A Marked Man

Sean Mellen is made up of moments.

For a 20 year old kid from Norwood, 25 miles southwest of Boston, he has quite a few that stick out already – an NCAA tournament run, a high school state title, being named a second-team All-American and first-team All-CAA last season and a 2019 preseason All-American.

But there are some moments that he’d like another go at.

During last season, he herniated some disks in his back. Instead of helping the Huskies through their historic NCAA tournament bid, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound left-hander watched from the dugout as they fell in the Raleigh Regional. When he should have been pitching for the Harwich Mariners in the prestigious Cape Cod League last summer, he was at home recovering from his surgery.

“It was a helpless feeling,” Mellen said. “It was tough, and not just for me personally. We were like, ‘We deserve to be here, we should be here. We’ve earned it.’ And then we went there and we didn’t play the way we thought we could play. It was frustrating for me.”

It was an early – and heartbreaking – end to a historic sophomore year that had followed a rocky freshman start. Mellen had thrown just 20 innings as a freshman (28 BB, 22 SO, 10.80 ERA) in 2017.

Head coach Mike Glavine remembers sitting down with Mellen, who was “a little unsure of himself,” to ask him if he knew how good he was.

“It was a struggle for him,” remembered Huskies’ pitching coach Kevin Cobb. “It is for a lot of freshman. We had high expectations. It didn’t go the way we wanted to. In the sophomore year, all that stuff seemed to come back for him.”

But having taken the hill as the Sunday starter for most of last season, Mellen tied the program single-season record for wins, going 10-3 while giving up just 49 hits and 20 earned runs in 79 innings. Opponents hit just .179 against him – he struck out 81 and walked 37.

Behind him, his team went 36-21 (17-6 CAA, good for a CAA regular season title), falling in the NCAA regional after earning the program’s first-ever at-large bid.

“Going through it, you don’t even realize how special of a group it was until you look back a year later,” Mellen said. “What we accomplished, it had never really been done here. It was really fun to be a part of. Every time we went somewhere, we expected to win.”

Mellen can pinpoint the moment that he knew last year’s team was unique. When he launches into the story, one of a March weekend in Alabama, it doesn’t sound like a moment that was foretelling of success.

On Friday night, Northeastern was no-hit by Auburn’s Casey Mize, who would be the first overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft. The next morning, the first round of a double-header, was better, but not much – the Huskies’ trailed by 13 until the top of the ninth, when they used an seven-run rally to creep in and fall 14-8.

It was between games, in the tunnel at Auburn’s Plainsman Park, that Mellen says the Huskies’ season changed.

“Coach Glav said, ‘Hey, what are we doing here? We’re better than this.’” Mellen remembered. “I remember just standing there, like this is on me. I need to step up right now. In my head, I was like, ‘If I go out there and pitch well, then everyone will feed off of that.’”

Mellen returned Friday’s night’s favor, no-hitting Auburn through eight innings, striking out eight and walking three to secure a 2-1 win against the previously undefeated Tigers, who were then ranked 17th in the country.

“The weekend of that trip, we thought we were good,” Mellen said. “We were playing well, but that was when we were like, ‘Yeah, this is real. We’re going to do this.’”

That extra pressure that Mellen places on himself in the midst of his team’s biggest moments isn’t surprising to Cobb. Rather, this dedication to his team and the task at hand was one of the reasons Cobb knew he needed to bring Mellen to Northeastern.

Cobb followed a 17-year-old Mellen through Norwood High School’s playoff run in 2015. The 2015 Massachusetts Baseball Coaches’ Association Championship MVP threw 14 strikeouts in a four-hit, complete-game state title victory.

But the road to a state championship is made up of more than one moment: Mellen appeared in five of the Mustangs’ six playoff contests, picking up two wins and two saves, striking out 44 batters in 21.1 innings.

“He ended up throwing every third day,” Cobb remembered. “He was on the mound and really competitive. Obviously, he has really good stuff, but how competitive he was out there and the will to win, all of those things are extremely important.”

That commitment to his team never wavered, even through the lost moments of Mellen’s freshman and sophomore seasons. It stands out still this year, when he talks about another lost moment, one he says will change the course of their season – a 1-7 run on the road in Florida this winter, with the lone win coming against No. 28 Illinois.

“We’re going to look back on that trip right there and be like, ‘Yeah, that’s where we turned it around,’” he said. “Even though we didn’t have that signature moment like last year. It’s going to be like a rock bottom moment. We’re better than we showed down there.”

Mellen, finally healthy, finally familiar with the style of college ball, is performing again. He has posted a 3-0 record this season in seven starts. Batters hit just .153 against him – he’s struck out 46 batters in 40 innings, walking six and allowing just six runs for a 1.35 ERA.

“[Expectations for Mellen] are high,” Glavine said. “And he knows that. He’s coming off an awesome season and is off to another unbelievable start. He’s something of a marked man in this conference and teams want to beat him. We need him to be great.”

And as Mellen continues to meet, even surpass, those high expectations, there’s one moment that is slowly inching closer for him. This season, the left-hander will be eligible for the MLB Draft.

“Be where your feet are,” is the advice Glavine offers to his staff’s brightest star. “[He should] enjoy being where he is and enjoy being with his teammates, because if he keeps doing what he’s doing, that professional opportunity will be there for him.”

And in those moments at Friedman Diamond, or somewhere else on the road, whenever his number 12 – after Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady – is called, Mellen tries to follow that advice.

It’s a confirmation that no matter how big the moments that are looming in front of him might be, there’s that place in his heart that will always be reserved for his humble roots in Norwood, his role in this growing Northeastern program and these moments he is living right now.

“I’ve gotta pull my weight,” he says. “I don’t wanna let those guys down. Every single Saturday, Sunday, whatever day I pitch… it sounds like Bill Belichick, but you’ve got to do your job. You can only control what you can control, and I can try to go out there and put up some zeroes for the guys.”