Jason Grilli is about to embrace the biggest role of his career. And, at age 36, he is in rare company to do so.
The hard-throwing, right-handed reliever began spring training as the Pirates closer after the team traded Joel Hanrahan to Boston in the offseason. It's a distinction that is rarely, if ever, awarded for the first time to a player in his mid-30s.
Pitching coach Ray Searage couldn't recall a similar situation, nor could manager Clint Hurdle.
"That's the beauty of the game," Hurdle said. "He could be the guy that goes in, sets it up and from here on in we'll go, 'Hey, it's not too late to put a guy in this position.' "
Though the Pirates traded their two-time All-Star closer for an aging pitcher with five career saves, there is little -- if any -- doubt within the organization that Grilli will succeed.
"We've sold out to him," Hurdle said.
And Grilli bought into the Pirates after they signed him as a free agent in July 2011. Since then, he has been given an opportunity to pitch in late-inning situations, chances that were not afforded him earlier.
Until he signed with the Pirates, Grilli's career was underwhelming. He was 18-18 with a career 4.74 ERA when he signed with the Pirates. He lost a year to Tommy John surgery, and his career nearly ended in 2010 when, after signing a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians, he had a significant tear to his right quad, near his knee, in spring training.
That injury forced Grilli to evaluate his career and refocus on the game.
"I was tired," he said. "I was tired of being tired."
And because he dealt with injuries, he hasn't thrown as many innings as one would expect from a 36-year-old pitcher.
"The best way I look at it is, God was saving my bullets," Grilli said.
In two seasons with the Pirates, he has posted a 2.76 ERA, and last season his strikeout-to-walk ratio was a career best 4.09 strikeouts to one walk.
"It's a credit to him, what he's been through and where he's at right now," Searage said. "That's a feel-good story right there."
Grilli was the team's go-to setup man in 2012, especially in what Hurdle called "high-leverage situations," when he needed someone to pitch through the heart of the opponent's batting order. He was more likely to face a team's top hitters than Hanrahan, which is one reason Hurdle and Searage are optimistic the transition will be smooth.
"He knows he's done it before, but it was in the eighth inning," Searage said. "Now, it's in the ninth inning. What's the difference? You need three outs. Yes, there's a different type of mentality that you have to really grow into as you get into it. But Jason is a guy who has been around."
The Pirates signed Grilli to a two-year, $6.75 million deal this offseason, luring him away from offers from the Chicago Cubs and Toronto Blue Jays. Grilli said he had more lucrative offers but stuck with the Pirates because of his connection to Hurdle, his teammates, the fans and the opportunity.
"I've never had choices," he said. "I've always had to accept what's given to me. Sometimes, it's a role, sometimes, it's a contract."
Still, doubts linger among fans and analysts as to whether Grilli adequately can replace Hanrahan and maintain his success. His strikeout numbers spiked in 2012, and he made more appearances last season than any other in his career.
"I think everybody's going to question, 'Can he do it?' " Grilli said. "People can ask that question all day long. I'm going to go out and pitch the way I pitch. Sometimes, I'm going to be the goat; at times, I'm going to be the hero. To get to this point, I've prepared. And all the bad [things] that's happened has prepared me for what's to come.
"I know I can handle it."
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A look back
A breakdown of Jason Grilli's 2012 statistics
• Wins: 1
• Losses: 6
• ERA: 2.91
• Appearances: 64
• Saves: 2
• Innings pitched: 58.2
• Walks: 22
• Strikeouts: 90mobilehome - pirates
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino. First Published February 15, 2013 5:00 AM