WILL GRAVES,AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The first time Clint Hurdle introduced himself to Jason Grilli when the two were with the Colorado Rockies in 2008, the always blunt manager asked the hard-throwing reliever “what do you want out of your career?”
And Grilli’s mind was blown.
“I was like ‘Are you serious or are you just trying to make small talk?’” Grilli said with a laugh. “I’d been waiting for somebody to ask me that my whole life.”
The former first-round pick who flamed out as a starter before becoming a nomadic middle reliever told Hurdle he wanted to become a back-end of the bullpen guy.
Hurdle promised to do what he can. And he did. In Pittsburgh.
Three years later.
The Pirates signed Grilli to help out a patched-together bullpen last summer as the club tried to make a rare late-season push. He was a pleasant surprise in 24 appearances, going 2-1 with a 2.48 ERA while showing the same grit that endeared Grilli to Hurdle when the two were in Colorado.
“We had nothing to lose and he wanted to pitch and get an opportunity to show people what he could do again,” Hurdle said. “It was a good fit for both of us.”
And proof that sometimes “you have to throw the statistical analysis out the window,” as the manager put it.
Good idea, because what Grilli is doing this season defies explanation.
The 35-year-old right-hander is off to the best start of his career for the persistent Pirates (25-25), who begin a three-game series in Milwaukee on Friday.
Working almost exclusively as a set-up guy for the first time, Grilli is 1-1 with a 1.80 ERA in 21 appearances this season. Good numbers to be sure. It’s the one in the strikeout column, however, that leaves Hurdle and opposing batters shaking their head.
Grilli has fanned 35 of the 82 batters he’s faced this season and is averaging an eye-popping 15.8 strikeouts per nine innings, nearly double his career average. Buoyed by a fastball that still consistently clocks in the mid-90s and a slider that obeys orders, Grilli is off to the best start of his career.
If he can keep it up for another month, he’s a legitimate All-Star candidate. Ask him the secret and he flashes a sly smile.
“I think it has to do with giving apple to deer in the five-acre woods in the house I’m renting, eating cream cheese and washing it down with a good, cold Budweiser,” he said.
He’s kidding. It’s what he does. Grilli’s admittedly offbeat personality has endeared him to teammates. He’s become a mentor of sorts to young relievers Jared Hughes and Tony Watson and Grilli’s goofiness — his Twitter handle is (at)GrilliCheese49 for crying out loud — loosens things up when games get tight.
At the moment, that’s just about every night for the Pirates.
Pittsburgh has played in more one-run games (23) than any team in baseball, with a 14-9 record to show for it. It’s the kind of contests the offensively challenged team has to win to stay competitive.
Nearly every time Grilli takes the mound, something is at stake. It’s a far cry from his days as a mop-up guy in Detroit, where he was “booed out of the city” after failing to carve out a defined niche. He’s found one in Pittsburgh.
“I don’t have to be labeled something but we’re all looking for roles,” he said. “When the phone rings and they give me the ball, that’s when I take it. I consider myself a pitcher.”
One who believes his best days are still ahead. Yes he never became the ace the San Francisco Giants envisioned after taking him with the fourth overall pick of the 1997 draft. Yes his body has failed him at times, including a torn right quadriceps in the spring of 2010 that forced him to sit out the entire season.
That doesn’t mean he can’t still bring it. If anything, the threat of the game passing him by crystallized his determination. He re-dedicated himself to training with longtime friend Randy Hadley and giving it another shot even though he has so many screws and pins in the right side of his body due to various surgeries it “looks like aisle 14 at Home Depot.”
Grilli spent most of last summer Triple-A Lehigh Valley in the Philadelphia Phillies organization before the Pirates bought out his contract. He was simply looking to find steady work in the majors again. He may have discovered more than that.
His backstory and his consistency have made him a fan favorite in blue-collar Pittsburgh. For the first time in career, he sees people in the stands wearing his jersey. The sight of a 40-foot banner outside PNC Park with his face on it stuns him.
“I’ve never felt this kind of love from a city,” Grilli said.
Maybe because he never stuck around anywhere long enough. The Pirates are his sixth team since he broke in with the Florida Marlins in 2000. He’s hopeful this is his last stop, though he still holds out hope the long-term deal he’s never been able to secure is out there somewhere.
“I appreciate going down the gravel road although my career is not a snapshot,” he said. “It’s more of a Polaroid picture. The image is still being refined.”
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