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Opportunity knocks

Melancon has makeup - and stuff - to be Sox closer

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / April 4, 2012
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Mark Melancon was invited to spring training by the Yankees in 2009, just to get a little experience before being shipped back across the street to minor league camp.

He was 24 and considered a hot prospect, so hot there was talk he one day could replace Mariano Rivera as closer.

To that point in his career, Melancon had one full season of professional experience. The idea of talking to Rivera should have intimidated him, never mind the thought of replacing him.

But when the question was put to him, Melancon didn’t flinch.

“It’s not overwhelming, because I know it’s not true unless I make it true,’’ Melancon said at the time. “I think it’s able to be done, so I’m excited for that. I’m excited that people are throwing that out there.’’

As the Red Sox contemplate how to replace the injured Andrew Bailey on the eve of Opening Day, Melancon is ready for the opportunity the Yankees never gave him.

Instead of replacing Rivera, he was traded to the Astros in 2010 for Lance Berkman. Houston made Melancon its closer last season, but dealt him to the Red Sox in December for shortstop Jed Lowrie and righthander Kyle Weiland.

Bailey was acquired two weeks later, pushing Melancon back into a setup role. But Bailey will undergo surgery on his right thumb Wednesday and will miss at least four months. The Red Sox have not named his replacement, manager Bobby Valentine saying he wants to see how the situation develops. Melancon and Alfredo Aceves are the leading candidates.

Melancon hopes the experience is similar to one he had in 2004 while he was a freshman at the University of Arizona. When the team’s closer struggled, Melancon was promoted from a middle relief role and flourished, helping lead the team to the College World Series.

“I wish I could tell you I knew he could do it. But I took a chance,’’ Wildcats coach Andy Lopez said. “But once he started closing, Mark really took to it. He wouldn’t back down.’’

The only time Lopez got aggravated with Melancon was during his sophomore year, when he went skydiving and sprained his ankle.

“That was the first time I went skydiving,’’ Melancon said sheepishly. “But I didn’t miss any games.’’

A college coach for 29 years, Lopez said Melancon is one of his favorites for reasons that have nothing to do with statistics or trips to Omaha.

“His character ranks with David Eckstein and Mark Ellis,’’ said Lopez, who coached those players at the University of Florida. “You can’t ask for a better competitor. Mark is a nice guy off the field but when you give him the ball at the end of the game, he’s a great competitor. I loved having him.’’

By the time Melancon left Arizona, having been drafted by the Yankees in the ninth round, he had the school record for career saves and was a favorite among scouts because of his toughness and array of pitches.

Melancon has a true curveball, a pitch that dropped so much college umpires often didn’t call it a strike. He also could bust hitters inside with a fastball and work the corners with a cutter.

“When we pieced it together on Mark, the way he pitched and his makeup, we thought this was the exact kind of guy who can close in the American League East,’’ Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer said. “He was easy to like and we jumped on board.

“He was the whole package for me, especially once we got to know him. It was tough when we traded him because I liked him so much as a person and as a player.’’

Without knowing it, David and Cherry Melancon raised their son to have the kind of athletic personality well suited for the late innings of a baseball game.

“They always told me not to let an error affect what happens later in the game. Don’t take your at-bats into the field,’’ Melancon said. “That was instilled in me at a young age. Basically, don’t let your emotions control you.

“I think that helps me as a pitcher. I can focus on the situation and block everything else out.’’

The outward calm hides an inner pride that drives Melancon to prove himself every time he takes the mound.

When the Yankees invited Melancon to their camp in 2009, minor league pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras called to wish him well and instead sparked some anger.

“He said, “I really pushed for you to go. Now don’t let me down,’ ’’ Melancon said. “I was kind of offended at that, to think I would let him down or that he would think that I would let him down.

“In my mind, I thought I was capable of being there, without a doubt. I was excited about it but I thought I belonged there. When he said that, it upset me a little bit. I don’t want to let anybody down.’’

Melancon was in the majors a year later, making his debut at Fenway Park that April. In a span of five pitches, he retired Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz in order, then came back and threw another scoreless inning

Melancon hasn’t pitched at Fenway since.

“Now I’m on the right side of the rivalry,’’ he said. “I want to help this team win and get back to the Series. I love the passion of the fans and how important baseball is in Boston. I love the daily pressure to win. I’m glad to be back on the East Coast.’’

Melancon saved 20 games for the Astros last season, becoming the closer in May. Opponents hit .234 against him and he stranded 13 of 17 inherited runners. Melancon also has a 2.19 ground ball to fly ball ratio over the last two seasons.

Few noticed because the Astros were the worst team in baseball. But Melancon had a 0.59 earned run average over the last month of the season, not allowing a run in his final 11 outings.

“He can carve you up,’’ said Sox outfielder Cody Ross, who faced Melancon while Ross was with the Giants. “That curveball is a hammer and his velocity is there. He has the stuff.’’

When the Sox obtained Melancon from Houston Dec. 14, general manager Ben Cherington said he was capable of closing. That changed when Bailey arrived.

Now Bailey is gone. Melancon never got the chance to replace Rivera, but he could prove to be the closer who follows Jonathan Papelbon.

“The people in Boston will love him. Mark is going to give you everything that he has,’’ Lopez said. “Being a closer is a tough job, but he was born to do that. He wants that ball.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.

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