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Nationals acquire closer Mark Melancon from Pirates for Felipe Rivero, Taylor Hearn

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Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo found his closer, Mark Melancon, dealing left-handers Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday afternoon.

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MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Melancon was just three saves shy of tying Dave Giusti (133) for third on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ all-time saves list.

Melancon’s 114 saves since the start of the 2014 season are the most by any major league closer, and he’s converted 92.7% of his save opportunities over that stretch, the third-best percentage among major league closers, behind only the Baltimore Orioles’ Zach Britton (92.9%) and new Chicago Cubs’ closer Aroldis Chapman (93.8%).

He has 30 saves already in 2016, in 33 opportunities, with two of his three blown saves coming in back-to-back outings, one of the two against the Washington Nationals who acquired the right-hander from the Pirates this afternoon.

The Pirates had won 83-straight games in which he’d had a save opportunity going back to 2015 before they traded their closer.

Before this afternoon’s trade, which sent 25-year-old left-hander Felipe Rivero and 21-year-old, 2014 5th Round pick Taylor Hearn to the Pirates (who drafted but failed to sign the Hearn in 2012), Melancon had put up a 1.51 ERA, a 2.65 FIP, nine walks (1.94 BB/9), 38 Ks (8.21 K/9) and a .203/.252/.265 line against in 41 ⅔ innings pitched.

“I just think that his resume and his performance level dictated that he was a guy to really go after and attack,” Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo told reporters, including MASN’s Mark Zuckerman, after the deal was completed today.

“Although we’ll have him for a short time this year, we thought that the situation and the deal that we had to make to acquire such an accomplished reliever was worth it.”

Melancon, who signed a 1-year/$9.6M deal with Pittsburgh this winter, avoiding arbitration, is set to become a free agent this winter, so he’s a two-month rental.

Nationals’ manager Dusty Baker said he knew Melancon by reputation and his numbers, and he was excited about the addition.

“I know his percentage of closing games has been high for a few years,” Baker said.

“He throws strikes. He’s very happy to come here. I talked to him on the phone, Rizzo and I talked to him and he’s very excited and he’s going to get here as soon as he can.”

Melancon brings a 90-93 mph cutter with him to the Nationals’ bullpen, against which opposing hitters have a .248 AVG so far in 2016, a knuckle curve (81 mph, .135 BAA) and a four-seam fastball (91.6, .077 BAA).

The evolution of his cutter, he explained in an MLB Network Radio on Saturday, has played a big role in his success since he joined the Pirates in a trade from the Boston Red Sox in December of 2012.

His improvements, Melancon said, are tied to, “just trusting my cutter and throwing it more often and learning how to throw it. When to throw it, why to use it inside, which is back door to guys and just really learning how to throw that pitch.”

Jonathan Papelbon’s struggles this season led the Nationals to pursue another ninth-inning option, and Melancon said he was ready to take on the closer’s role with his new team.

Baker said the way the right-hander was approaching it was a good sign, when he was asked if he thought the addition would pump the Nationals up.

“You hope so,” he explained. “But Pap is a popular guy in our clubhouse too. He said the first thing that he was going to do was to call Pap, which I think is a good sign that he’s a good teammate. They’ve both been in this situation at some point in time in their careers, either they took somebody else’s job or either somebody took their job.”

Baker and Rizzo both said they had spoken to Papelbon about the change.

“We had a conversation with him,” Baker told reporters. “I can’t tell you what we talked about.”

Papelbon’s concern, as Baker and Rizzo said, and as the veteran reliever told reporters today, is winning.

“He wants to win,” Baker said. “That’s all he talks about is winning.”

“He’s all about winning,” Rizzo added.

“That’s what he wants to do. That’s what he told us. And he’s been a great teammate here in the clubhouse and a guy the players respect.”

Melancon said he planned on doing what he’s been doing once he joins the Nationals tomorrow in San Francisco.

“I just plan on doing what I did it Pittsburgh,” he said. “It’s the same role, same routine, and so forth, I’m just excited to go to such a great team with so much talent and a lot of good guys.”