Aggressive approach with Melancon could be key

Ability to use closer in variety of situations provides boost to Nats

Aggressive approach with Melancon could be key

WASHINGTON -- After Game 1 of the National League Division Series, no one can accuse Nationals manager Dusty Baker of not being suitably aggressive with his closer.

Baker, sometimes described as an extreme by-the-book manager, turned to closer Mark Melancon in the top of the ninth inning Friday, even though his team trailed the Dodgers by a run.

Game Date Matchup Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 7 LAD 4, WAS 3 video
Gm 2 Oct. 9 WSH 5, LAD 2 video
Gm 3 Oct. 10 WAS 8, LAD 3 video
Gm 4 Oct. 11 LAD 6, WAS 5 video
Gm 5 Oct. 13 LAD 4, WSH 3 video

"We wanted to hold the game where it was, because we know they had [Kenley] Jansen in there, and the chances of you scoring two or three runs off him isn't real good," Baker said Saturday. "So last night was a situation where we wanted to keep the score where it was, to give us an opportunity and a chance."

Given the increased importance of bullpens during the playoffs and Baker's willingness to use Melancon for more than three outs or in non-save situations, the Nats' closer could be crucial to their hopes in the NLDS (which Washington trails, 1-0) and beyond.

Melancon, who arrived from Pittsburgh in a Trade Deadline deal, posted a 1.82 ERA in 29 2/3 regular-season innings with the Nationals, converting all but one save opportunity. As the end of the regular season approached, Baker didn't dial back Melancon's usage; instead, he put the closer through situations like the ones he'll face in the postseason.

On Oct. 1, Baker brought in Melancon for a four-out save. Then he summoned the righty again the next day, simulating the type of back-to-back the closer will need to handle in order for the Nationals to play deep into October.

Melancon records the save

After that four-out appearance, Melancon noted that he hadn't thrown more than an inning at a time often in Pittsburgh, but he felt comfortable doing so anyway.

"You're sitting out a half-inning, so your body's got to get used to that and get warmed back up," Melancon said. "There's a little difference, but nothing that I can't handle."

Melancon is no stranger to high-pressure situations, having reached the playoffs in each of his three full seasons with the Pirates. In all of his six postseason appearances for Pittsburgh, Melancon was asked to pitch in a non-save situation, including during the winner-take-all Wild Card Game in each of the past two seasons.

Melancon said Thursday that the trick to pitching in the playoffs is "making sure you're not changing yourself for the environment."

"That first time, there's always a different feel," Melancon said. "Then once you have experienced that, it's like, 'OK, I know what to expect.'"

Melancon is the centerpiece of a bullpen that has quietly become one of the Nationals' strengths. But as well as Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and others have pitched in setup roles, the ability to use Melancon in a variety of situations provides Baker a huge boost. The manager has shown that he can and will call on his closer whenever he needs to, no matter what the rules of the "save" statistic dictate.

Alex Putterman is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.