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Healthy Pirates closer Grilli ready for encore

| Monday, March 3, 2014, 10:03 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates closer Jason Grilli pitches in the bullpen at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Pirates closer Jason Grilli might not ever win a Cy Young Award, but his manager makes it sound like Grilli's gritty career performance is worthy of an Oscar.

“His story is like a movie,” Clint Hurdle said. “It's a great story. It's a former first-round pick who's had to persevere and reinvent himself and deal with adversity.

“There's setback and success, to where things took off for him in a very positive direction. The thing that kept it moving was his attitude, effort and self-belief.”

After playing for six organizations over 11 seasons in the majors, Grilli, 37, finally is where he wants to be.

He came to spring training already knowing his finances — Grilli is in the second year of a $6.75 million contract — and role on the team are secure.

On Thursday, Grilli is scheduled to make his Grapefruit League debut. Management is being cautious with him in camp as he missed six weeks last season because of a flexor strain.

“We've mapped it out,” Hurdle said. “Last season, the World Baseball Classic was a great experience for him, but it challenged him physically. We have a plan to get him involved at a particular time and then add to it. He will get more than the six appearances he got last spring.”

Most closers don't need more than a handful of spring training outings to hit their stride. It might seem like an unconventional way to prepare for a season, but Grilli never has been much for doing things the easy way.

In 2001, Grilli was on an Opening Day roster for the first time and also hit his first (and only) home run, but he found himself back in the minors by May.

He's endured a bone spur, a bulging disc, a fractured elbow, strained ligaments that led to Tommy John surgery and an operation on his right knee that caused him to sit out all of 2010.

“I was almost done,” Grilli said. “This is all gravy now.”

The Pirates rescued Grilli from the Triple-A Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs in 2011 after the Philadelphia Phillies told him there was no room on their roster.

Despite his injury last year, Grilli became one of only eight Pirates relievers to notch 30 or more saves in a season. He set career bests in walk rate (6.4 percent) and wins above replacement (1.5, per Fangraphs).

Grilli allows a lot of fly balls — his 33 percent ground-ball rate was tied for fourth-lowest among relievers with 10-plus saves — but he wasn't hurt often by home runs. He trimmed his rate of home runs per nine innings from 1.07 in 2012 to 0.74 last season.

“I'm just using the whole field, as they say,” Grilli said with a laugh.

“I don't have a thought that I'm going to give up a bomb because that's the wrong way to think. I don't stand there thinking, ‘I'm a fly ball pitcher.' I just pitch aggressively.”

It helps that PNC Park is pitcher-friendly with a roomy left field. But Grilli also said his experiences and struggles over the past decade also have made him a better pitcher.

“I think the older you get, you finally know what works,” he said. “You work so hard to get to a place where you're comfortable.

“I know I've got a big responsibility because I'm the last guy on the bump in a win situation. You've got to think you're not going to be beat.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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