Gi­ants see Me­lan­con as sav­ior for 2017

The Washington Post Sunday - - COLLEGE BASKETBALL - BY DAVE SHEININ dave.sheinin@wash­post.com

scotts­dale, ariz. — The flames from the 2016 San Fran­cisco Gi­ants’ dump­ster fire of a bullpen, as flames are wont to do, did the most dam­age to those in clos­est prox­im­ity. The ac­tual mem­bers of those 2016 Gi­ants may never fully get over the last and most spec­tac­u­lar of that bullpen’s many dis­as­ters: Game 4 of the Na­tional League Di­vi­sion Se­ries, when five reliev­ers failed to hold a three-run lead in the ninth in­ning at AT&T Park and lost the game and the se­ries to a Chicago Cubs team that would go on to win the World Se­ries.

But viewed from a safe dis­tance, that fire was just a great, sad spec­ta­cle on the hori­zon, one that, if you had any em­pa­thy in your heart, would make you feel sorry for the vic­tims. That’s how it looked on tele­vi­sion from the com­fort­able chair where Mark Me­lan­con, a soon-to-be free agent closer, watched with a bit more in­ter­est than most of the rub­ber­neck­ers and gawk­ers.

“You feel for every­body,” Me­lan­con said of the ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing Game 4 on tele­vi­sion. “You can’t blame [the loss] on any­body. You lose col­lec­tively, and it hap­pened.”

Me­lan­con, wear­ing a polo shirt, shorts and san­dals, said those words in the dugout at Scotts­dale Sta­dium on Fri­day fol­low­ing the Gi­ants’ first full-squad work­out of the 2017 spring train­ing, and the Gi­ants seemed al­ready a more com­plete team by his pres­ence. He signed a four-year, $62 mil­lion con­tract with them Dec. 5, but you could say he be­came a Gi­ant the mo­ment the Cubs recorded the fi­nal out of Game 4, at the end of that epic bullpen melt­down that shut­tered San Fran­cisco’s sea­son.

The Gi­ants’ front of­fice acted swiftly and de­ci­sively to solve the team’s most glar­ing prob­lem, phon­ing Me­lan­con’s agent within min­utes of the free agent mar­ket open­ing at mid­night Nov. 8. They flew Me­lan­con to San Fran­cisco for a visit, made an of­fer and even­tu­ally out­bid sev­eral other teams — in­clud­ing the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als, for whom Me­lan­con pitched in the sec­ond half of 2016 — for his ser­vices.

“We wanted to get in early,” Gi­ants Gen­eral Man­ager Bobby Evans said of the Me­lan­con pur­suit. “We knew we were go­ing to be in a bat­tle with other clubs, and we just wanted to make it clear early on that we had a lot of in­ter­est.”

It took the rich­est con­tract in his­tory for a closer — a mark that was topped in the weeks that fol­lowed by both Aroldis Chap­man and Ken­ley Jansen — for the Gi­ants to land Me­lan­con. Their pay­roll prob­a­bly will soar be­yond $200 mil­lion for the first time in 2017.

“There was so much pos­i­tive here,” Me­lan­con said of the Gi­ants. “I en­joyed my time in Wash­ing­ton, but these guys have done it, and they’ve done it con­sis­tently. It’s the same core. On my visit here, it was just clear they had their pri­or­i­ties straight. Even their smaller in­tan­gi­bles — it was a great fit.” Of the Gi­ants’ Game 4 loss, he added, “Re­ally, when I was think­ing about where to go and de­cid­ing, I looked at that as a pos­i­tive — be­cause these guys have gone through some tri­als and it’s go­ing to make them hun­grier.”

With his 92-mph cut fast­ball, Me­lan­con, who turns 32 next month, has be­come one of the best closers in base­ball since as­cend­ing to that role with the Pi­rates in the sec­ond half of 2013; his 131 saves since the start of the 2014 sea­son are the most in the ma­jors in that span. Last year, which he split be­tween Pitts­burgh and Wash­ing­ton, he con­verted 47 of 51 save at­tempts, pitched to a 1.64 ERA and al­lowed only three home runs while fac­ing 270 bat­ters.

Mean­while, in San Fran­cisco, the Gi­ants’ bullpen, once the envy of base­ball, was on its way to blow­ing a fran­chise-record 32 saves in 2016, with nine of them com­ing in Septem­ber. Eight Gi­ants reliev­ers made 40 or more ap­pear­ances — de­spite a ro­ta­tion fea­tur­ing three of the top five starters in the NL in in­nings pitched — as Man­ager Bruce Bochy tried ev­ery­thing he could to mix-and-match his way through the late in­nings.

It all came to a head in Game 4. The Gi­ants were three outs from forc­ing a de­ci­sive Game 5 at Wrigley Field, where they would have had Johnny Cueto on the mound (and Madi­son Bum­gar­ner avail­able in re­lief), but Bochy cy­cled through five reliev­ers in a fu­tile at­tempt to close it out. The loss was the first for the Gi­ants in 12 post­sea­son se­ries un­der Bochy.

In the af­ter­math, it was dif­fi­cult not to play the “what if” game, es­pe­cially since the Gi­ants had had a chance to ac­quire Me­lan­con at the July 31 trade dead­line, but lost out when the Pi­rates sent him in­stead to the Na­tion­als for a pair of hard-throw­ing, young left­ies, Felipe Rivero and Tay­lor Hearn. Evans later ac­knowl­edged he should have been more will­ing to give up what the Pi­rates sought in re­turn to Me­lan­con.

“When we fin­ished the post­sea­son like that, my mind went im­me­di­ately to the play­ers — be­cause I knew they did ev­ery­thing they could to get us into that po­si­tion, and to not fin­ish it was very hard,” Evans said Fri­day. “But it gave us per­spec­tive on what we needed to do this win­ter, and we tried to an­swer our big­gest need with ar­guably one of the best [closers] out there.”

Re­mak­ing the Gi­ants’ bullpen was as much about sub­trac­tion as ad­di­tion. With the free agent de­fec­tions of right-han­ders San­ti­ago Casilla (to the Oak­land A’s) and Ser­gio Romo (to the Los An­ge­les Dodgers) this win­ter and the re­tire­ment of lefty Javier Lopez, the Gi­ants cut ties with a trio of cor­ner­stones who had been part of the team’s World Se­ries-win­ning bullpens of 2010, 2012 and 2014.

That leaves only one re­liever left in the Gi­ants’ bullpen, righthander Hunter Strickland, who was part of one of their World Se­ries cham­pi­onships.

Dif­fi­cult as it is to say good­bye, there will come a day soon when the bullpen gate at AT&T Park will open, and the per­son jog­ging through it to­ward the mound will give all who wit­ness it a feel­ing of calm in­stead of one of anx­i­ety.

But one deeply sub­merged, nag­ging thought will be fight­ing to reach the sur­face: How far might the Gi­ants have gone if they had had Mark Me­lan­con in Oc­to­ber?

CHRIS CARL­SON/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

For­mer Na­tion­als closer Mark Me­lan­con has 131 saves the past three sea­sons — the most in the ma­jors.

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