In five appearances out of Washington’s bullpen, new closer Mark Melancon has thrown 5.0 scoreless innings, striking out seven and allowing just one hit from the 16 batters he’s faced.
Acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates to take over as the Nationals’ closer, Melancon has provided exactly what he was expected to.
“He’s not doing anything different than he was before we got him,” Dusty Baker told reporters earlier this week.
“He doesn’t give up a lot of hits... very few walks, and he has only [three] blown saves and one of them was by our guy, [Daniel] Murphy.
“He’s doing the same thing he was doing before. He mixes it up. Fastball, cutter, curveball.
“Before he had a super curveball that was his main pitch, but now you can’t sit on any one of those pitches. He’s pretty smart about what he’s doing.”
Melancon’s success, and Jonathan Papelbon’s struggles, have left the former closer searching for a role, however.
In a rough three-outing stretch before the pre-deadline deal for Melancon, Papelbon gave up seven hits, four walks and eight runs, seven earned. He’s pitched just twice since.
One of those two appearances came late in the Nationals’ 14-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, which Baker said afterwards provided a perfect opportunity for the veteran reliever to get back out on the mound.
“We were going to try to get him in the game anyway,” Baker told reporters, “because he hadn’t pitched in four or five days. And so, we were going to try to find a way to get Pap in there, he only had an eight-pitch inning.”
The second outing was a 25-pitch appearance against the San Francisco Giants in which he gave up two hits, a walk and a run on a home run by Brandon Belt.
“Pap threw the ball well except for that one pitch,” Baker said after the game.
“His velocity was back up again, I saw up there it was 94. He was well-rested.”
In an MLB Network Radio interview on Thursday, Baker talked openly about what he’s learned about the reliever, and how Papelbon has handled it all.
“He’s much different than I thought across the way,” Baker explained when asked if the perception of Papelbon was different than the reality.
“He’s a pleasure to be around. Everybody likes being around him. He’s the life of the party, you know, he’s going to say what he feels. He’s not going to sugarcoat much or be fake about anything. That’s kind of refreshing to have that attitude.
“As far as how he’s handled it, we really kind of are still trying to figure out how and when to use him in the game.
“He’s been used to closing all this time, but we all have to remember that he was in the same position himself a couple of years ago when he came in and took [Drew] Storen’s job, and so I guess what comes around goes around, but I mean it was a little tough — I imagine it was a little tough to for him to accept it, but he’s a team guy, he wants to win more than anything and it’s supposed to be tough for him.
“Nobody expected it to be easy for him, but that’s a part of life.”
So where does Papelbon fit in going forward? Through 37 games and 35 IP, the 35-year-old right-hander has a 4.37 ERA (up from 2.04 and 2.13 in 2014-15, respectively) a 3.67 FIP (up from 2.53 and close to his 3.70 FIP from last season), a .327 opponents’ BABIP (up from .247 and .258 in the previous two seasons), and he’s not generating swings and misses (10.4% swinging strike percentage down 12.3% and 12.4% in ‘14 and ‘15).
Will Dusty Baker be able to find a role where Papelbon can be effective?