PITTSBURGH, Pa. — When reliever Jason Grilli ran out from the bullpen and stepped on the mound at PNC Park on Wednesday afternoon on the Fourth of July, it was a significant milestone.
Grilli isn’t one to pay attention to stats. In fact, he jokes around with the Pittsburgh media when they add numbers into questions. But thanks to his father, former big league pitcher Steve Grilli, the right-hander was well aware of notching this one.
It was his 300th career appearance in the Majors. Grilli needed just 10 pitches — seven for strikes — to mow through the Houston Astros lineup. The final out of the quick inning was a 94 MPH fastball that Jason Castro chased swinging.
“I just want to be around a long time,” Grilli said. “Reaching those kind of milestones are awesome. Anytime you get a round number, it’s always fun to stick that in your cap. Hopefully I get another 100 or 200 more of those in the next five years until I retire and take my jersey off when I want. 300 is a nice number. It’s special knowing that I’m doing something significant. I’ve wanted to do something pretty special in this game.”
The season has been pretty special for the Pirates so far this year. And Grilli has been a part of the success pitching dominant in his eighth inning role. The bullpen has combined for a 2.71 ERA — which is ranked No. 1 in the National League, and trails only the Baltimore Orioles (2.70) for best in the baseball.
“Grilli has gone out there every game in the eighth inning,” closer Joel Hanrahan said. “I feel like he’s faced the heart of the order every time and he’s shutting them down.”
The role of handing the ball to Hanrahan is something that Grilli has relished.
Grilli was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs in late July in 2011. He came in from the ‘pen mostly in the late innings with the Pirates last year, splitting the eighth inning role with righty Jose Veras. But as the season went on, and Grilli continued to dominate, Manager Clint Hurdle continued calling upon him in those pressure situations. And after spring training, he was named the Bucs eighth inning guy.
The 35-year-old plows through the heart of the lineups in the late innings, tossing up zeros — and strikeouts — before handing the ball over to Hanrahan for the save.
“It’s good. I like Kaiser rolls. I like sesame seed rolls. I like sourdough rolls. Every role is good,” joked Grilli on how he’s embracing his role in the eighth inning. “The one I got here is pretty cool, too. I’m just enjoying it all. I’ve always wanted to do something significant. The backend of the bullpen, I’ve finally got a chance to do that. I’m enjoying it and relishing it.”
And he’s been pretty nasty on the mound in doing so.
Grilli has whiffed 51 batters over 32.2 innings of relief — the most he’s had since notching 59 over 61.1 innings in 2008. The right-hander has posted just an 1.93 ERA this season while holding batters to a .143 average against.
“I’ve worked really hard in the offseason,” Grilli said. “I tell everybody, some guys do a lot of golfing, fishing, whatever, I’m working out. I need to do this. It’s been taken away from me too many times. And to me, it’s worth me putting the time in now…I’m just trying to stay and run this race as long as I can. I’d love to do something significant here in Pittsburgh. These fans deserve it. This organization deserves it. I just want to be a part of that. We’re having fun. I hope everyone is jumping on board and riding the ride with us.”
“We knew he had some strikeout potential, but we had no idea he’d be able to put up the numbers, striking people that he has this year,” Hurdle said. “ He’s been as good as any eighth inning reliever in baseball this season.”
The Pittsburgh Pirates have won three straight and seven of their last eight games. After beating the Astros, 6-4 on Wednesday, the club improved to a season-high nine games over .500. That’s the best record they’ve sported since the final game of the 1992 season, the last time the Pirates finished with a winning record.
Oh, and they have sole possession of first place in the National League Central.
“Everybody is going to do their part,” Grilli said. “It’s been somebody different every game. That’s special. There’s a good undertow here. A lot of people may say we’re a bunch of nobodies — and I love that. I love rooting for the underdog. If people don’t take us seriously, it’s going to make it that much more fun.”