Challenge awaits Bucs’ closer

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle regards Jason Grilli as a pitcher who has always thrived on challenges.

At the age of 36, Grilli is undertaking another big one this season – filling the Pirates’ closer’s role that was left open by their trade of Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox last December.

While Hanrahan combined his fast ball that nearly reached 100 miles per hour on the radar gun with a wicked slider to record a combined 76 saves for the Pirates over the past two seasons, Grilli’s almost equally impressive velocity was setting the table last season in the eighth inning.

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Grilli struck out 90 batters in 58 innings, an average of 13.81 strikeouts per nine innings that ranked him fourth among all National League relievers in 2012.

The Pirates are hoping that Grilli, who signed a two-year, $6.75-million contract with them last December, can provide the same type of shut-down efficiency in the ninth inning this season that he did in the eighth inning last year.

Grilli, who visited Altoona recently for the Pirates’ exhibition game with the Curve, thinks the difference is only a matter of numbers.

“I’m in there to get three outs,” said the personable Grilli, who last year was the recipient of the Chuck Tanner Award – given by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Baseball Writers of America to the player recognized as being the most cooperative with the media. “Regardless of what inning it is, I’m in there to get three outs.”

Getting three outs was something Grilli did exceedingly well for the Pirates for most of last season.

“If you look at who I had to face last year, I was facing the best of the best in the [National] League for the most part,” Grilli said. “I think it was a good stepping stone to get to where I am now. It’s been a process.”

At times, a difficult process to be sure. In 2010, Grilli – then with the Cleveland Indians’ organization – missed the entire season after recovering from right knee surgery.

In 2011, he was with the Philadelphia Phillies’ Class AAA affiliate Lehigh Valley squad, posting a 1.93 earned run average in 28 appearances. He expected a move up to the Phillies. But when there was none forthcoming, he signed a free-agent contract with the Pirates and his old manager, Hurdle, who Grilli had pitched for back in 2008 when both were with the Colorado Rockies.

“Hurdle has always been a big believer in me,” said Grilli, who saved the Pirates’ 3-0 win over the Cubs Wednesday. “He’s a straight shooter, he gives guys opportunities, and he wants to see the best guys succeed. It’s all about positive reinforcement. He’ll give you that chance to be the best player you can be. To get that type of confidence from a manager is huge.”

Grilli has earned it, according to Hurdle.

“I do believe that Jason is a man who has been motivated by new challenges,” Hurdle said. “The game was taken away from him for a period of time, but that also re-invigorated him, and re-energized him. He joined us in 2011, and pitched extremely well. In 2012, we gave him more meaningful work, and he handled that very successfully – probably as successfully as any setup man in baseball.”

The ninth inning is its own animal, but Grilli believes he’s cut out for the task.

“He does understand the responsibility and accountability that comes with that role, and one of them is short-term memory,” Hurdle said. “You’ve got to be able to move forward, and I believe he’s at the point and time in his career where he’s a good fit.”