The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Pro

February 16, 2013

Recycled closer savoring chance with Pirates

BRADENTON, Fla. — At some point in April, the door to the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen will open in the top of the ninth inning. The Pirates will be ahead, and Jason Grilli will jog onto the field.

Over the PNC Park speakers, a Pearl Jam song – Grilli won’t say which one – will play while images of the National League’s oldest closer will flash across the video board.

It will be a moment an entire career in the making. One the 36-year-old right-hander thought might not come after spending a decade-plus as a baseball nomad, bouncing from team to team and role to role without seeming to find the right fit.

Just don’t expect Grilli to waste much time taking it all in.

“I’m not going to be running in looking over my shoulder going, ‘Oh man, dig yourself,’ ” Grilli said with a laugh. “This isn’t about me.”

Only it kind of is. The player who was out of baseball three years ago and was toiling in the minors less than two years ago waiting for the phone to ring now finds himself replacing a two-time All-Star for a team very serious about contending in 2013.

Oh, and he’s doing it at a time when most pitchers his age are hanging on, not thriving.

Ask Grilli how a guy who spent Opening Day 2010 sitting on a trainers’ table in Orlando trying to block out the pain in his surgically repaired right knee somehow became one of the best setup men in the majors while inching toward his late-30s and he just smiles and shrugs his shoulders.

Faced with his baseball mortality, he had two options: Walk away or fight back. Guess which one he chose.

“There’s something inside of me that just kicked in,” he said.

Now the pitcher who has all of five career saves in 330 appearances finds himself the last line of defense for a franchise – much like Grilli – trying to shake an enigmatic past.

How confident are the Pirates in Grilli’s fearlessness, his 95 mph fastball and his health? Confident enough to trade Joel Hanrahan and his 76 saves over the last two seasons to Boston.

The decision wasn’t exactly due to Grilli, and he knows that. Hanrahan’s effectiveness made him too expensive. He will make $7 million this season for the Red Sox, or more than Grilli will make during the entirety of the two-year, $6.75 million deal he signed in the offseason.

There were other suitors for Grilli, but the Pirates offered more money and perhaps just as importantly, some stability. If he stays healthy and plays through the end of his contract, Grilli will have pitched more games for Pittsburgh than any of the five teams he’s suited up for in his career.

“I’m comfortable here,” he said. “My heart is here. I’m tired of changing colors, changing teams, changing agents. It’s been all change for me.”

Pittsburgh took a chance on Grilli in July 2011, plucking him off Philadelphia’s Triple-A roster and asking him to shore up a bullpen that needed help and a veteran presence. Manager Clint Hurdle, whose relationship with Grilli dates back to 2008 when both were in Colorado, called it “taking a chance on the man.”

One that’s paid off considerably for both sides.

Grilli was steady in 2011 but spectacular for long stretches in 2012, when he went 1-6 with a 2.91 ERA and an eye-popping 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings, well above his career average. Though he was considered a setup man, the truth is he was more a “heart of the order guy.”

If the Pirates were leading in the seventh inning or beyond and the opponent’s middle of the lineup was coming to bat, Grilli found himself with the ball in his hands.

“The majority of the time what he did when he came in, he faced 3-4-5, he faced 2-3-4,” pitching coach Ray Searage said. “That’s pretty darn hard. What does it matter if you face those guys in the seventh or the eighth? Why can’t you get ‘em out in the ninth? What’s the thing?  What’s the problem?”

The Pirates certainly don’t think there will be one.

“He’s actually taken the words ‘I’ve got nothing to lose’ and he’s brought them off the page,” Hurdle said. “They’re not just words anymore. It’s the way he thinks. It’s the way he conditions. It’s the way he competes.”

And this is not a one-shot deal. There may be bumps along the way but Pittsburgh is committed to turning to Grilli.

Searage points out there were some growing pains while Hanrahan – a middle reliever for before becoming a full-time closer in 2011 – found his footing.

