TWO WINTERS AGO, A 6'2" RIGHTHANDER named Mark Melancon traveled across a great sea to teach in a 10-day clinic run by Baseball New Zealand. Melancon is passionate about both the antipodean nation and its burgeoning baseball program, but the trip served another purpose: On an off day he and his wife, Mary Catherine, went shark-cage diving, a bucket list item for them. Researchers who tag, track and study sharks were also on board, and when they encountered an unfamiliar great white, they asked Melancon if they could christen it in his honor. This was how the ferocious beast became, one imagines, the only one of its species to share a name with a journeyman middle reliever.
After the 28-year-old Melancon arrived in Bradenton, Fla., this year to begin spring training with his fourth team in four years, he delighted his new bullpen mates with the story of his selachian adventure and namesake. The largely unheralded members of the Pirates' pen were searching for an identity and, in the spirit of the Reds' Nasty Boys of the early '90s, a nickname to go with it. Melancon—and Melancon—inspired them: They would be known as the Shark Tank. "When the [bullpen] gate opens, you smell blood, just like a shark," explains lefthander Tony Watson. "You're going out there to attack hitters, be aggressive. That kind of symbolizes the way sharks are in the water.... I guess. I'm not a big oceanographer."
Across the major leagues, this season has been defined by upstarts and party crashers. Several division races look like upside-down versions of what most experts predicted back in April: The Angels, Nationals and Blue Jays, three preseason darlings, all have struggled just to play .500, while the Red Sox (page 38), A's (page 39) and the Braves (page 41) and reached the All-Star break as surprise leaders in the American League East, the AL West and the NL East, respectively. But there is no doubt as to which unlikely contender is the most enthralling and surprising. It is Pittsburgh, the owner of the longest-ever streak of losing seasons in major American professional sports—it reached 20 in 2012. Yet the Pirates finished the first half at 56--37, with the game's second-best record.
Pittsburgh's success has, in significant measure, been derived from the Shark Tank, a nickname that has been made official via social media, T-shirts and the 150-gallon aquarium, courtesy of Elmer's Aquarium and Pet Center of Monroeville, Pa., that contains a small coral cat shark and a banded cat shark and now sits near the relievers' lockers in the home clubhouse at PNC Park. The Pirates' bullpen has been asked to throw more innings, 3292/3, than any other club's but the Blue Jays', and yet it has the majors' second-best relief ERA, 2.76. Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle's message to his starters is simple. "Give us seven innings, and we'll figure it out from there," he says. "If you can't give us seven, give us everything you've got, then we'll turn it over to the bullpen and see how it goes."
As it happens, six innings has almost always been enough. This season major league teams have a winning percentage of .861 in games they lead entering the seventh, but the Pirates have done much better. They are 40--2 in such situations, a winning percentage of .952. Much of the credit for that can be given to Melancon and 36-year-old first-time closer Jason Grilli, who have emerged as one of the best, and certainly the least likely, shutdown eighth- and ninth-inning combinations since Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland of the 1996 Yankees.
Melancon has an ERA of 0.81, which is more than eight tenths of a run lower than that of any other pitcher who has worked at least 40 innings. Grilli's ERA is 1.99 to go with an NL-best 29 saves in 30 chances. They, like the clinical and composed Rivera and the sweaty and emotive Wetteland, form an almost perfectly functioning odd couple. Melancon is clean-cut and deliberate in both speech and manner, and maintains a meticulously organized locker. Grilli is loud, sports long curls inspired by Eddie Vedder and has the type of locker—it contains a spatula, a small karaoke machine and various belongings of his two young sons, and a full Chewbacca suit and weapons belt—that would lead a mother to withhold dessert. "You need the yin and the yang, balance things out," says Grilli. "Sometimes, oil and water do mix."
The fast friends also traveled markedly different paths to Pittsburgh. Melancon, a former Yankee who saved 20 games with the Astros in 2011, struggled with the Red Sox last season. His ERA was 49.50 at April's end, 6.20 by October, and he spent two months in between working on his command in Triple A before being traded to the Pirates in December for closer Joel Hanrahan. Even though 2012 was a dismal year for Melancon, Pittsburgh's scouts observed little change in his skills. "They saw him early, saw him middle, saw him late," says G.M. Neal Huntington. "They saw the life to the fastball, the explosiveness of the cutter, the quality breaking ball."
It was just one bad year for Melancon. Grilli, meanwhile, had 10 of them. The righthander made his major league debut with the Marlins in 2000, and for the decade to follow he ambled around pro baseball—he has been a member of eight organizations—in search of a role in which he might excel. He was tried as a starter, long man and middle reliever. The only constant was that he wasn't very good. In 238 appearances between 2000 and '09 he went 18--18 with an ERA of 4.74 and a strikeout rate of just 6.6 per nine innings.
By 2006, when he was a Tiger, Grilli had begun to think that he might prosper at the end of games, when he wouldn't have to worry about inherited runners or conserving velocity. "I saw the rock 'n' roll of Joel Zumaya and Todd Jones entering games, and I thought, Jeez, I'd much rather do that," he says. "Nobody says, 'I want to be a middle reliever in the big leagues!' That's like saying, 'I want to be an offensive lineman in the NFL.' There's no glory in that."
Grilli was still scuffling along in middle relief in March 2010, shortly after the Indians signed him to a minor league deal. During a light running drill on one of those beautiful, early spring training mornings that has a relief pitcher envisioning an 11 a.m. tee time, he heard a horrible sound emanating from his right knee. As the excruciating pain began to register, he looked down. "It was almost like Jean-Claude Van Damme had his way with me," he says. A bone chip had come loose and torn up his quadriceps. His kneecap had shifted around his leg.