Pittsburgh Pirates | Grilli still making most of closing time

Vet waited, prepared for chance to finish games

jlembo@bradenton.comFebruary 19, 2014 

BRADENTON -- Closing a ballgame isn't easy.

Jason Grilli doesn't say it is.

But when asked why he slid into the stopper's role so easily last summer, the Pittsburgh Pirates righty is quick to credit his been-there, done-that past.

"I like the pressure," he said Monday at Pirate City, a day before the Pirates conducted their first full-squad workout of the spring. "I just learned -- through the process of finally getting an opportunity to close -- the pressures of coming in with the bases loaded, no outs and the heart of the order up is a lot harder than it is to have a clean inning and starting there. Conditioning, how you prepare for something. I had a perfect preparation all the way through, going from a starter to being a reliever. I had practice."

Anointed the closer after Joel Hanrahan was dealt to the Boston Red Sox prior to the start of last season, Grilli was nearly perfect, converting 33 of 35 save chances -- including 27 of his first 28 -- and being named an All-Star for the first time in his 11-year career.

He missed more than two months of the season with a forearm injury but returned in time to close out the Cincinnati Reds to clinch the Pirates' victory in the National League wild-card game.

It was Pittsburgh's first postseason win since 1992.

"My hard work translated. It's kind of nice when you work hard for something and you train for something, and it comes to fruition," Grilli said. "Yeah, we have our personal goals, and I've always wanted to see what I could do in a big-time role because I felt that what I think of myself isn't always what they think of you. ... There's variables you can't control: contracts, experience. It was a long-awaited time. ... It just happened to me later in my career than I would have liked to have happen.

"But that's when it happened, and I can't change that."

Grilli, 37, has spent of his career trotting out of the bullpen. A first-round pick by the San Francisco Giants in 1997, Grilli has appeared in 384 games with the Pirates, Florida Marlins, Detroit Tigers, Colorado Rockies and Texas Rangers. He has started just 16 of them.

But Grilli excelled as a set-up man in 2012, the Pirates decided to slide him from the eighth inning to the ninth.

It worked.

"He has an incredible level of self-confidence," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "It was something that he earned through work -- volume of work, game situations. He had to reinvent himself; he's had to reinvent himself three or four times."

Hurdle agreed Grilli's past played a role in last season's success.

"(Closer) is the only situation he hadn't pitched in," Hurdle said. "He had a dream of doing it since I first ran into him in 2008. He earned the opportunity. Give him the opportunity. He was going to have to show me he couldn't do it because I had every belief that he would do it."

The Pirates are progressing slowly this spring with Grilli, who threw 15 pitches off a mound Tuesday, though Hurdle expects him to make more than the six appearances he made last spring. His preparation was interrupted when he pitched for Italy during the World Baseball Classic.

After all the years of waiting, Grilli cashed in on his chance. And he reaffirmed his manager's faith in him, too.

"His skill set's good, and that plays as much as anything," Hurdle said. "He has a short-term memory, which is huge for a guy pitching in the back end of the game."

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