PITTSBURGH – Jason Grilli’s wild and unlikely journey to becoming one of the best closers in baseball wends through 10 major-league organizations and 11 minor-league cities. It passes through fleeting moments of success and long moments of frustration. It crosses the country, from Maine to New Mexico, and borders, from Calgary to Southern Florida.
And it goes right through the Philadelphia Phillies’ organization.
A couple years ago, Grilli was 34 years old, coming off major knee surgery and stuck at the Phillies’ Triple A Lehigh Valley affiliate, wondering if he’d ever pitch again in the majors.
Today, at 36, he’s closing for the first time in his career on any level, he’s converted 27 of 28 save opportunities for the Pirates, the team with the best record in baseball, and he’s a virtual lock to make his first All-Star game 19 years after he was first drafted out of Baldwinsville (N.Y.) High School, near Syracuse.
How crazy is this story?
“When you have success at this point in your career and this point in your life after everything I’ve been through, yeah, there’s no doubt you appreciate it more,” Grilli said. “I knew I could have been doing this a lot sooner. I just always wanted more.
“I was a highly touted prospect at one point, and I had the silver spoon in the sense that I had a lot of money, but I never had that chance, never had that opportunity of, ‘Hey, here’s 30 starts, let’s see what you can do.’
“It’s gratifying to see that at my age I’m just starting my career out.”
Grilli was first drafted by the Yankees in 1994 but didn’t sign. After pitching for Seton Hall, the Giants made him the fourth pick in the 1997 draft and the journey began.
Since then, he’s bounced around from the Giants to the White Sox to the Tigers to the Rockies to the Rangers to the Indians to the Phillies to the Pirates. He’s been traded for Livan Hernandez. He’s pitched in Shreveport, Albuquerque, Toledo and countless other minor-league outposts.
He’s had decent seasons and bad seasons, but he’s never really found a home. Never really found a role. Never really found a place to settle in and play the game he loves so much.
“Usually, there’s a direct line graph to your career,” he said with a laugh. “But my graph is a pretty indirect one.”
Grilli’s career looked finished when he underwent major knee surgery on May 17, 2010, while property of the Indians. When they eventually released him, he once again he found himself searching for a team to give him a chance.
He never let himself get discouraged.
“I figured, ‘Well, I covered a third of the teams in the league, so I had two-thirds left to try,’” he said. “I’ve got a closet full of jerseys at home.”
The Phillies signed him to a minor-league contract on Jan. 31, 2011, and even though he was only with the organization for 5½ months, it was during that period that he resurrected his career.
Pitching at Lehigh Valley in 2011, Grilli went 4-1 with a 1.93 ERA in 28 games through late July.
He proved he could still pitch.
“It was huge, the time I spent there,” Grilli said at his locker in the Pirates’ clubhouse at PNC Park before the Phillies beat the Pirates 3-1 Tuesday.
“I was ready to get back on the horse, and the Phillies gave me that shot. I just wanted one more shot, and they gave it to me.”
The Phillies at that point didn’t have the severe bullpen issues they have now and never gave him the promotion his numbers seemed to warrant. They did promote Scott Mathieson, Andrew Carpenter, David Herndon, Mike Zagurski and Jose Contreras at various times during the season.
But not Grilli.
So in mid-July, he asked for his release. He knew several teams were interested. He knew the Pirates had scouts following him around everywhere as he toyed with International League hitters. He knew he had done all he could in the minors.
The Phillies granted him his release on July 20. One day later he signed with the Pirates.
“I think the most satisfaction and gratification I got was from guys like Cliff Lee and [Brian] Schneider and some of the guys who knew me -- they were just so pumped for me and said they wanted me here, and that means more than anything,” he said.
“There’s a business side to this and everybody has their reasons, but who would have known. You couldn’t speculate that a guy coming off knee surgery would have the kind of seasons I’m having.
“But my numbers in Triple A were pretty stellar, and I just felt like I deserved a shot. That was the only thing that was upsetting, but I don’t hold any grudge because I got to play baseball, I got to showcase myself, they gave me my out, they fulfilled my request, and another club found my services fitting for them, and I’m here, and I’m grateful for that.”
At that point, Grilli hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2009, when he got into 30 games with the Rangers.
His career numbers when he arrived in Pittsburgh weren’t overwhelming, but they weren’t bad –- 21-26 with a 4.14 ERA in 266 games as an occasional starter but mainly a reliever with the Marlins, White Sox, Tigers, Rockies and Rangers.
But once he got to Pittsburgh, he went from mediocre to brilliant. He had a 2.48 ERA in 28 games the second half of 2011, then fashioned a 2.91 with 90 strikeouts in 58 2/3 innings last year as a set-up man. His 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings was third-highest in baseball history by a non-closer, and the Pirates quickly realized that Grilli actually should be a closer.
So in December of 2012, they signed Grilli to a two-year, $6.75 million contract and traded closer Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox.
At 36, Grilli was a closer for the first time in his life.
“Maybe I’m backwards and got it all wrong, but I feel like what I’m doing is no different than what I did in the eighth,” he said. “I don’t put too much stock into, ‘Oh my god, the game is on the line, this is so scary,’ because I know what real fear is and that’s being at the bottom rung and my career being non-existent.
“That’s fear. Going out there in the ninth inning with everybody on their feet and the game on the line? That’s fun.”
This year has been a ton of fun for Grilli and the Pirates. His 27 saves are second-most in the majors and most in the National League, and the Pirates are 51-31, the best record in baseball.
Grilli ranks No. 1 among all major-league closers with a .239 opposing slugging percentage and .464 opposing OPS, and No. 2 with a 1.72 ERA. Opposing batters have a .179 batting average and .225 on-base percentage, both second-lowest among closers.
Those numbers would look pretty good in the Phillies’ dilapidated bullpen.
“You know what that’s a good example of? You do make mistakes at this game,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said Tuesday.
“But also, no one can look in your heart and know the determination you have, how much fight you have. When I look at Grilli, I see a guy who has come a long ways. He just kept battling and battling, and finally found a way to relax and command his pitches.”
Grilli is certainly a unique story. He’s on pace for 53 saves, which nobody his age has ever recorded.
But more than that, this is an inspirational story. He’s been down so many times he’s lost count. But he never stopped believing in himself and his ability.
“That’s what makes it so gratifying,” he said. “Because only I know what I put myself through as far as rehabbing, as far as putting in the workouts to say I’m going to get my chance, and it’s my turn.
“I stayed steadfast in my belief in myself and I was fortunate to have some teams that put me back together and keep my career going. I definitely bet on me, and to be where I am, I’m definitely appreciative and grateful.”