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Nationals get their closer... for now... in Mark Melancon

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Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo found the closer he was after in Pittsburgh, sending two pitchers to the Pirates to give the Nats a new ninth-inning option.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In his two relief appearances for the Washington Nationals since he was acquired last weekend, new closer Mark Melancon has taken the mound with 14-1 and 8-3 leads.

Not exactly high-leverage situations, but he’s thrown two scoreless innings in relief for the Nationals on 25 pitches, giving up one hit and striking out three.

Dusty Baker was impressed with the right-hander’s Nationals debut.

“Same stuff we saw on the other side,” Baker said.

“We know he throws strikes and we know he’s tough to hit, and he mixes the pitches.

“You would like to get him in a game like that, especially so Wilson [Ramos] can see him, cause Wilson is going to be catching him most of the time and you don’t want to all of a sudden throw him in a game where Wilson doesn’t know him, hasn’t caught him in the pen and we don’t know how to play defense behind him, so it was a learning period for us all.”

In 47 appearances by Melancon this season, the 31-year-old, eight-year veteran has put up a 1.44 ERA, a 2.54 FIP, nine walks (1.85 BB/9) and 41 Ks (8.45 K/9) in 43 ⅔ innings, holding opposing hitters to a combined .200/.247/.266 line.

Melancon joined the Nats with 30 saves on the year, fourth-most among National League relievers, and 114 total over the last three seasons, the most in the majors over that span.

Giving up five years of control of hard-throwing lefty Felipe Rivero and minor league lefty Taylor Hearn wasn’t anything close to the package the Chicago Cubs traded to New York for Aroldis Chapman, but as in that case, the Nationals are acquiring a two-month rental since Melancon and Chapman are both set to become free agents this winter.

In an interview on 106.7 the FAN on Wednesday, GM Mike Rizzo said the Nationals were not ruling out the possibility of working something out with the closer in the future, though he did acknowledge that there is no reason for Melancon to sign an extension now.

“Nobody has talked about [Melancon] just being a rental,” Rizzo explained.

“We don’t know what’s down the road. Looking at it from the player’s standpoint, he’s a month away from being a free agent.

“There’s no rationale and reason for him to sign a contract or an extension now.

“He’ll take it to free agency and then we’ll be in the market place with the rest of the teams that are looking for a closer.

“There are several closers on the market next year. We’ve paid for closers in the past.

“We’ve paid a lot of money for closers in the past and we’ll take a look at the landscape and where we can implement our dollars in the best way and the way to allocate our dollars in the best way and we’ll see where it goes.”

The last time the Nationals paid big money for a closer, they signed veteran right-hander Rafael Soriano to a 2-year/$28M free agent deal in the winter of 2013, to supplement a bullpen led by Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen the previous season.

Soriano saved 43 games for the Nationals in his first season in D.C. and 32 in 2014, but he struggled in the second half of that season and was supplanted in the closer’s role by Storen, who was replaced as the closer in late July of 2015 when Jonathan Papelbon was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in another deadline deal.

Papelbon’s struggles this season had the Nationals back in the market for a late-inning arm, and Rizzo and Co. in the Nats’ front office made the deal for Melancon, who, Rizzo said, “... is a good reliable major league closer.”

“He’s elite,” Rizzo continued in his interview on 106.7 the FAN. “He’s been elite for the last four years. He’s been an All-Star I think the last three out of four years. Keeps the ball in the ballpark. Keeps the ball off the barrel of the bat, can strike you out when you need to.

“Just a good steady guy that comes at you with the two-seam fastball, a cut fastball, a curveball and a changeup and not afraid to attack hitters, battle-tested, has the nerves of a closer and has been as successful if not the most successful closer in the game.”

The Nationals got their closer... for the next two months... plus... after that the search for a ninth-inning arm, or the wait for the embrace of role-less matchups, continues.