who caught Rivera for two years in New York, pounded into Melancon's head that he had to throw the cutter every day.
"[Martin said], 'We have to throw it all the time. It's such a great pitch. You need to use it a lot,'" Melancon recalled.
Throwing the cutter has paid off for Melancon. During his three-plus years in Pittsburgh, he made three All-Star appearances and had a 1.80 ERA. Since joining the Nationals, Melancon hasn't allowed a run in four innings.
Melancon wants more than just notoriety as a closer. He wants to win the World Series in 2016. He said the current Nationals squad reminds him of the 2009 Yankees, a team he was on but didn't participate in their championship run.
"There are a lot of leaders on this team as far as speaking up," Melancon said. "Everybody is jelling together. People are excited to come to the clubhouse every day. People are pulling for each other in the dugout and in the bullpen. It's a real tight-knit group."