Most first-time closers seek advice from those who have stood at the edge of the plank day after day, to learn about the most effective routines, warm-up regimens, and coping with the adrenaline that is unique to that job. But Jason Grilli didn't really do any of that.
He is getting his first shot at being a closer in the major leagues, yes, but the man is 36 years old, not right out of college. He was the fourth overall pick in the 1997 draft out of Seton Hall by the San Francisco Giants, but he could never cut it as a starter. He's been released time and again, traded, passed through waivers, been out of the majors for years at a time. His list of career transactions reads like the lyrics to Johnny Cash's classic "I've Been Everywhere".
"This is fun, man," Grilli said over the phone the other day, laughing. "I've been prepping for this for awhile. I was never a made guy."
But so far this season, he has been arguably the best reliever in the majors, with nine scoreless innings, eight saves in eight chances, at the back end of what has been the best bullpen in the majors; the Pirates' relievers have an ERA of 1.98, third best in the majors.
Grilli has 15 strikeouts in those nine innings, with three hits and four walks allowed. Having now filled every bullpen role ever imagined by a manager, other than left-handed specialist -- because Grilli, after all, is right-handed -- he is convinced that the most difficult aspect of being a reliever is dealing with inherited runners.
But there is a special challenge for those getting those last outs, and it's incredible that Grilli is getting his first shot at closing so late in his baseball life. "I don't think I'll catch Mariano Rivera in what I'm doing," he joked. "But to get a chance to be the guy -- because Rivera's The Guy -- and be in that role, that's something you dream about it, you dream about that chance to do it, and I'm so appreciative."
Along the way, he learned from pitchers like Todd Jones, about how to prepare and how to deal with the adversity, and words that Joel Hanrahan said to him last year really stuck with him, at a time when Grilli was serving as Hanrahan's setup man. "Grilli, you can definitely do this," Hanrahan said.
Grilli is self-deprecating when talking about his career, poking fun at himself, but he also believes that what he went through to get to this moment has made this opportunity even more special, because of the context. Grilli said, "I wouldn't trade where I went through. I appreciate this so much more."
Around the league
• Adam Wainwright has been all but perfect with his control, Derrick Goold writes. He threw 34 2/3 innings before allowing his first walk of season (he walked Bryce Harper) -- the longest streak by Cardinals pitcher to start a season since Slim Sallee (pronounced: Suh-LEE) in 1913 (40 innings).
From ESPN Stats & Info, how Wainwright beat the Nationals:
A) He threw 61 breaking balls and 50 fastballs, but had five strikeouts with his fastball (entered day with six strikeouts with his fastball in four starts)
B) He got five first-pitch outs (four groundouts). Opponents are 1-for-15 with a sacrifice on the first pitch of at-bats against Wainwright this season. (For context: First-pitch BA in the majors last year was .333)
• On Tuesday's podcast, Jonny Gomes -- who became a dad for the third time Monday -- talked about something really nice he did to honor the victims of the Boston Marathon bombers last week, and Jayson Stark and I kicked around the good (the Rangers and others) and the not-so-good as expected (the Nationals).
• Zack Wheeler will pitch in the big leagues and the expectation among rival evaluators is that eventually, he's going to be pretty good, a No. 1- or No. 2-type of starter, a twin to Matt Harvey. He's reached the stage in his development where any one of his outings in the minors could be his last before he's called up -- depending on what he does.
What the Mets want to see in Wheeler is the sort of command that makes them believe he won't have to go back to the minors. He has 12 walks in 18 1/3 innings for Triple-A Las Vegas so far, but the Mets believe that those numbers are rooted in a blister issue that has affected the command of his slider, in particular. But with treatment, his blister has been getting better, and if Wheeler improves his command - if he reduces the walks, and demonstrates that he can be promoted to the big leagues to stay -- he'll be on his way. Wheeler is set to make his next start for Las Vegas on Thursday night.
The Mets' decent start increases the team's motivation to call up Wheeler, because if New York is going to be relevant in the NL East this summer, it'll be because of the rotation, with Harvey, Jonathon Niese and Dillon Gee. And as the Rockies have shown, giving young players an opportunity to gain experience one summer can help their development immeasurably in the next.
Terry Collins has talked to Wheeler about pitching in the Pacific Coast League, writes Anthony McCarron.
Niese was hit by a ball batted back through the middle on Wednesday and had to leave the game in the third inning, but the Mets don't think he'll miss a lot of time.
• The Upton brothers had a huge day, in what has been a huge month for the younger Upton.
From Elias: B.J. and Justin Upton are just the second pair of siblings to hit back-to-back homers in MLB history. It also happened on Sept. 15, 1938, by Hall of Famers Paul and Lloyd Waner (Pirates). It was the third time this month that the Uptons have hit home runs in the same game. No other pair of brothers has done that for the same team more than once in any month in major league history. The only other pair of brothers to homer in the same game three times in one season are the Aarons, Hank and Tommie, who had three such games for the 1962 Braves. Justin Upton hit two home runs (427 and 425 feet) during the Braves-Rockies day-night doubleheader Tuesday, giving him 11 for the season.
Through 20 games Braves pitchers have allowed the same number of home runs, 11, as Upton has hit. And only Albert Pujols (2006) and Mike Schmidt (1976) have hit more homers through 20 games than Upton has.
There is more help on the way for the Braves, too. Brian McCann played four innings at catcher in an extended spring game Tuesday, and is set to begin his minor league rehabilitation assignment Friday. If all goes as planned, he'll get eight to 10 games in the minors before being activated, and then the Braves will have to deal with the difficult decision of what to do with Evan Gattis and Gerald Laird. All Gattis does is hit home runs -- he clubbed another Tuesday -- and Laird has performed well this season, too.
Gattis' home run against the Rockies was a difference-maker, writes David O'Brien.
• A decision made by the Marlins' higher-ups angered the manager and coaching staff.
Moves, deals and decisions
2. The Nationals claimed a reliever.
Dings and dents
1. The Nationals fell back to .500. From Adam Kilgore's story:
After a 2-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Nationals Park, players vowed time would reveal their ability. Down the hall, Johnson studied a lineup that had produced two runs in 28 innings and planned changes for Wednesday afternoon.
"I'm usually pretty patient, but I'm getting to my rope's end," Johnson said. "The effort is there. We're just not getting it done. We've got the players who can get it done. We're just not getting it done. It's time to get a little mad."
4. Oakland bounced back, Susan Slusser writes.
6. The pride of Rapid City had a big night for the Dodgers.
• Ichiro was The Man for the Yankees.
• After beating R.A. Dickey and the Jays, the Orioles have now won six straight games decided by one or two runs -- and that doesn't include the win they had when Matt Wieters broke a tie with a walk-off grand slam.
From Elias: Most consecutive wins when leading after seven innings
1906-1907 Cubs: 121
1998-1999 Yankees: 116
2011-2013 Orioles: 100*
1943-1944 Cardinals: 100
• The Rockies had to deal with record-setting weather -- and the Braves.
• Mariano Rivera's unique farewell tour continues.
And today will be better than yesterday.