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Kovacevic: Grilli just needed someone to believe ... and the ball

About Dejan Kovacevic
Picture Dejan Kovacevic
Sports Columnist
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports writer for the Tribune-Review.

By Dejan Kovacevic

Published: Saturday, July 6, 2013, 10:00 p.m.

The scout didn't believe it back then any more than we do now.

The date was July 14, 2011, and Jason Grilli was pitching across the commonwealth for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Yeah, they're really called the IronPigs. Linger long enough in the minors, and you'll get called every tobacco-stained name in the book, but even for a 34-year-old wearing his 17th different professional baseball cap, who'd climbed mounds from Fresno to Frisco to California to Calgary to Jupiter, who'd just lost a year to a gruesome knee injury … this was rock bottom.

He was an IronPig.

For two-plus months, he was one of the best relievers in Triple-A with a 1.93 ERA, and he was still an IronPig.

A few rows behind the plate on this night was Marc DelPiano. He's a special assistant for the Pirates, a position that's essentially a pro scout. Meaning he searches for players who can help the big club right now.

Grilli knew DelPiano was there. They'd been friends since Grilli's teen years in upstate New York, so DelPiano let him know.

This might be a chance.

Grilli also knew he wasn't assured of anyone else coming. In baseball's minors, when you turn 24, you're getting old. When you're 34, you might as well be a ghost.

Check that: This might be the chance.

Grilli came on for the eighth inning and manhandled all three Syracuse batters: Swinging K, flyout, flyout. It took only nine pitches, and it came via 95 mph heat offset by a biting slider.

“What's this guy doing in the minors?” DelPiano recalled asking himself.

He needed more, though. Anyone can have a good inning, and DelPiano wanted to test Grilli's physical strength — “and the mental side, too” — by seeing him on back-to-back nights. DelPiano and Grilli together approached Ryne Sandberg, Lehigh Valley's manager and the notable former Cubs second baseman, to ask if he could make that happen.

Sandberg, as is common courtesy, obliged his veteran.

Next night, Grilli came through again: Groundout, flyout, swinging K.

A week later, after exercising an escape clause and signing as a minor league free agent, he was pitching for the Pirates.

‘An amazing story'

Two years later, he's an All-Star.

Grilli was among the National League reserves named Saturday night, sending him to the main event July 15 at New York's Citi Field. He'll hobnob with all of the sport's greats, soak in the big lights, savor every moment ... on the precise two-year anniversary of the night DelPiano changed his life.

DelPiano, 45, is a rising star in executive circles dating to his time with the perennially talent-rich Expos, Marlins and Red Sox. Since joining the Pirates four years ago, his scouting has led to the acquisitions of A.J. Burnett, Russell Martin, Michael McKenry and Xavier Paul, among others. But it's easily evident from his emotional expression when speaking of Grilli that one stands above all.

“I've thought the world of Jason as a person from high school to Seton Hall to right here,” DelPiano said. “And now I'm like everybody else, yelling ‘Grilled Cheese!' when he comes into the game.' It's an amazing story. He's an amazing story.”

If anything, that's understated.

Can you think of a story that rivals a 36-year-old rocketing into the sport's best closer in his first year in the role?

He has 28 saves in 29 chances.

He has a 2.15 ERA.

He's allowing .88 walks and hits per inning pitched.

He's struck out 60, walked seven.

He's allowed opponents to bat a Mendoza-envying .187.

He's been, in a word …

“Fantastic,” manager Clint Hurdle said.

“Superb,” pitching coach Ray Searage said.

“Unbelievable,” said Martin, his catcher.

And most important, including if you ask Grilli himself, he's combined with Mark Melancon and a generally exceptional bullpen to backstop — and at times, carry — the best team in baseball.

“Honestly, that's what counts most in my eyes,” Grilli was saying in the home dugout this past week at PNC Park. “I think all of our guys have closer stuff. I'm humbled and honored to be part of that group. I'm humbled and honored, actually, by everything that's happened this year, including to this team and to these great fans that deserve this so much. And I don't ever forget that.”

He looked down briefly, then looked back up.

“I walked in those shoes, man. I've been that fifth-, sixth-inning guy. I've walked the hard road. I've been that guy who thinks maybe he's done.”

There were signs that he was anything but done well before this. Upon joining the Pirates, Grilli quickly advanced from middle relief to late duty in 2011, posting a 2.48 ERA. He even earned an arbitration contract, a rarity for a reliever here. Last season, he elevated further to become a premier setup man, posting a 2.90 ERA and fanning batters like never before.

