Ron Cook: Fire inside fuels rise to glory for Pirates closer Grilli
May 31, 2013 8:00 AM
Pirates closer Jason Grilli has become one of the best closers in the majors.
By Ron Cook Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A fellow approached Pirates closer Jason Grilli Thursday at PNC Park and politely introduced himself before abruptly pulling back his hand just as Grilli reached to shake it. Talk about an awkward moment. Grilli didn't know what to think, the look on his face curious. "I don't want first-degree burns," the man told him. They both grinned.
Grilli is that hot.
Actually, he's hotter.
You probably know Grilli easily led baseball in saves and was a perfect 22 for 22 in save chances going into games Thursday. You might know his strikeouts-to-walks ratio is a staggering 38-to-5 and that he is averaging 13.86 strikeouts per nine innings. But do you know only one pitcher had more saves in April and May since baseball started recognizing the stat in 1969? Danny Graves of the Cincinnati Reds had 24 in 2004 on his way to a 41-save season. None of the 10 pitchers who had 50 saves or more in a season had as many in the first two months, not even the Los Angeles Angels' Francisco Rodriguez, who had 62 in 2008 but just 21 on June 1.
Grilli's success isn't extraordinary just because he's a first-time closer. He's 36. Of the 10 pitchers with 50 saves in a season, only the Oakland Athletics' Dennis Eckersley was older when he did it. Of the 140 pitchers who had 40 or more saves in a season, only nine were 36 or older.
"I'm glad you did all that research because I don't pay any attention to it," Grilli said during a pleasant, lengthy chat in the Pirates dugout. "It goes in one ear and out the other. I know numbers are big in baseball, but I've simplified everything down to a feeling ... the feeling I have when I'm on the mound. Like the guy who needs a drink, I need it. I crave it."
You saw it Tuesday night when Grilli struck out Detroit thumpers Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in a one-two-three 11th inning to save the Pirates' 1-0 win. You saw it Sunday when he needed just nine pitches to retire the Milwaukee Brewers in a perfect ninth inning in a 5-4 win. You have seen it all season. Grilli retired 31 of the 35 hitters he faced in his past 11 outings. He has to be the Pirates' favorite to make the All-Star game.
How about third-degree?
"I guess if I was telling kids the significance of my story, it would be that, if you truly love what you do, don't give up on it," Grilli said. "I always wanted to be a big contributor to a team. I always wanted to do something significant. I've put in a lot of heart and perseverance to get to this point."
Let Grilli count the ways. Literally.
"Ten teams. Three surgeries. Four agents. Twelve financial advisers. Lots of cups of coffee ... "
You get the idea.
Grilli hit bottom when he tore up his right knee during spring training in 2010 with the Cleveland Indians. "I was just doing my running," he said. "My kneecap ended up swinging all the way around. The guys who were running with me said it was the most disgusting sound they'd ever heard ...
"[That night], I'm in a hotel room in Arizona. It took me 20 minutes to get from the bed to the toilet. I about ripped the sink out of the wall. I thought, 'This isn't supposed to happen to me.' I had a snapshot in my mind of how my career was supposed to look and that wasn't it. I knew I wasn't done with baseball."
Grilli missed the 2010 season and was stuck in Triple-A in the Philadelphia organization in 2011 when he faced a major career decision. He was married and had a 3-year-old son at the time. An offer came from Korea.
"I remember dragging my roommate -- Tagg Bozied -- into a laundry room at the ballpark in Scranton," Grilli said. "That was a real scary time for me. I said, 'Tagg, what should I do? Should I go to Korea?' I have to clean up his language to tell you what he told me. 'Are you kidding me? Bleep, no. If your ERA was 5 or 6, you'd be going to Korea. But your ERA is under 1. You're a big-league pitcher.' I just said thank you and gave him a big hug. I needed that confirmation at that point."
Grilli stayed with the Lehigh Valley club. The Phillies did him a favor by releasing him a month later in July so he could sign with the Pirates at the urging of manager Clint Hurdle, who had him in Colorado. Grilli finished the season strong, was a terrific eighth-inning set-up man last season and took over as closer this season after Joel Hanrahan was traded to Boston.
"People ask me what the difference is being the closer," Grilli said. "I tell them there is no difference. Instead of doing it in the eighth inning, I do it last, that's all."
Grilli made it sound simple, but it really isn't. Most baseball people will tell you there's a big difference between getting the first 24 outs of a game and the final three outs. Then again, Grilli keeps everything about baseball simple. "I try to strike out every hitter. That has to be my mindset. I have to be aggressive to be successful."
How long will it last? That seems like a fair question about the Pirates, who took a 33-20 record into the game Thursday night against Detroit. It's a really fair question about Grilli, who's the oldest player on the team's active roster.
"I plan on it lasting," Grilli said. "I was on a gravel road for a long time during my career. Now, I'm on smooth pavement. I want to ride it out for as long as I can."
At that moment, it was hard to tell Grilli from a group of 8-year-old players from the Pine-Richland Baseball Association who were hanging out in the dugout. They were belly up to the railing, wide-eyed, watching Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Pine-Richland's own, Neil Walker, take batting practice, soaking in all the wonder of big-league baseball.
"Those kids, they want to be us," Grilli said. "You know what the irony is? We want to be them. We are them."
A big kid in a man's body, having the time of his life.