Kevin Melillo: Cougar Catalyst

In a season that Kevin Melillo himself describes as being up and down, Melillo is at an up point right now. A red-hot month of June has brought Melillo's batting average up from .251 to .279. He has also taken over the team lead in homeruns and RBI. We recently caught up with the run-producing second baseman to find out what his expectations are for the second half of the season and how he has tailored his game to fit the Oakland system.

Kevin Melillo is no stranger to success. At 16, he was one of only a handful of American teenagers to be selected for the Team USA 16 and under squad that won the Gold Medal. That team featured a talented group of players, including Anaheim's Casey Kotchman, Minnesota's Jason Kubel and the Oakland A's 2004 first round draft pick Landon Powell. Melillo still points to his time with Team USA as one of his proudest moments as a baseball player.

"It was the highlight of my life up to that point. You could tell back then that some of the guys on the team were big league material. It was a tremendous thrill to play with the USA across your chest," Melillo said.

"It was probably as much or more fun for the parents to see their kids with the USA on their shirts. My mom still has pictures of me in that jersey all over the house."

Melillo then teamed with Powell again at South Carolina, where the duo helped lead the Gamecocks to three straight College World Series appearances. So it only seemed natural on draft day last season that Melillo and Powell would become teammates again, this time in the Oakland A's organization.

Both players were assigned to Vancouver last year, but their streak of playing together ended this season when Powell injured his knee during an off-season workout. Despite not sharing a clubhouse this year, Melillo keeps in touch with his longtime teammate.

"I spoke with Powell about two weeks ago. He is just starting to be able to run and jump and all of those good things," Melillo said.

"I know that it is killing him to not be out there playing."

Melillo knows a thing or two about injuries himself. His senior season at South Carolina was marred by a wrist/hand injury. Melillo had the hook of the hamate bone removed and, in his haste to get back on the field, started playing before he was really healthy.

"I could only bunt or take pitches for a lot of the time after I came back from the injury because the hand still hurt so much. My batting average dropped about 100 points and I think it really hurt my stock in the draft," Melillo said.

He was healthy by the time the A's picked him in the fifth round and assigned him to Vancouver. The athletic second baseman showed no ill effects from the injury, as he immediately began punishing Northwest League pitching. In 22 games, Melillo hit .340 with an OPS of 986. However, after those 22 games, the injury bug bit him again, as he went down with a season-ending oblique strain. After the frustration of last season, Melillo's goal for the 2005 campaign was fairly simple.

"My goal going into this year was to be healthy and play in almost all of the games. I spent a lot of time in the gym working on my flexibility and getting my body into shape to handle the load of playing every day," Melillo said.

So far, that hard work has paid off, as Mellilo was an every day fixture in the Kane County Cougars line-up throughout the first half of this season. Melillo, like the rest of the Cougars' line-up, has been inconsistent at times this season. He started off red-hot during the first two weeks of the season, but then struggled at the end of April and through much of May. Many of the Cougars' hitters had similar struggles during this period and the Cougars finished the first half of the year at 31-38. However, both Melillo and the Cougars were playing very well at the end of the first half and Melillo expects great things from the Cougars in the second half.

"In spring training, none of us would have ever expected to have dropped as many games as we have. We'll put the first half behind us and concentrate on trying to win the second half division title and make the playoffs," Melillo said.

"Now that most of the guys are getting healthy again, we are playing better."

One aspect of Melillo's game that has remained consistent throughout the season has been his patience at the plate. At one point in late April, Melillo was averaging almost 1.5 walks per game. That rate has cooled a bit, but Melillo has still walked an impressive 50 times in 68 games and has struck out only 34 times. His on-base percentage sits at .402, good for ninth best in the Midwest League.

"I know that the A's really value patience at the plate so I definitely came into this season with the goal in mind to be patient. I have really been working on concentrating on the perfect hitting zone," Melillo said.

"Umpires in this league are just starting out like we are, so like us, they may be more zoned into one side of the plate over another. They also may not feel as comfortable punching hitters out yet, so I think that has probably helped [his walk total] a bit."

Melillo has also been the Cougars' top run producer, despite spending more than half of his playing time hitting in the first two spots in the line-up. He has 25 extra-base hits (including a team-high seven homers) and 32 RBI, both tops on the team. Melillo has also scored 38 runs, stolen seven bases and has been in the middle of many of the Cougars' biggest rallies this season.

Over the course of his career in both college and the pros, Melillo has moved around in the order anywhere from the lead-off spot to the fifth hole. While he projects as a table-setter in the Mark Kotsay-mold at the major league level, Melillo has shown that he is capable of being the big bat in the middle of a line-up, as well.

"I have a different approach at the plate when I am hitting first as opposed to hitting third. When you are leading off, you need to be more selective because your main job is to get on in front of the big bats. When you are the big bat, you have to be a little more aggressive to get the runs in," Melillo said.

Although he was mostly considered an offensive prospect coming out of college, Melillo is a fearless defensive player and he has put a lot of time into improving his work around the second base bag.

"Scouts have often referred to me as an offensive-minded second baseman and I'd like to prove that I can play defense, as well," Melillo said.

When the Cougars return from their All-Star break on Thursday, Melillo will have a new double-play partner, A's 2005 first round pick, Cliff Pennington. With Melillo and Pennington in the middle infield and the talented Javier Herrera in centerfield, the Cougars will have arguably the most talent up the middle of any of the A's minor league affiliates.

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