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Love Is in the Air
Ben Reiter
July 22, 2013
AFTER TWO DECADES AS BASEBALL CHUM, THESE PIRATES AND THEIR SHARK TANK (THAT'S THE LIGHTS-OUT BULLPEN) HAVE SOME REAL TEETH—AND THEY'VE RE-STIRRED A ROMANCE WITH THEIR CITY
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July 22, 2013

Love Is In The Air

AFTER TWO DECADES AS BASEBALL CHUM, THESE PIRATES AND THEIR SHARK TANK (THAT'S THE LIGHTS-OUT BULLPEN) HAVE SOME REAL TEETH—AND THEY'VE RE-STIRRED A ROMANCE WITH THEIR CITY

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After a year of recovery, and a brief minor league stint with the Phillies, Pittsburgh signed Grilli in July 2011. While a scout named Marc DelPiano had filed positive reports on Grilli, even the Pirates could not know that they were getting an entirely new pitcher. "I'd been at the bottom rung when my leg was ripped off of me," Grilli says. As he rehabbed, he had vowed to become the pitcher that he had once thought he could be: a late game force, one who held nothing back and relied only on his best stuff.

That meant Grilli would no longer fool around with the curveballs and changeups that he had once thrown at least 20% of the time in an effort to extend his outings. He would now exclusively throw his 93-mph fastball and his biting slider that came in 10 miles an hour slower. If they got it, they got it. Mentally, it meant that Grilli resolved never to pitch with fear. "It doesn't scare me to face the middle of the order, game's on the line, all that stuff," he says. "I'm throwing every pitch like it's my last, because once I thought I had done just that. I'm not going to throw a sinker to get a double play. I'm going for a punchout."

The result? Since joining the Pirates bullpen, during which time he evolved from eighth-inning man to closer, he has pitched to an ERA of 2.52 and struck out 13 batters per nine innings. This season he is whiffing 13.9 per nine—if he maintains that rate, it will rank 13th alltime among pitchers who have worked at least 60 innings in a season. Melancon has been supplying the debilitating nibbles in the Shark Tank this season, but it is Grilli who has been delivering the fatal, artery-shearing bites.

AS EVERY PIRATES FAN CAN tell you, this is not the first time the club has threatened to end its epic streak of futility. They were 51--44 and in first place in the NL Central on July 19, 2011, only to finish in fourth at 72--90. They were in first last July 18 and 16 games above .500, at 63--47, on Aug. 8. They again finished fourth, at 79--83.

Both of those teams were unable to hold up through 162 games, with lineups consisting of superstar centerfielder Andrew McCutchen and a host of others who hadn't reached their prime, were past it or more often never had one. The pitching staffs were too skeletal, too bat-friendly to withstand injuries or any regression of performance. This iteration of the Pirates, the fruit of a six-year rebuilding plan, looks to be different.

Huntington, through years of drafts and trades, has assembled a roster stocked with pedigreed talent: no fewer than 15 members of this year's Pirates were once ranked among Baseball America's top 75 prospects, and eight of them were first-round picks. While McCutchen is having a typically brilliant season (a .302 average, 10 home runs, 20 stolen bases and the NL's fourth-highest WAR total, at 4.8), he has found new offensive support in largely Pirates-developed prospects in their mid-20s who, while not stars, have matured into .800-level OPS hitters: third baseman Pedro Alvarez, leftfielder Starling Marte and outfielder Jose Tabata.

The pitching staff's composition is more unusual. Aside from righthander Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, much of the rest of the group consists of pitchers who had, for one reason or another, failed to express their talent elsewhere, but whom Huntington acquired with the thought that they might do so in Pittsburgh. Think of 36-year-old righthander A.J. Burnett (4--6, 3.06 ERA), 29-year-old lefty Francisco Liriano (9--3, 2.00), Melancon and, yes, Grilli, who was the fourth player taken in the 1997 draft, by the Giants. "It's important to find a place that will accept you, give you the type of confidence that you need to take the next step," says infielder Brandon Inge, who caught Grilli as a Tiger. "He found a home here, and they've done well with him, but he's not alone."

The Pirates don't believe that pitching depth will again become an issue this season, if only because they have already been significantly tested. Injuries have forced them to use 11 starters, and with Jeff Karstens and Kyle McPherson (both are injured) yet to pitch, "we're 13 deep, and yet guy after guy after guy has taken the ball and given us a chance to win," says Huntington. In fact the rotation's ERA, 3.27, is not too far behind that of the bullpen, and the best in the NL.

All of this has recalibrated the expectations of not only Pirates fans—"They've shifted from hoping that we could win 82 games to being angry that we didn't make the playoffs last year, and that's a wonderful dynamic," says Huntington—but also the Pirates themselves. The ending of their two-decades-long losing streak is all but assured: To fail to finish with a winning season, they would have to play .362 baseball the rest of the way, which means they would suddenly have to become the Astros or the Marlins. While some warning signs persist (even that improving offense could use another bat, as it ranks 25th in scoring and 22nd in on-base percentage) the Pirates have something more than 82 wins in their sights. "I'm just trying to enjoy the ride, just the perspective of it all, knowing that there is going to be a day when this city is rocking and people are going to be happy," Hurdle recently told reporters. "And it's all going to be real good."

Jason Grilli's vision is even more specific. It's the top of the ninth. World Series clincher. His endearingly odd entrance video plays on the PNC Park screens—"It's Grilled Cheese time!" the announcer screams, in reference to his nickname, followed by nearly a minute of batters weakly flailing at his sliders, punctuated by an image of him preparing one of the sandwiches, a Pirates p burned into it. His similarly unusual entrance music, "Whipping," by Pearl Jam, blares. Then, like the other members of the Shark Tank before him, he simply does his job, the job he's been waiting so long to do. "I'd be honored to be the last guy on the hill, get that last out and celebrate," he says. "It'd be fitting. I'd be humbled by that chance, to be a part of that. I want to see people swinging from the Clemente Bridge.

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