COMMENTARY | Despite holding on for a 6-5 victory against the Washington Nationals on Monday night, there was no room for celebration as Jason Grilli, the 36-year-old journeyman closer, had left the game with pain in his forearm.
It was clear something was wrong, Grilli flexing his hand and arm muscles, gritting his teeth, and missing badly with location. Though his velocity was still there, averaging 95 mph, Grilli's pitches were up in the zone and he allowed multiple runs for only the third time this season. While the team is still claiming it's only "forearm tightness," this was the same diagnosis for Kyle McPherson, who hasn't pitched since April.
If there was any team equipped to go without its closer, it seems to be the Pirates. Their bullpen ranks first in runs allowed per game with 3.38, and the team's average leverage index, measuring the difficulty and importance of the situations in which they are used, is fifth-highest in the game.
Mark Melancon, next in line for the closer's role, is pitching to a 0.97 ERA with 9.1 K/9 and a minuscule 1.2 BB/9. Justin Wilson (1.86 ERA), Vin Mazzaro (2.62 ERA), and Bryan Morris (2.59 ERA) can all be moved up in responsibility without the team missing much of a beat (though fantasy owners may soon be scrambling for saves). A week before the trade deadline, the Pirates also have time to acquire a reliever, if they feel that added depth is necessary. But that's ignoring all the other things that Grilli brings to the team and the fan base. For a team that has watched its postseason hopes evaporate in the second half of two consecutive years, Grilli's injury seems like a cruel omen.
Beyond Grilli's 30 saves and absurd 14.0 K/9, which ranks fifth among relievers, just behind some of the biggest names like Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel, Grilli is the human representation of a team that has been below .500 for 20 years, now battling for first place and in spitting distance of the best record in baseball. Grilli wandered the league for 14 years before coming to the Pirates in 2011, going from the fourth overall pick by the San Francisco Giants in 1997 to the then-Florida Marlins, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, Colorado Rockies, Texas Rangers, and spending time in the Philadelphia Phillies' minor league system along the way. In that time, he's watched his elbow betray him time and again, his injury history reading more like a romantic-era novel, stretching on for pages.
He missed 131 days in 2000, 61 in 2001, all but 5.2 innings in 2002 and 20 more days in 2009. Then, in 2010, he watched a new body part act up, a knee injury costing him the 2010 season.
But in Pittsburgh, he's become a fan-favorite, his long, sweaty locks and max effort delivery echoing the fervor with which rooters support the ballclub. At the age of 36, Grilli came into today leading the league in games finished and saves, pitching a scoreless ninth in the All-Star game and finding himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated, something that would have seemed absurd just a few years ago, when, as a 33-year-old, he had a career 4.74 ERA and a whopping two saves to his name. As the Pirates have grown over the last three years, each year making a stronger and stronger push to the postseason, so too has Grilli.
If anyone is the spiritual leader of this team, the one who can understand the frustration and history of a team like the Pirates, it's the head of the Shark Tank. While we wait for what the doctors have to say, it doesn't seem possible that good news is coming, Jason Grilli's tweet of "minor setback" not soothing any nerves. After what Grilli's fought through to get to this point, with this team, it doesn't seem fair for his perfect season to be taken away from him.
- Sports & Recreation
- Jason Grilli