Around the League

THE ATHLETIC: 'Did you hear about Tim?' From barbecue back to baseball, longshot Tim Melville pitched the game of his life

By: Nick Groke

(Phoenix, Ariz., Aug. 22, 2019) - Little Miss BBQ sits a straight shot up 7th Street about nine miles north of Chase Field, but to get the smoked pastrami from the spot in Sunnyslope to their shack shop south near the airport, Little Miss needs a refrigerated truck. And the delivery driver in charge Wednesday afternoon was delayed.

Something was afoot and he stopped inside to gossip.

“Did you hear about Tim?” he asked. “He’s the talk of the baseball world.”

Word was spreading quickly. Last fall, Tim Melville had appeared at Little Miss for a job fair, standing in line with his application and a smile. Nobody thought twice about him, other than his size. He’s 6-foot-2, 225 pounds. He waited for his turn with the manager and sat down.

“I know this is going to sound strange,” he said. “I play baseball and I want to learn about barbecue. I’m willing to work for free if you want.”

By late October, Melville had a job. The law says they had to pay him, so he earned the minimum. He worked the line at Little Miss, a cashier one day, the next piling sides of slaw and chatting up messy customers. He ran errands with the truck drivers and bussed tables. But not meat duty. You have to graduate to meat.

He became quick friends with folks at the shop, but they knew little about this baseball player, only because of his size, and because he would eat like a horse, wolfing protein by the pound.

They did not know his specifics or his sacrifices, that Melville was once the top high school pitcher in the country in 2008, an All-American at Holt High in Missouri. They did not know the Royals drafted him in the fourth round, then lured him away from a college commitment with a $1.25 million bonus.

They did not know Melville had a metal rod surgically implanted in his chest as a kid to correct a curved posture that made it difficult for him to breathe. They did not know he crashed out of the Double-A Texas League while trying to come back from Tommy John surgery in 2012.

Or that he slipped between farm systems, from the Royals to the Tigers, Reds, Twins and Padres, then finally had a minor-league deal cut off by the Orioles in November, right around the time he showed up for the job fair.

“He was just everybody’s big brother,” said Celeste Neumann, who helped hire Melville at Little Miss. “Everybody loves Tim. He just cares about everybody.”

And they did not know Melville, now a 29-year-old rookie, pitched the game of his life Wednesday afternoon, a seven-inning effort that capped the Diamondbacks at two hits and a run in the Rockies’ 7-2 victory. Not until the delivery guy told the shop about it.

“He always fit right in here,” Neumann said. “Maybe because he’s so exact. Maybe that’s how pitchers are? It’s like smoking a pork butt. If it’s not perfect, we’re not serving it.”

The Rockies on Tuesday discovered that right-hander Jon Gray had a fractured left foot and that he would likely need surgery, so they quickly juggled their pitching and catching rotations. They called Melville in Sacramento, where the Isotopes were set to play the River Cats that night. He was still in bed when the phone rang.

He flew quickly to Phoenix and the Rockies swapped catchers, starting Tony Wolters on Tuesday night, even though he was scheduled for a day off. They saved rookie Dom Nuñez for Wednesday because he had caught Melville in Albuquerque for most of this season.

Melville’s 10-5 record and 5.42 over 96 1/3 innings in Triple-A this year didn’t scream for a promotion. His 89-90 mph fastball did not land him on any prospect lists, not that a 29-year-old gets a lot of attention in those rankings anyway. But the Rockies liked how he controlled his body and threw strikes.

That was apparent against Arizona. Melville threw sliders, for the most part, late-breaking pitches pointed at batter’s back toes. When they caught on to that plan, he painted fastballs on the corners or hooked a slow curve, like the first pitch that buckled Eduardo Escobar’s knees to lead off the fourth inning.

“That’s a throwback game,” Colorado manager Bud Black said. “He could have pitched in the ’20s or the ’50s, ’70s, ’80s. Not the ’90s, it gets a little different in this day and age, with the velocity and everything. But he did his thing. It was beautiful.”

Melville struck out four and walked two, with 101 pitches over his seven innings. Escobar doubled in the first inning and Ketel Marte homered in the sixth. That was the Diamondbacks’ hit total against him.

“You always have dreams of doing things,” Melville said. “But when it all comes together like it did today, it’s pretty awesome.

“You’re always looking for advantages,” he said. “Any way to get hitters out quickly, three pitches or less. Just win a game. And to win a game, you have to get the little things to work for you. And over the years, I developed some little things here and there.”

In April, Melville watched a Diamondbacks game from the cheap seats at Chase Field, wondering what he had left in his arm.

“Seeing them play,” he said, “I could see myself out here too.”

No team wanted to sign him, though, so Melville told his friends at Little Miss he was leaving to play independent ball for the Long Island Ducks in the Atlantic League.

They were impressed. A real, professional baseball player. He sent them video after his first game for the Ducks, six scoreless innings.

“I shot him a message. ‘You’re a rockstar, man. Keep on kicking ass. We’re watching you back here,’” said Troy Meiss, a former guitarist for the Meat Puppets who worked the Little Miss line with Melville.

Melville pitched two games for the Ducks, giving up just one run over 12 total innings. The Rockies called him soon after with a minor-league job offer. Colorado’s pitching coach, Steve Foster, was the Royals’ pitching coordinator when Melville was on their farm. Melville popped in to Little Miss again in May to say hi, on his way to Triple-A.

It took Melville nearly eight years to reach the majors, when he finally debuted for the Reds in 2016. He pitched in three games between the Twins and Padres in 2017. Barely a blip.

His seven innings Wednesday matched history. Melville became the first pitcher since Jack Spring from 1955-66 to play for four teams over his first seven major league games, according to Elias Sports. Spring did it with the Phillies, Red Sox, Senators and Angels.

And in his seventh career outing, 11 years after he was drafted and four months after leaving a job he loved at a barbecue joint in Phoenix, Melville won his first game, a gem of a pitching performance and one of the best-thrown games the Rockies have seen this season.

“You win or you learn. I never look at it as losing,” Melville said. “I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my career. And I’ve had other opportunities in the big leagues. I’m just very thankful for this one.”

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