Grilli deflects spotlight to entire bullpen

BRADENTON, Fla. – Jason Grilli is not the Pirates’ closer.

OK, he actually is because he does have that title. But to Grilli, every member of the Bucs’ bullpen that was so impressive in 2013 is a closer in his own right.

“Just because I’ve been given the title of closer, I look at it and I told all these guys, ‘You are closers, as well, because you’re closing the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, the eighth inning,'” Grilli said Sunday at Pirate City.

“It doesn’t matter. We’re all closers down in that bullpen, and that’s the mentality we take.”

Grilli enjoyed a career year in 2013, saving 33 games and helping the Pirates reach the playoffs. He also enjoyed the week of a lifetime during July as he appeared in the All-Star Game on July 16 and on the cover of Sports Illustrated six days later (the first Pirate on SI’s cover since 1992).

But for all the individual attention Grilli receives, he never misses an opportunity to deflect the notoriety away from himself and onto his bullpen mates.

“If I get a spotlight or a microphone in my face,” Grilli said, “I turn it toward the guys that do a lot of hard work in the middle because I’ve been there and I know it’s a thankless role sometimes.”

Grilli knows plenty about thankless bullpen roles because he spent the previous seven years of his big league career filling them with the Tigers, Rockies and Rangers before joining the Pirates in 2011. He was named the team’s closer going into last season and exceeded even the most optimistic expectations of outsiders.

But not his own expectations.

Grilli always believed he could succeed in that role if given the chance.

“Everybody wants success,” the 37-year-old right-hander said. “I just got the opportunity to showcase what I knew I was capable of doing.

“The only reason it took me longer is because I didn’t get the opportunity,” he added. “That’s what people say: Why are you having all this success? Well, nobody really shines a light on what you’re doing as a middle reliever.”

Which is exactly why Grilli now chooses to shine the light on his teammates who pitch before the ninth inning. The group, which calls itself the “shark tank,” includes:

n A reliable setup man in Mark Melancon, who posted a spectacular 1.39 ERA in 72 appearances last year. He filled in as the closer when Grilli went down with a forearm injury (that occurred on July 22, which curse believers note was the same day as his Sports Illustrated cover).

n A pair of hard-throwing left-handers in Tony Watson and Justin Wilson. While many teams struggle to find one quality lefty specialist, the Pirates have two, and both are frequently counted on to retire right-handers, as well.

n Bryan Morris has closer stuff and could get a chance to fill that role in the majors at some point, either with the Pirates or another team.

n Jeanmar Gomez proved to be a versatile surprise as he won eight times as a spot starter and finished with a 3.35 ERA.

The Pirates finished third in the majors in bullpen ERA last year at 2.89. The relievers accomplished that impressive feat while also logging a ton of innings as the Bucs were fourth in in baseball at 545.

Having numerous power arms with impressive stuff is a major reason for the bullpen’s success. Another is control, as Pirate relievers finished fourth in walks per nine innings at 2.89.

“We go and we try to pound the strike zone,” Grilli said. “We know we’ve got good enough stuff. There’s hitters from other teams that have admittedly said that they don’t like to face us, and there’s guys that have been on other teams that have come over here in the spring and said nobody likes facing us. That just gives us more confidence.”

The big question the Pirates face in every aspect is can they be as good this year as they were in 2013. Perhaps they can in some areas, while in other areas they’re bound to have some dropoff.

Before the question was even finished being asked about what can the bullpen do to top last year, Grilli offered up a pointed response.

“We don’t try,” he said. “We just do what we’ve done. It works for us.”

What worked for Grilli helped him achieve a great deal of individual success last season. After so many ups and downs in his long career, he acknowledges how special it feels to finally reach that level.

“I’d rather have it probably now because you appreciate it that much more,” he said.