Pirates reliever Mark Melancon's baseball journey has endured plenty of challenges. He has embraced each of them.

"There have definitely been a few detours," said Melancon. "Everything happens for a reason. Everything you go through helps shape who you are. There are reasons I've had setbacks. As a whole, my career has been great."

Never has his career been greater than this year, Melancon's first in Pittsburgh.

Melanconc is a key part of a Bucs pitching staff that has the team on course to snap the North American pro sports record of 20 consecutive losing season, and quite possibly advance to the postseason for the first time in two decades. For the bulk of this year, he has been the near-perfect setup man for closer Jason Grilli, and lately, with Grilli on the disabled list, Melancon has moved into the closer's role without missing a beat.

For the season, Melancon has an 0.86 ERA.

"Don't tell me that," said Melancon. "I don't like to hear those things. This game can turn on you in a hurry. I just want to go out and pitch and stay humble."

OK, but Melancon also has allowed only 35 hits and seven walks while striking out 49 in 52 1/3 innings. He has cashed in on five of six save opportunities this season, including all four he has been asked to convert in the two weeks since Grilli was sidelined.

Grilli is expected to miss as much as two months with a strained right forearm. That means plenty of late-inning chances for Melancon with the added adrenaline rush of a postseason bid.

"This is what I have worked to be my whole career," said Melancon, who drafted in the ninth round by Yankees in 2006, following his junior year at the University of Arizona.

"Selfishly, [Grilli's situation] was a good thing for me to be able to step in, but that is not what I wanted to happen. We need Grilli. He's a big part of why we are where we are."

The Pirates are in first place in the National League Central, holding a two-game lead over St. Louis heading into play Wednesday. How big of a deal is that? This is the latest the Bus have been in first place since they won three consecutive NL East titles from 1990-92. There's only been three other seasons in the past 20 years that they even held on to the top spot as late as July: July 17, 1997; July 18, 2012; and July 19, 2011.

In 2011 and last year, Pittsburgh had meltdowns the final two months of each season after hot starts led to hope of ending the franchise's dubious record streak.

"I was not here the last two years, so I have no real comparison," said Melancon. "I've heard about it. And I still do. But everything I heard and what I know about this team is this team is totally different from the past."

And Melancon knows it is fun to be at PNC Park. It's a whole lot more fun than he had his first full season in pro ball. Melancon spent it recovering from Tommy John surgery. It turned out that his elbow problem in college was a real problem.

And it's a whole lot more fun than last year. After breaking in with the Yanks and spending two years with the Astros, with whom he earned the chance to close in 2011, Melancon found himself with the Red Sox, caught in the middle of the power struggle between manager Bobby Valentine and the front office.

"I never question why something happens," said Melacon. "[The Red Sox] are having a great year this year and I'm happy for the city, the team and my old teammates. That is the team we anticipated last year, but it didn't work out."

It really is as simple as that for Melancon. He lives his life very simply. There's not a lot of flash, but there is definitely a bit of the daring.

It was Melancon's trip to New Zealand to dive with white sharks that inspired the Pirates' bullpen's nickname of the "Shark Tank." It is his cousin who has marketed the term with a line of T-shirts.

"Just a fun thing," he said.

That's the Melancon way.

Following his recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2007, Melancon went to the Yankees' instructional league in Florida, then volunteered to spend six weeks at the Yanks' academy in the Dominican Republic. He wound up moving in with one of his Dominican teammates, Jairo Heredia, for a couple more weeks before coming home for the winter.

"How many opportunities do you get to have an experience like that?" Melancon asked. "I am down there playing baseball, but I'm also getting to learn about the culture and meet the people. My arm felt good, and I wanted to get in as many innings as I could. It worked out great.

"There were five Americans who went down, and we'd be driving home from the park and there would be kids with broomsticks and rag balls. We'd pull over and work with them. It was one of the best experiences I have had."

Then there were the five months Melancon spent at a rehab facility in Tampa, Fla. In addition to working out, he visited Key West, sleeping in his car on a bridge and fishing from the roadside. He took in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona and made three trips to Cape Canaveral to watch space missions launch.

"That's what I noticed from the start," said Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees' scouting director who originally signed Melancon. "He wants to learn -- not just learn baseball, but learn about life."

And there are no pretensions.

"You should have seen the car he drove in high school," said Luke Roberts, a cousin. "Let's just say he doesn't need a status symbol."

That hasn't changed.

"I still drive the [car] I had in college," Melancon said. "I haven't upgraded. I could upgrade, but I don't see any reason. The one I have gets me everywhere I need to go."