Closer-manager relationship began five years ago in Colorado
PITTSBURGH -- Jason Grilli thought his first meeting with manager Clint Hurdle was going to consist of typical pleasantries. He had no idea he'd be baring his competitive soul.
We know now they're soulmates. Grilli is the closer for Hurdle's Pirates, who need one more win over the Cardinals to advance to the National League Championship Series. He protected a two-run lead in the ninth inning of Sunday's win in Game 3 of the NL Division Series. Grilli could have a chance in Wednesday night's (8 p.m. ET on TBS) deciding Game 5 at Busch Stadium to help send the Pirates to the NL Championship Series.
The relationship grew from a meeting in 2008, when Hurdle managed the Rockies, who had just received Grilli in a trade with the Tigers. Hurdle came over and stood with Grilli in short right field at Coors Field. After they pleasantries, Hurdle reached deep.
"He took me by surprise when he asked me, 'What do you want out of your career?'" Grilli said. "I thought that was a pretty loaded question for making an introduction to my new manager. I felt there was an opportunity in time to just tell him that I wanted more out of my career. And he says, 'What do you think you can do?'
"I said, 'Well, I know I'm capable of doing a lot more. I want to do something significant if I'm going to be pitching in the bullpen and work my way towards the back end, whatever the back end may be.' I said, '[I want] to be an eighth- or ninth-inning guy, especially a closer.'"
By then, Grilli, a former first-round Draft pick of the Giants, was on his fourth big league team, and he had missed part of a season with a bulging disk in his upper back. He had also undergone two elbow surgeries -- one being the dreaded Tommy John procedure. Grilli had long ago been converted from starter to reliever.
The '08 conversation didn't end with Hurdle saying, "Sure, you can be the closer." Grilli, who turns 37 on Nov. 11, pitched for Texas in 2009, missed 2010 due to a career-threatening knee injury, and ended up toiling in Triple-A for the Phillies early in 2011 before he called Hurdle asking for another chance with him, this one with the Bucs.
For objectivity's sake, Hurdle had the Pirates scout Grilli to make sure his skills were still sufficient. As for the rest, that could not be measured with a radar gun or stats. Hurdle, himself a first-round pick with the Royals who went through failure before carving out a decent career in a bench role, knew Grilli had it from the moment they first talked.
"Sometimes in this day and age of technology, we lose sight of the relational aspect of things," Hurdle said. "And I think Jason is a perfect indicator of you getting to know a man. You get a read on his heartbeat. The one thing we'll never be able to stick a thermometer in and pull out a number for is the desire of a man's heart and the fortitude and the courage he's got to go with it.
"For me, watching him grow, things he's had to get through, I love a man that has been through adversity and been tested by fire. I love having that opportunity. I'm one. And when men have been beaten down and have gotten back up and been beaten down and gotten back up again, sometimes you bet on a man. You don't bet on the number or the stat, the most recent prettiest stat you can grab, or the velocity."
Grilli obtained his release from the Phils, signed with the Bucs in 2011 and went 1-6, but with decent numbers, in '12 -- a 2.91 ERA, 90 strikeouts and 22 walks.
This year, the chance finally came.
"I was in Orlando during the offseason when Clint called," Grilli said. "It was a simple conversation. They had traded Joel Hanrahan and felt that I was their next closer, and [they] gave me an opportunity. I was elated. There wasn't much said after that. It wasn't this big grand tale; we weren't in the office hugging each other, like, 'Yeah, we did it.'
"But as I've said all year long, we have not one closer. We have many closers, and I'm proud to be with the group of guys down there. To have the ball last is a total honor, and [it's] humbling."
Grilli converted his first 25 save chances and earned a trip to the All-Star Game, and he threw a scoreless inning there. Grilli suffered a right forearm strain in late July, and Mark Melancon filled in capably until September. But Hurdle knew Grilli would work hard to take back the ninth inning he had craved for so many years.
Before this season, Grilli had a record a little below .500, a postseason trip with the Tigers in 2006 that ended with a World Series loss to the Cardinals, and decent career numbers. The son of former Tigers and Blue Jays pitcher Steve Grilli, Jason had already done himself and his family proud.
But Grilli's thirst for more, which he expressed to Hurdle in the outfield grass in '08, had not abated. His All-Star season, 33 saves and three scoreless postseason appearances hasn't quenched it. The screaming hug with catcher Russell Martin after the final out of the NL Wild Card Game victory over the Reds and Sunday's smile and celebration with first baseman Justin Morneau after the final out of Game 3 have made Grilli hungrier.
"There's a Jacob's Ladder, a machine I work out with, with my trainer," Grilli said. "It's pretty grueling exercise. You can look it up what a Jacob's Ladder is. There's a carrot right in front on the wall -- a picture of a carrot on the wall. Whatever your carrot is, when you're on that thing …
"What's my carrot? Obviously a World Series is the ultimate carrot for me and for everybody in that room. But for me, I've always wanted to do something special in the game. I have had lofty dreams no different than anybody else. You want to make a mark."