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Melancon making MLB pitch Paul sokoloski opinion

Yanks bullpen prospect Melancon

He is supposed to be the next great closer for the New York Yankees, the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera.

But to Mark Melancon, that praise is only speculation right now.

“That’s a great comparison, and big shoes to fill,” Melancon said. “If somebody says that, that’s great. I understand, I still have to go out and do my job.

“I still have to earn that.”

He hasn’t really earned anything yet at the major league level, except respect for coming back strong enough from career-threatening Tommy John surgery a couple of years ago to pitch his way into New York’s future plans.

He hasn’t thrown a single pitch in the majors yet.

But the more Melancon pitches at the Triple-A level for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, the more his big league future looks as if it’s imminent.

Melancon picked up in spring training where he left off with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last year, rendering the bats of left-handed Triple-A hitters practically useless with a hard fastball, diving sinker and a curve that just freezes people. Melancon got hit around a little in big league camp this spring, as his 7.94 ERA and the two homers he surrendered in six appearances with New York shows.

But the 24-year-old right-handed relief pitcher did strike out five batters in 5 2/3 innings, and did enough to generate talk about a possible call-up to the big leagues, maybe as soon as during this summer. But it won’t be to work the ninth inning, because a guy who might go down as the best closer in baseball history still has that role in New York.

“I don’t know how many years Mariano has left on his contract,” Melancon said of Rivera. “But I really don’t think I’m going to go take his job anytime soon.”

Maybe that is why Melancon finished with just one save in 12 appearances for the SWB Yankees last season, with a lot of those stints coming in a setup role.

He came in early again Friday, to pitch the fifth and sixth innings in a spring training game against a Pittsburgh Pirates split squad, and worked a pretty clean day while allowing one double and finishing with two strikeouts in two scoreless innings.

It is what Melancon figures he’ll be doing when he eventually arrives in New York.

“I have to get up there, and then I’ll be pitching in similar situations anyway,” Melancon said. “I won’t be a closer right away. You have to earn that spot.”

Even Rivera pitched in a setup role, until John Wetteland left the Yankees bullpen in 1996 and left the door to the closer’s job open for Rivera – who slammed it shut for the past 13 years and counting with 482 career saves.

So just to be in the conversation about Rivera’s potential successor is an honor to Melancon, especially because nobody was talking about him this way two years ago.

After setting the single-season and career saves records at the University of Arizona, Melancon was drafted by the Yankees and helped short-season Single-A Staten Island win a New York-Penn League championship in 2006.

In the process, he blew out his arm, and spent all of 2007 trying to work his way back from Tommy John surgery.

“I was very confident my arm would come back,” Melancon said. “I knew I was going to go about the rehab in the right way and do what I was told. You only get one shot to go through rehab, and you have to make it a good one. You can’t be lazy.”

His hard work paid off when Melancon went a combined 8-1 with Single-A Tampa, Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last season, with a 2.27 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 95 innings over 41 relief appearances. In the Triple-A playoffs, Melancon was 1-0 for Governors Cup champion Scranton/Wilkes-Barre while throwing three shutout innings in two postseason appearances.

He not only came back last season, he worked his way back into New York’s future.

“I guess I might have a different mindset than other people,” Melancon said, “but I try to do the best I can wherever I’m at. It doesn’t matter if I’m here, in the big league camp, I’m going to do my best wherever I am at that time.”

It is the perfect mentality for a closer, one that indicates sooner or later, Melancon will close the deal on succeeding one of the best late-inning relief specialists in the game.

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