Ron Cook: New roles after Grilli injury

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WASHINGTON -- It should have been such a festive night for the Pirates. There were a couple of two-run home runs by Andrew McCutchen, one of the hottest hitters in baseball. There was a strong start by Charlie Morton, his second in a row, as he solidified his spot in a strong rotation. There even were a couple of "Let's Go Bucs!" chants in Nationals Park. Imagine that. The bandwagon is taking on new members every day.

But the joy of the Pirates' 6-5 win against the Washington Nationals Monday night evaporated with one pitch by All-Star closer Jason Grilli in the ninth inning.

Were you thinking what I was thinking when Grilli, in obvious distress, pain and frustration because of a potentially serious arm injury, summoned the team's medical staff to the mound?

That Grilli's season could be over?

Grilli left after his first pitch to pinch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi was fouled off with the tying run at second base and two outs. It was his 24th pitch of the inning in one of his worst outings of the season. Taking over in the ninth with a 6-3 lead, he gave up a walk to Adam LaRoche and a home run to Jayson Werth. After striking out Ian Desmond with a 95 mph fastball, he gave up a double to Denard Span before striking out Wilson Ramos with a breaking ball.

Then came the fateful pitch to Lombardozzi.

There wouldn't be a 31st save in 32 chances for Grilli.

Reliever Vin Mazzaro came on to get Lombardozzi to bounce out to second base, but, at that point, the win that gave the Pirates a 58-39 record hardly seemed to matter.

It's fair to say Grilli's pain -- "Forearm tightness," manager Clint Hurdle called it, hoping for the best -- was felt not just in the Pirates clubhouse but around baseball. He was one of the season's happy stories, going from baseball's scrap pile to the top of his profession as the game's best closer. Sports Illustrated put him on its cover last week with the headline, "The Strangest But Truest Story of the Summer."

No, I'm not going to blame the infamous Sports Illustrated jinx. Grilli surely won't. "I don't believe in jinxes," he said a little more than month ago when he was reminded that he hadn't blown a save all season. "If I blow one, I'm not going to blame you for mentioning that." Grilli is a man of his word. He blew his only save June 19 against the Cincinnati Reds and blamed only himself.

Arm injuries happen in baseball, unfortunately. The human arm isn't built to throw a baseball 95 mph. It breaks down under the stress. It breaks your heart to see it happen, especially on the field in a game. It's especially disappointing when it happens to a good man who is having the season of his life after fighting through adversity for most of his career.

But the season will go on.

Baseball people will feel sorry for Grilli, but they won't feel sorry for the Pirates.

That's especially true of the St. Louis Cardinals, the team the Pirates are chasing in the National League Central Division. They know plenty about arm injuries. They realize they are just one more thing they have to overcome on their way to baseball's postseason.

The Pirates bullpen -- the best in baseball all season -- will be seriously tested if Grilli is done for the season or even out for a long time. The relievers might be the biggest reason the team appears headed to its first winning season and first playoff spot in 21 years. They went into the game Monday night with a 2.74 earned run average, second best in baseball behind the Atlanta bullpen (2.66).

The Pirates are lucky to have Mark Melancon to step into the closer's role. He has been nearly perfect as Grilli's set-up man this season and has closing experience. He, too, made it to the All-Star Game last week.

It remains to be seen who steps into Melancon's eighth-inning role. Fortunately for the Pirates, their bullpen is deep. Mazzaro, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris and Jeanmar Gomez have mostly excelled this season. At this point, I wouldn't have a problem sending any of them out to get big outs late in a game.

Grilli has played a huge role in the Pirates' surprising success. It could be up to Melancon and the rest to make sure his hard work isn't wasted in what still could be a magical season.

That's what a team is about, right?

Everyone has to do his part.

Everyone will be needed before the long season is finished.

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Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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