Ron Cook: Grilli's velocity might be down, but not his intensity level

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ST. LOUIS -- You think Pirates closer Jason Grilli was pumped Tuesday night when they handed him the baseball? He was so stoked that he practically squeezed the life out of catcher Russell Martin after needing just seven pitches to close out the Cincinnati Reds one-two-three in the ninth inning of the Pirates' season-extending 6-2 win in the National League wild-card game.

But Grilli became even more animated moments later in the Pirates' champagne-drenched clubhouse when he was asked if he felt he is all the way back from his mid-season arm injury. He looked as if he wanted to squeeze the life out of his interrogator. For real.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again ... I'm all the way back," Grilli said, biting off each word. "There are no doubts in my mind. Why? Are there any doubts in yours?"

Well, the velocity ...

Grilli quickly jumped in, making it clear he doesn't believe a few lost miles per hour on his fastball is a big deal. He dared those around him to argue. For a minute there, I thought he was going to suggest putting the radar gun in an uncomfortable part of the human body.

That's intense.

Fortunately, Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes was standing nearby, ready to put the sensitive issue for Grilli into a bit more delicate perspective.

"Jason has had to battle through so much during his career. I'm sure he'd be the first to tell you he's learned how to pitch and how to get outs. He's definitely still got that same mindset. That hasn't left him. He's going to attack you with everything he's got."

So Grilli did against the Reds. They didn't have a chance. Jay Bruce struck out. Todd Frazier flied out to left field. Zack Cozart bounced out to second base. Just like that, the Pirates were off to St. Louis to play the Cardinals in the National League Division Series, which starts today at Busch Stadium.

Grilli's performance was encouraging. It was his second, consecutive strong outing. At the risk of offending him and ending up with the radar gun where I don't want it, I'm not ready to say he's all the way back. He's still throwing 91 or 92 mph, down from 94 or 95 before his injury. But Grilli is much less of a worry than he was a few weeks ago when he still was fighting back from a strained right forearm. He and eighth-inning specialist Mark Melancon should give the Pirates an edge over the back end of the Cardinals' bullpen. Trevor Rosenthal replaced struggling Edward Mujica as the Cardinals' closer in late September.

For much of the season, Grilli and Melancon were virtually unhittable. Give the Pirates a lead after seven innings and the game was over. Both pitchers made the All-Star Game.

But Grilli went out, clutching his arm in a game July 22 at Washington. He didn't come back until Sept. 4. Melancon stepped into the closer's role and was brilliant, at least until blowing three consecutive saves in late September. Blame one on a throwing error by shortstop Jordy Mercer. But the other two are hard to explain. It's not like anyone hit Melancon hard. He can close for me anytime. He's far down the Pirates' list of concerns.

But manager Clint Hurdle decided to go back to Grilli as his hammer. Like Barmes, he loves Grilli's mentality. You almost can see the adrenaline pumping through Grilli's body. "I still can't feel my legs," he said an hour after the game Tuesday night.

You almost can feel Grilli's passion. He might not throw 95 these days and might never again average nearly 14 strikeouts per nine innings, as he did in the first half of the season. But he knows how to get three outs in the ninth inning. He knows how to finish a win.

"I know numbers are big in baseball, but I've simplified everything down to a feeling," Grilli said this summer. "It's the feeling I have when I'm on the mound. Like the guy who needs a drink, I need it. I crave it."

That's one of the things that drove Grilli during his rehabilitation. The chance to come back and be a part of a great team with a great bullpen motivated him. "This is why I signed back here," Grilli said, wiping champagne off his forehead. "There's so much talent, so much unity, so much togetherness in this room. This team is built to win the World Series."

Yes, there's also that, that whole world championship business. Grilli mentioned the five championship flags that are on the wall below the PNC Park radio booths. "There's room for another one to the right of 1979. We stare it every day from the bullpen. It takes 12 wins to get to the Promised Land."

One down, 11 to go for the Pirates.

Those are the only numbers Grilli cares about at this point.

You can stick that radar gun up ...

Well, you know where.

pirates - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. 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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