Saving grace: Grilli relishes first opportunity to close
Former No. 4 overall Draft pick succeeds Hanrahan at back end of Pittsburgh 'pen
BRADENTON, Fla. -- A year ago, he was working on saving his career. Now Jason Grilli is working toward saving games.
At 36, the Pirates right-handed reliever is in Spring Training camp as a first-time closer, the chance of a long baseball lifetime he has long wanted and feels he now deserves.
"I worked so hard to get to this point, to be given this opportunity. I worked [hard] for this," said Grilli, 16 years after having been a can't-miss No. 1 Draft pick who kept missing for years. "I'm relishing it. I'm not scared of it at all. I'm not coming in saying, 'I shouldn't be doing this.' I can take off my shoes and put on the uniform confidently, knowing the carrot is in front of me."
This is big for the Pirates, who sacrificed 90-percent-closer Joel Hanrahan to turn Grilli into the oldest closer in the National League, making him a big slice of their contention pie.
Also gone is Hanrahan's signature entrance, to the video board accompaniment of the race-car engine pumping up the RPM and the MPH. That's been replaced, too: Grilli has already previewed his own soundtrack, customized lyrics to a song by his favorite rockers, Pearl Jam -- details to remain in suspense until his first appearance at PNC Park.
"I've gotten some sneak peeks at it and had one of those, 'Wow, I can't believe this is for me' moments," Grilli said. "Lot of fist-pumping and punchouts."
So this is very big for Grilli, who since being the overall No. 4 selection in the 2000 First-Year Player Draft by the Giants has won 21 games and saved five others.
"Five career saves is not a lot to hang your hat on," Grilli said. "But I'm getting ready for this season as I always do. I've had every role you can think of, and considering what I did last year in the eighth and who I did it against, I don't see why I can't do it in the ninth."
Quickly emerging as the premier setup reliever for the Bucs, who had picked him up the prior July on the rebound following his release by Philadelphia, Grilli trained his fire -- he faced a total of 244 men and fanned 90 of them -- on the heart of the NL. He pitched the eighth inning in 52 games -- the Pirates won 38 of those -- but would work earlier when manager Clint Hurdle wanted to match him up against the core of the opposition lineup.
As broadcasters are prone to say, sometimes bona fide saves come earlier than the ninth inning: Last season, Grilli faced opponents' Nos. 3-4-5 hitters 99 times; Hanrahan ran the same gauntlet 81 times.
"If I can do this job with inherited runners coming in in the middle of the game, there's no reason why I can't do this at the end."
That is what Grilli said to Hurdle when the manager asked about his career aspirations.
"I was blown away. Someone had never asked me that," Grilli recalled. "Everything I've ever done prepared me for what's to come. I said to Hurdle, 'I just want the chance. If I can't do it, you can demote me, but I've always looked for that chance.'
"I will be scrutinized and criticized. And I'll handle it all gracefully; I know it comes with the role. I'm just relishing this opportunity. I've worked really hard, and I'm in the best shape of my life at 36."
Arizona closer J.J. Putz will also turn 36 later this month, but Grilli has three months on him.
"Oldest [closer] in the National League? Huh ... I'm going to take that as a nice challenge," Grilli said. "I've got this contract [the first of his career for more than one year], and I have another one in front of me. That's what I'm going for."
Baseball is romanticized for fathers passing the game down to their kids, and it is handed off among generations of closers, too. Even while he was still with the Pirates, Hanrahan talked glowingly of Grilli's ability to succeed him.
"I was sad to see a good compadre leave. We had to be one of the best setup-closer combinations in the whole league. He kept telling me, 'You made my life easier,' and that meant a lot coming from a guy like him," said Grilli, likewise aware of bequeathing his wisdom, and eventually perhaps his job.
"Here's the carrot for you guys: 'You're the heir to my position, 'cause I'm only going to do this a little longer,'" Grilli tells some of the younger pitchers, like Jared Hughes, who looked up to him even last year just because of the attitude with which he worked and took the mound.
"How old is Jason? Thirty-six? If I could be where he is at when I'm 36," said Hughes, 27, "I'd be thrilled. It's definitely a goal of mine to be like Jason. He's a terrific competitor and ballplayer. I think he'll be a terrific closer. He's got so much passion for the game, and there isn't a situation he has not been in. He plays the game the right way."
"Hughes tells me I've been through so much and says he wants to feed off that," Grilli said with a nod. "He's turned into a good friend of mine. I want to be there for these guys."
He'll have to be there for 24 of these guys. The last span of the bridge to victory. He, too, has someone he wants to be like: Sergio Romo, and not because the Giants righty was another setup reliever who late last season got a chance to close and ran with it. But because he ran through the World Series.
"I [couldn't] care less about feathers in my cap. I want the ring on my finger," Grilli said.
There you go, Pittsburgh: A guy for whom chasing a World Series and signing with the Pirates were not mutually exclusive concepts.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.