The Times West Virginian

Sports

February 16, 2013

At 36, Grilli embraces shot at closing

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 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.”

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