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October 7, 2013

Grilli cooking up something special for Bucs

PITTSBURGH — Jason Grilli remembers when he first met Clint Hurdle.

The reliever had just been traded to the Colorado Rockies from the Detroit Tigers.

Standing in short right field, he spoke with the then-Rockies manager. After the perfunctory questions about the travel to get there and how his family was doing, Hurdle stunned Grilli.

“He asked me what do you want out of (your) career,” Grilli recalled this afternoon at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, where he has gone from failed first-round pick to All-Star closer on a team one win from the National League championship series. “I thought that was a pretty loaded question for making an introduction to my new manager. But I felt it was an opportune time to tell him that I wanted more out of my career.”

Five years and four major league teams later, Grilli has gotten more out of it in Pittsburgh, and the Pirates have gotten plenty out of him.

In 2011, Grilli was playing in the Philadelphia Phillies' minor-league system when he got an opportunity to reconnect with Hurdle, who was in his first season as manager of the Pirates.

Hurdle, who like Grilli was a former first-round pick that never quite lived up to expectations during his playing days, might have seen a bit of himself in Grilli.

“Sometimes, in this day and age of technology, we lose sight of the relational aspect of things,” Hurdle said this afternoon, hours before the Pirates were set to take on the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 4 of their division series. “I think Jason is a perfect example. You get to know a man and know a read on his heartbeat. One thing we'll never be able to stick a thermometer in and pull out a number for is the desire of a man's heart, the fortitude and the courage he has got to go with it.

“For me, watching him grow, the things he has had to get through, I love a man that has been through adversity and been tested by fire.

And Hurdle had always liked the pitcher's arm. So much so that he didn't trust his own assessment of Grilli when the Pirates were looking at him, instead relying on others to work out the reliever and see what they thought.

Like Hurdle, they were impressed by Grilli and the Pirates, who were in first place at the time, offered Grilli a job.

He jumped at the opportunity to join the Pirates.

“It's kind of tough to sell yourself to a club when you're in the situation I was,” Grilli said. “You're in first place; it's not like they needed a lot of additional pieces, but they felt like I fit in here.”

Those first two seasons that Grilli spent in Pittsburgh didn't work out well for the Pirates – late collapses ensured their 19th and 20th consecutive losing seasons – but it certainly wasn't the reliever's fault. He went 2-1 with a 2.48 ERA in 2011 and, despite an ugly 1-6 record, had a 2.91 ERA in 2012. His strikeout rate increased and his walk rate decreased.

By 2012, he had become Hurdle's primary set-up man to then-closer Joel Hanrahan.

In the offseason, the club was so comfortable with Grilli that they traded Hanrahan to Boston and gave the 36-year-old his first chance real chance to close games.

In some ways, Grilli's long and winding road might have been the perfect preparation for the high-pressure life that a major-league closer lives.

“When men have been beaten down and gotten back up and been beaten down again and gotten back up again – sometimes you bet on the man,” Hurdle said. “You don't bet on the number or the stat, the most recent, prettiest stat you can grab or a velocity. You bet on the man.

“Along with that, the skill set has gotten better as well, which just enhances the whole thing,” Hurdle said.

Grilli converted 25 consecutive save opportunities and was named to the National League All-Star team. He led the NL in saves with 30 before a strained forearm sidelined him on July 22.

His September return was a bit difficult – he gave up runs in three consecutive outings before closing out the regular season with 4 2/3 scoreless innings – but he might be rounding back into the form that he showed early in the season. After saving the Pirates' 5-3 victory on Sunday night, Grilli reflected a bit on his career path. He thought about his workout routine, during which he stares at a carrot painted on the wall, a symbol of what he is striving to accomplish.

“What's my carrot?” he asked. “Obviously a World Series is the ultimate carrot for me and for everybody in that (clubhouse). You have your personal accolades, but every player has their personal goals to contribute to the team goals.”

A win today would put Grilli and the Pirates a giant step closer toward that goal.

Eric Knopsnyder is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/eric_knopsnyder.

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