WASHINGTON -- The conclusion of the 2005 season coincided with the conclusion of Jason Grilli's tenure as a starting pitcher. When he moved to the bullpen, he upgraded his arsenal.
Grilli said he used to throw a high arcing curveball as a starter, but traded it in for a slider when he became a reliever. Grilli, who pitched for the Detroit Tigers at the time, said he talked with Tigers starter Jeremy Bonderman to perfect the pitch.
"We talked a little bit about it, just to tweak it to get the exact movement that I wanted on it, because he had a really good one," Grilli said.
Seven years later, the slider has helped Grilli become a leader of one of the strongest bullpens in the major leagues.
The Pirates bullpen had a 2.63 ERA, second in the National League to Aroldis Chapman, Sean Marshall and the Cincinnati Reds, entering the Thursday night game against the Washington Nationals. The Pirates also rank fourth in the majors in percentage of opposing runners left on base.
"I knew I could throw a slider because it's just a minor adjustment on how you release the ball," Grilli said. "I might have thrown it a little bit harder than in years past."
From 2000-05, Grilli struck out 4.9 batters per nine innings. In the six seasons he has pitched since then, his strikeouts per nine innings increased to 8.0, and this year he had 25 strikeouts in 14 innings entering Thursday, a 16.1 strikeouts per nine rate. The freedom to let loose, rather than conserve energy as a starter, undoubtedly helped. The chance the Pirates gave him helped, too.
"I've finally gotten an opportunity," said Grilli, who has secured a role in the eighth inning of close games. "Everyone acts like it's some surprise. I've always said, my real answer is that I've never been given the opportunity to really showcase what I'm capable of doing.
"I've been patiently waiting and, now that the opportunity's here, I've been going for the jugular. I have to."
Manager Clint Hurdle said the Pirates were discussing the possibility of keeping eight relievers in their bullpen for the interleague series against the Tigers, which begins today in Detroit.
"It does give you an easier time navigating in the American League if you go a position player short," Hurdle said. "They got a pretty good hitting ball club, you always got to look at that side. Could you use the extra arm?"
The Pirates enter the weekend series with an 81-130 overall record in interleague play, including a 12-15 record against the Tigers. The Pirates took two of three from the Tigers at PNC Park last season.
"I never don't like going to Detroit," said Hurdle, a Michigan native. "It's always good to go back. It was really special to go back to the old Tiger Stadium because I've been there as a kid. I like this new ballpark [Comerica Park]."
Hurdle declined to name a designated hitter for the series. Only Garrett Jones and Andrew McCutchen have at-bats as a DH among players on the active roster.
Jeff Karstens, on the 15-day disabled list (right shoulder inflammation), will throw a bullpen session as planned today in Detroit, Hurdle said.