Commentary

Mark Melancon game for anything

Why not let him compete with Andrew Bailey for Sox closer role?

Updated: February 17, 2012, 8:53 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Thrill-seeking and a love of adventure run through the "bucket list" Mark Melancon created with his wife, Mary Catherine, even before they were married. She had it drawn up in calligraphy, framed and hung in their bathroom.

Last month they checked off another item: diving with great white sharks off the coast of New Zealand (to join others such as bicycling a mountainous dirt road in Bolivia past 1,000-foot drops without the safety of a guardrail, and hiking the Grand Canyon).

[+] EnlargeMark Melancon
Tom Szczerbowski/US PresswireMark Melancon will now compete against the Yankees, who traded him to the Astros for Lance Berkman in 2010.

Melancon has answered the call of the wild since he was little, and his father had to fib about his size so he could perform his first bungee jump -- at age 7.

But there was one adrenaline-inducing, living-on-the-edge experience Melancon could have had but didn't -- succeeding Mariano Rivera as the New York Yankees' closer. That was on the team's bucket list, when Melancon was drawing raves as the best relief prospect in their system.

It didn't work out that way. No one doubted his stuff -- the power fastball and the classic 12-6 curve -- but in the pressure-cooker environment of New York, where results are demanded instantly or they move on to the next guy, the Yankees wearied of Melancon's inconsistency and traded him to the Houston Astros.

But consider this: Melancon's audition with the Yankees lasted all of 20 1/3 innings before he was traded to Houston for Lance Berkman. He was only 25 at the time of the trade.

Last season, with Houston, the Astros turned to Melancon to close for them when Brandon Lyon had shoulder surgery, and Melancon responded the way the Yankees once imagined he would, converting 20 of 25 save opportunities. And he got better as the year went on, developing a cutter, converting 13 of his last 16 save chances and becoming nearly unhittable in the last four weeks of the season. He won two and saved seven in his final 14 appearances, posting a 0.59 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .157 batting average with no home runs while striking out 18 in 15 1/3 innings.

You look at that performance -- and granted, it was for a last-place Astros team that lost more than 100 games -- and you contemplate the Sox's closer situation a little differently this spring. Maybe Melancon won't succeed Mariano Rivera, but hasn't he earned a shot to compete for the chance to succeed Jonathan Papelbon?

The plan, at least on paper, is for Andrew Bailey to inherit the job, after the Sox acquired the two-time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year from Oakland. Even Melancon acknowledges as much.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Bailey
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesAndrew Bailey is the heavy favorite to lock down the Sox's closer job this spring.

"I think they signed Andrew for a reason," he said at the Sox training facility Wednesday, an early arrival for a camp that officially opens Sunday. "He's obviously done well and deserves to be there."

And then, in his next sentence, the native of Wheat Ridge, Colo., suggested that he isn't conceding anything.

"But I think competition is good," he said. "I think everybody would agree with that. I don't know anybody who would limit the competition."

Least of all Bobby Valentine, who inherits a team that has jobs to be won in the bullpen, the starting rotation, at shortstop and in the outfield.

"I don't know if that spot [closer] is wide open, but the back end of the bullpen -- the seventh and eighth innings -- are wide open," Melancon said.

But why stop there? Let Melancon and Bailey battle it out throughout the spring. Let Melancon demonstrate that the wildness he showed in his first go-round with the Yankees -- 10 walks and four hit batsmen in just 16 1/3 innings in 2009 -- was not the product of timidity, as some hinted, but just growing pains.

Melancon, who missed his first season of pro ball because of Tommy John elbow surgery in his last year at the University of Arizona, made his big league debut at Fenway Park. Replacing Andy Pettitte with the Yankees down 4-1, Melancon retired the side in order, but in his second inning, a single, walk and hit batsman loaded the bases with no outs.

[+] EnlargeMark Melancon
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesMark Melancon was nearly unhittable down the stretch for the Astros last year.

Melancon didn't blink, inducing Mike Lowell to ground into a force play at the plate, striking out Jason Varitek, then escaping the inning on another force play.

"It's just more cutthroat," Melancon said of pitching in the AL East, adding that it was something he missed. "Everybody has a chance to win. I think the Northeast takes baseball a little more serious all the way around. That just tends to bring everybody's excitement up a little bit."

Melancon, who added his own bit to the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry when he threw a pitch over Dustin Pedroia's head in a game in August 2009 before hitting him in the shoulder with his next delivery, said Wednesday he appreciated all the Yanks did for him, but said with a smile, "I'm on the other side now -- the better side."

He returns to the rivalry not only in a different uniform, but more prepared to handle the challenge. His demeanor -- soft-spoken, thoughtful -- doesn't contain the bravado typical of a thrill-seeker, and he acknowledges that his bucket list has limits.

"I do have some sanity," he said.

But he also knows what it's like to pitch without a safety net -- and he should be given that chance here.

"The ninth inning is just different," he said. "Really, I don't know why it is, but the last three outs just seem to take longer. But being in that role, that's kind of what I've been striving for my whole career.

"Being here now, obviously, that might change. Still anywhere in the back end of the bullpen, you have to treat it like a save situation. I'll use the experience of last year here."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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