And yet, ask Searage to name everyone inside or outside the organization who might have thought Grilli could excel like this, and he'll be typically blunt.

“Grilli,” Searage replied. “Just Grilli.”

‘Just the confidence'

How does this happen?

Grilli's career ERA in 280 games in the majors, spread over a decade, was 4.63 before coming to Pittsburgh. In the minors, it was 4.41. He averaged half as many strikeouts, twice as many walks.

Surely, there was a significant pitching adjustment, no?

Well, a couple.

In 2006, Grilli was converted from starting to relief while with the Tigers. Not coincidentally, he dropped his curveball that same year and stuck solely by a fastball-slider combination more characteristic of a reliever.

And?

“That was pretty much it,” DelPiano said. “Oh, and before hurting the knee, he shortened up his delivery on the back end. Minor thing.”

That's it. Grilli is throwing the same way, he's still averaging the same 94 mph on his fastball he has the past several years, and he's suddenly getting sensational results.

No Searage magic?

“None,” the coach came back. “When Jason came to us, I was his friend. That's all. I believed in him, and I let him know that every day.”

It apparently meant the world.

Grilli once was on the traditional prospect's path. He broke in with the Marlins for a handful of appearances in just his third and fourth years of pro ball. He had the size at 6-foot-4, the live arm, the poise, even the genetics of being former big-league pitcher Steve Grilli's son. But Tommy John surgery in 2002 threw off everything, and he bounced around until landing in Detroit three years later.

He finally found regular work in the majors, but …

“You have to have people believing in you. You have to have that support system,” Brandon Inge, Grilli's teammate then and now, was saying. “All it takes is knowing that someone, anyone doesn't, and it's just not the same. With Jason, I think he felt like every pitch could be his last back then. He was in middle relief, which isn't great for job security in the first place, and I think there were some up high who didn't have faith.”

Inge wouldn't elaborate, other than to stress he wasn't referring to Jim Leyland.

The difference Inge sees now?

“To me, he's the same pitcher,” he said. “It's just the confidence. Night and day.”

In early 2008, the Tigers traded Grilli to the Rockies. On his first day at Coors Field, he took to the outfield with the other pitchers to shag flies and soon was joined by Hurdle, Colorado's manager then.

Here's how both men recall that conversation:

Hurdle: “What do you want to do here? What's your goal?”

Grilli: “I want the back end. I want to close.”

Hurdle: “Really? Then why aren't you already doing it?”

Grilli: “Because nobody in this business pays attention to inherited runners. I've been stranding 71-72 percent of my runners coming into jams, and that's the toughest job in baseball. If I can do that, I can close.”

“I was impressed by that,” Hurdle says now. “I always want my players setting high goals for themselves, but Jason arriving there brand new and saying that … it stuck with me.”

Right through this past winter, evidently. When it was clear the Pirates sought to trade last year's closer, Joel Hanrahan, Hurdle phoned Grilli to see if that sentiment still applied.

“I think I kind of knew,” Hurdle said. “But I wanted to hear it.”

So he did.

“I felt like I already was a closer in the way I'd pitched the eighth inning, just like I feel Melancon is that now,” Grilli said. “But yeah, I told Clint I wanted it. Better believe I did.”

‘It's conviction'

Confidence is a funny, fragile thing, and baseball can beat it out of the best of them. Even then, that doesn't do justice to what the game had done to Grilli for a decade and a half, mentally and physically. As DelPiano put it, “He's got a couple of screws in his elbow and who knows what in that knee.”

But there he was two Sundays ago in Anaheim, visibly dragging as he allowed the Angels to score three times and put the tying and winning runs in scoring position for Mike Trout.

Then, lockdown. The fastball somehow found its way to 95 mph, and he finished off by getting one of the American League's best hitters to flail at a wicked slider.

That was no IronPig at work.

“It's conviction,” Grilli said.

That the ball will do good things upon leaving his hand?

“All conviction.”

That he, in that moment, is better than Trout?

“Conviction, man.”

He raised his right fist.

“That fist pump I did after that game in Anaheim and after all the other saves … there's a lot that goes into that. I'm not doing it for show. I'm not doing it just because we won. I'm doing it because I feel everything that's gone into that moment. I feel how I've been Humpty Dumpty that doctors had to put together. I feel all the doubts that others have had, that I've had myself. I feel all of it.”

The fist opened, and he motioned around at PNC Park's seats.

“I feel all of this, everything that's been happening here. And I'll tell you, I feel it in a way most guys in this game never will.”

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

 

 

 
 


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