As if the 2013 saga of Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Jason Grilli hadn’t fluctuated enough, last Friday at PNC Park presented yet another turn in the road.
In Grilli’s fourth game back from a forearm strain that caused him to miss more than a month, the 36-year-old righthander entered to start the seventh inning with the Pirates leading the Chicago Cubs 4-3. Grilli, who recorded a 1.94 ERA and 30 saves in his 44 pre-injury appearances this year, fanned the first two batters he faced Friday, seemingly ready to prove he could step back into a higher-leverage role once again.
However, a close call on a 3-2 count to Luis Valbuena led to a two-out walk. The next Cubs hitter, young slugger Anthony Rizzo, proceeded to hammer an inside slider from Grilli over the right-field grandstand, giving the visitors a 5-4 lead. Chicago would go on to win by that count, its only victory of the four-game weekend series.
Grilli didn’t pitch in the final two games against the Cubs, and his absence was most glaring in Sunday’s 3-2 Pirates win. In that contest, righties Bryan Morris and Kyle Farnsworth got the call to pitch in the seventh and eighth innings, respectively.
Judging by fastball velocity alone – Grilli is struggling to get above 93 mph – the Pirates’ former ninth-inning guy isn’t back to his first-half level. The results bore that out last week: after a one-inning, two-strikeout appearance in a blowout loss to Milwaukee on Sept. 4, Grilli allowed seven baserunners and four runs in his next three outings, all of which ended with manager Clint Hurdle taking the ball from him.
But Monday revealed that perhaps Grilli is getting his feet under him, as his appearance in the eighth inning of a 2-0 loss to the Padres was a small step forward. Even though he allowed a pair of singles, Grilli escaped a one-out, second-and-third situation with back-to-back punchouts.
I don’t envy the Pirates in their effort to get Grilli back into top form. He already has squandered one valuable lead since coming off the disabled list, and he nearly blew another last week in Texas before Tony Watson bailed him out of a dicey eighth inning. This isn’t exactly the time for an extended tryout, unless the game is already decided.
Barring a preponderance of blowouts in the next two weeks, the Pirates will have to be prudent in searching for the return of “Grill Cheese.” Morris, Farnsworth, Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez have all proven to be legitimate righthanded relief options with varying effectiveness, but none have the upside of Grilli.
Mark Melancon has clearly established himself as the Bucs’ late-game hammer with his sterling production this year, but the bullpen is obviously weaker with only one “sure thing” righty as opposed to the two it employed for the season’s first four months.
Despite Grilli’s struggles in September, he has still shown the ability to miss bats, recording seven of the 12 outs he’s gotten via the whiff. He’s not where he was, and it’s a bit of a risk to put him out there in a close game, but it’s also one the Pirates should be willing to take.