April 4, 2008 – Coming off a disheartening three-game home sweep at the hands of the lowly Kansas City Royals, the ’08 rendering of the Bengals were reeling. Enter the Chicago White Sox for a Friday matinee at frosty Comerica Park. Two teams destined to go in opposite directions by season’s end, the game was tied at 5 in the top of the 7th inning.
The sunless sky and incessant breeze had long since chased our wives into the warmth of the Tiger Club; we shifted in our seats uncomfortably as Jason Grilli trotted in from the ‘pen. If memory serves, one of us made a comment like, “At least now we don’t have to worry about extra innings…”
Three pitches later, that prediction proved true. Paul Konerko hit a screamer toward the flagpole that would have been out of any park but Yosemite and Comerica; Jermaine Dye laced a frozen rope that would have scored anybody besides Gene Lamont and Konerko; and A.J. Pierzynski crushed a ball that landed in the section reserved for Jim Thome moon-shots.
A few thousand frigid, frustrated fans rained boos down onto the unglued Grilli; two solid singles and a wild pitch later, the crowd vented on the skipper, pleading for him to get Grilli out of there. He managed to escape without further damage, but the Sox ‘pen put up 3 zeros and the Tigers posted loss #4 in a streak that would reach 7 and cast a pall over the entire season.
Three weeks later, the Jason Grilli Era ended in Detroit, exiled to the Rockies for Zach Simons. Simons is still waiting to toe the slab for a major league team; meanwhile, Grilli has gone from Colorado, to Texas, to Cleveland, to Philly, to Pittsburgh. The remainder of his checkered career: drafted by the Yankees, didn’t sign; then drafted by the Giants, went to the White Sox via Rule 5, an uneven tenure with Detroit; Jason is approaching Dotel-esque vagabond status.
Suddenly, at age 36, Grilli has a full-time closer gig with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Two outstanding seasons as a set-up man convinced the Bucs to shop stopper Joel Hanrahan, dealing him to the Bosox for a package of prospects and another bullpen vagabond, Mark Melancon. Most impressive in Jason’s renaissance is his ability to put hitters away – 120 K’s in 90 IP’s during his Pirates days.
So is it experience, confidence, or the Yuenglings? Or is it just the fickle, incalculable nature of the closer role? If one had a crystal ball, a Tigers bullpen of Grilli, Kyle Farnsworth, and Fernando Rodney could be in place and alleviate all of the Rondon-induced anxiety. And on the field this season, they could all implode, as we saw them do numerous times wearing the Olde English D.
Histrionics and heart-attack ninth’s aside, Jose Valverde converted 89% of his save chances, equaling Mariano Rivera‘s career rate. The odds of finding a pitcher to fill his shoes are just as good hunting in your own system as throughout the league. Championship teams of recent vintage have used all manner of late-inning strategy to finish games – the Giants and Cardinals most recently being squads whose spring-training bullpen morphed from April through October.
Money may be no object to Mr. Ilitch in his quest for The Big One before the big one – but where talent is concerned, the Tigers system offers a finite amount. If those blue chips can yield a bona-fide stud like Giancarlo Stanton, it would be a shame to have peddled one for last-year’s Rodney. After all, it’s just three outs. If Jason Grilli can get ‘em, anybody can.