“It wasn’t always smooth as silk when Hanny got in there,” Searage said. “I was sitting on the bench chewing my nails to the cuticles going ‘Oh my God.’ ”

It’s a phrase Searage has repeated more than once watching Grilli harness his four-seam and two-seam fastballs with a potent curveball that can keep hitters off balance. Grilli didn’t suddenly become a better pitcher the last two seasons, just a smarter one.

The fact he no longer worries about his future helps. Grilli began his professional career as a starter before Detroit moved him to the bullpen eight years ago.

Earning a living in middle relief is noble if anonymous work. He’s put in his time. Now, he hopes it is his time.

“Nobody says ‘I want to mop up some innings. Geez let me mop up some innings,”’ Grilli said. “Does a lineman wish he was a running back or a quarterback? Sure. I just know ‘Alright, these are the cards that I’ve been dealt. I’m going to make my mark in the big leagues’ ”

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Pro
  • Pirates Brawl 0420 Brewers top Pirates in game highlighted by dustup

    Ryan Braun homered in the ninth inning to tie it, then Khris Davis hit a home run in the 14th that put Milwaukee ahead for good.
    Yet those were hardly the big blows that attracted all the attention Sunday in the Brewers’ 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

    April 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Penguins 0420a Game 3 pivotal for both teams

    Not so long ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets were the worst team in the NHL.
    Now they’re heading home for tonight’s Game 3 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins, hoping to make even more history.

    April 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Penguins 0419 Blue Jackets outlast Pens in double-OT

    Matt Calvert banged home a rebound 1:10 into the second overtime and the Columbus Blue Jackets earned the first playoff victory in franchise history with a 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night.
    Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury stuffed the initial shot by Cam Atkinson but Calvert stood all alone at the left post and wristed a shot into the open net to even the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at one game each.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • Pirates 0419 Brewers rally to clip Pirates

    Ryan Braun hit two homers, including a two-run shot with two outs in the ninth inning that sent the Milwaukee Brewers over the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-7 Saturday night.
    Braun has five home runs this season after being suspended for the last 65 games of 2013 following Major League Baseball’s investigation into the Biogenesis drug scandal.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • Area runners gearing for Boston Marathon

    The time was 12:15 p.m. It was Monday April 19, 1897.  Tom Burke had drawn a line across the dirt road with his foot. Eighteen men gathered near Metcalf’s Mill in Ashland, Massachusetts.

    April 19, 2014

  • Pirates 0418 Brewers ward off late Pirates rally bid

    Kyle Lohse pitched effectively into the seventh inning, Carlos Gomez homered and the Milwaukee Brewers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-3 Friday night.
    Lohse (3-1) improved to 11-2 in his career against the Pirates, allowing one earned run in a win against them for the second time in six days.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Drama lacking sans Tiger

    If professional golf saw its future at Augusta National last weekend, the sight had to be worse than choking on a 5-foot putt.
    The course was there in all its splendor.

    April 18, 2014

  • Penguins 0418 Penguins are wary of spunky Blue Jackets

    Sidney Crosby is used to the attention. It comes with the territory when you’re the best hockey player in the world.
    Still, the Pittsburgh Penguins star knows the spotlight becomes more acute in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Pirates 0417 Pirates power past Brewers

    Andrew McCutchen hit his first homer of the season and drove in three runs, Pedro Alvarez had a three-run shot and pinch-hitter Josh Harrison broke a tie with a long ball in the seventh inning as the Pittsburgh Pirates handed the Milwaukee Brewers their first road loss, 11-2 on Thursday night.
    Harrison’s two-run drive down the left field line off Rob Wooten (0-1) was the second of his career as a pinch hitter.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • Penguins 0417 Jackets preparing for Game 2

    The Columbus Blue Jackets don’t feel they’re doomed after blowing a two-goal lead in a Game 1 loss of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
    “It’s not about missed chances, or feeling sorry about it,” goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky said at Thursday’s optional workout, 13 hours after falling 4-3 in Pittsburgh.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

Poll

Would you like to see the Johnstown Community Corrections Center remain open after its lease runs out on Oct. 11, 2015?

Yes
No
I'm not sure
     View Results
Order Photos


Photo Slideshow

House Ads