More to Braves’ Grilli than infectious personality

Jason Grilli, who was thrust into the closer role after Craig Kimbrel was traded, is 4-for-4 in save opportunities. 

 

Brett Davis/Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — Electric blue flames flickered across the video screens on the upper section of the stadium, while the scoreboard revealed #FireUpTheGrilli and Fall Out Boy’s ‘My Songs Knox What You Did in the Dark’ played.

Closer Jason Grilli’s first entrance into Turner Field during the Braves’ home opener last Friday was certainly a spectacle, but it was missing one major ingredient.

Pearl Jam.

The group’s song ‘Whipping’ has long been Grilli’s theme music, and during his days with the Pirates, he went on stage with Eddie Vedder and Co. and rocked out with them. Grilli admitted he hadn’t been consulted before he made his emergence in front of Braves fans, not that he was focused on the theatrics.

"They can figure out all that stuff out later," he said. "But it’s not about an entrance song. This isn’t WWF wrestling, this is Major League Baseball. They can play whatever song they want. To me it’s all about getting those last three outs."

His musical accompaniment has since been changed and it’s among the only hiccups in a nearly seamless transition for Grilli.

The 38-year-old signed on Jan. 7 with the intention of being four-time All-Star Craig Kimbrel’s setup man, but after Kimbrel’s Easter Sunday trade to the Padres, Atlanta turned to Grilli, himself an All-Star when he saved 33 games for Pittsburgh in 2013.

He’s converted all four of his save opportunities with seven strikeouts to two walks, but he did add some drama Monday as he allowed a two-out RBI single to Adeiny Hechavarria, but he followed by striking out Jeff Baker to secure the 3-2 win.

Grilli’s impact on the field is just as measurable as how he’s helped to influence the vibe in the revamped Braves’ clubhouse. He is the comic relief to the intensity of fellow new faces Jonny Gomes, Nick Markakis and A.J. Pierzynski, appearing last week on MLB Network’s ‘Intentional Talk’ and eating — in line with his Grill Cheese nickname — a grilled cheese sandwich, which he proceeded to rate as "terrible."

"Off the field, in the clubhouse, he keeps everybody loose," said first baseman Freddie Freeman. "We feed off of that."

"His personality, obviously you see it on ‘Intentional Talk’ and this and that. He’s here to make you laugh, but once you get onto the field you see how intense he it is and it makes you want to work harder."

Freeman admits Atlanta’s locker room had been "very intense" the past few seasons and Grilli has helped change that. While he’s helped influence the veterans, he’s also made an impression on the younger Braves.

"Grilli’s hilarious, man," said rookie second baseman Jace Peterson, who recalled their spring training introduction, which included an unexpected hug. "He brings a lot of things to the table. I definitely think he could be a comedian, literally. It’s not that he even tries. He’s just a funny guy."

But he’s more than an intense, fist-pumping presence on mound and lighthearted away from it. Grilli is also the only published author on the Braves’ roster.

"Really? I didn’t know that," said Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez.

Five years ago when he was in camp with the Indians, Grilli tore his right quadriceps just above the knee during sprints. As he lie on the ground, thinking his time in baseball was finished, pieces of the past began coming back to him.

"I just had all those flashes that were going on as I’m rolling around on the ground. I thought ‘This is it,’" he said. "I thought ‘This is how my career is ending.’ I started seeing good things, bad things, stuff I just kind of forgot."

He would spend the entire 2010 season rehabbing and journaling, writing down stories on his phone before eventually handing them over to a friend that worked at a publishing company.

Released May 22, 2014 when he was with the Pirates — with a forward by manager Clint Hurdle — ‘Just My Game’ has received largely favorable reviews on Amazon. It also gave the author an appreciation that can only come with late-night coffee-fueled editing sessions.

"I didn’t know how much work went into it," Grilli said.

But his reason for doing it was clear, giving his sons Jayse (7) and Jayden (2) a glimpse into their father’s time in the majors.

"It was for my boys. It was for my two sons and maybe there’s another kid out there that can see it takes hard work and just a story of perseverance. That’s all my story is."

He’s living that in his pursuit of a college degree. Grilli attended Seton Hall, where he was the Big East Rookie of the Year, but he left after his junior year and was taken by the Giants with the fourth pick in the 1997 draft.

He made a promise to his mother, Kathy, that he would graduate, something he’s continued to do after transferring his credits to Le Monye College in Syracuse. He’s taking a class a year and continues to work toward a degree in business marketing.

"Obviously this is the primary focus," he said. "If I can chip away, I want to graduate before either one of my sons do."

In the meantime, he’s setting the stage for a new chapter in that book, a career revitalized once again.

Grilli lost his closing role with the Pirates amid a rough 2013 in which he blew three saves in the first month of the season and was ultimately dealt to the Angels. Now in that ninth-inning role again, he stresses the perspective he has on the job at hand.

"When you’re pitching that ninth inning, I fee like it’s a responsibility to secure what everybody has done before me, offensively, defensively, bullpen, pitching staff," Grilli said. "You just want to make sure everybody can go home happy."

Grilli keeps a copy of ‘Just My Game’ in his locker, and when informed he had an author nearby, Freeman broke out into a smile.

"I might have to take that up," he said, laughing. "He’s a man of many talents."

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney