Tracy Ringolsby

Thin air just another challenge Melancon embraces

Thin air just another challenge Melancon embraces

DENVER -- Nationals closer Mark Melancon remembers the expansion Rockies of 1993, playing those games in Mile High Stadium, the home of the NFL's Denver Broncos, where few concessions were made for a baseball team that was going to be a two-year tenant.

And, oh, 1995. Melancon was 10 years old and the Rockies moved into their permanent home, Coors Field, celebrating the season by becoming the first National League Wild Card team in history, enjoying a taste of postseason in only their third year of existence.

"Blake Street Bombers," Melancon said with a smile, remembering the power of the bats of Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla and Ellis Burks.

It was nirvana for a baseball rat who was born in the Denver suburb of Wheat Ridge and raised in nearby Golden.

"I grew up watching games here," Melancon said, "and even if I was not from here, it's a beautiful place. It was built to last. You go to other stadiums that are 5, 10 years old and then look at this. It has aged well."

Oh, and at the age of 31, making his living as a big league closer, Melancon still finds a comfort at Coors Field.

The place may have a reputation as a pitcher's nightmare, branded with such a stigma because of its 5,280-foot altitude that even some of the game's elite pitchers moan about when asked to take the mound at a mile high.

Not Melancon.

And it shows. On a night when Nationals starter Max Scherzer was unable to earn a victory for the fifth time in five career starts at Coors Field, coming out after the fourth inning with the Nats down by two runs, Melancon provided the finishing touches for a bullpen that worked five scoreless innings, allowing only three hits, in a 5-4 victory against the Rockies.

"I go out there, and to me, it's a 5-4 ballgame and I go out there pitching against the game itself," Melancon said, "not necessarily an opponent or the altitude. I know if I throw the pitches I want, I will usually get the job done."

On Monday night, Melancon needed only four pitches -- all of which went for strikes -- to retire the left-handed trio of Ben Paulsen, Gerardo Parra and Charlie Blackmon on three ground-ball outs.

"That was some primo," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "That was some inning."

That's been the norm for Melancon in his limited opportunities to pitch at Coors Field. He's now made six appearances, working 6 2/3 scoreless innings, in which he has allowed one hit, struck out eight and converted all five save opportunities.

About that purple stripe that covers a row of seats in the upper deck, signifying the official point where the elevation reaches 5,280 feet?

"The altitude thing never plays a part," Melancon said. "I am more of a ground-ball pitcher, anyway. But I grew up here. Even playing [at the University of] Arizona, where the air is thin, that is not a factor that ever came into my mind. It's what I grew up with."

But that's Melancon. Not much bothers him. Hey, he had Tommy John surgery when he was at Arizona, which took him from first-round Draft consideration to a ninth-round pick by the Yankees. No big deal. Melancon knew he could make it to the big leagues, and he went that extra mile to prove it, sleeping in an old van he bought in Florida to make ends meet during the instructional league and paying his own way one offseason so he could work out with the players in the Yanks' academy in the Dominican Republic.

Melancon is not about pity parties or looking for excuses. He's about accepting challenges and enjoying the opportunity.

That was never more evident than in late July, when the Pirates, still in the battle for an NL Wild Card spot, traded Melancon to the Nationals, who have a strong grip on an NL East title. The Bucs had been a blessing for him. They acquired him from the Red Sox after a nightmarish 2012 season.

With the Pirates, Melancon found himself in the closer's role by the middle of the 2013 season. He sandwiched 33-save seasons around an MLB-best 51 saves in 2015. And Melancon had 30 saves for the Bucs this season prior to his July 30 trade to the Nats.

"I couldn't say I was surprised given the situation I am in with free agency [after the season]," Melancon said. "If they had been in first place, it might have been different. They are a small-market team and have some decisions to make. I understand the business side."

Melancon also understands altitude.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for Read his blog, Write 'em Cowboy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.