Grilli, revamped Braves bullpen step up in first chance
After trading All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel to the Padres on Sunday, Braves president of baseball operations John Hart knew Monday night's Opening Day game would conclude like it did, with Jason Grilli entering to protect a one-run lead.
Fortunately for Hart, Grilli displayed great courage and poise as he recorded a pair of strikeouts during a perfect ninth inning that gave the Braves a 2-1 win over the Marlins and a chance to show they can indeed taste late-inning success without Kimbrel's presence.
"You just relish getting three outs," Grilli said. "Yeah, the statistic of having a [save] is sexy or the strikeouts are sexy, but to me, getting three outs when you're a relief pitcher, that is what you're asked to do. To me, every single guy that is a reliever is a closer."
As the 38-year-old Grilli notched consecutive strikeouts of Giancarlo Stantonand Michael Morse before inducing Martin Prado's game-ending lineout, he put an exclamation point on what was an impressive performance by Atlanta's new-look bullpen.
Julio Teheran scattered four hits through the first six innings and then exited after allowing the Marlins to load the bases by recording three straight singles to begin the bottom of the seventh. A rejuvenated Luis Avilan used the changeup that deserted him last year to get Jarrod Saltalamacchia to ground into a 5-2-3 double play.
Jim Johnson then preserved Atlanta's one-run lead as he left the bases loaded in the seventh and then worked a perfect eighth inning.
"When you're a reliever, you strive to be that last guy in the end," said Grilli, who notched 33 saves for the 2013 Pirates. "We're all closers. Avilan, tip your cap to that guy. That guy was the hero on the mound tonight, because he made a big pitch and got a big double play for us and allowed us to win that ballgame."
Though both experienced disappointment last year, Grilli and Johnson were All-Star closers just two years ago. But manager Fredi Gonzalez has given the closer's role to Grilli because he likes the multi-inning capability provided by Johnson, who notched consecutive 50-save seasons for Baltimore in 2012 and '13.
"Those two guys can handle it," Gonzalez said. "I'm really proud of them, and we got it out of the way. We didn't have to wait a week for them to save the one-run game."
Grilli displayed no apprehension as he entered the ninth tasked with the responsibility to preserve a one-run lead against the middle of the Marlins' lineup. He fell behind Stanton with a 3-1 count after throwing four straight fastballs, and then elevated two more 95-mph heaters that missed the powerful bat of Miami's imposing slugger.
Morse went down swinging after seeing the second of two consecutive sliders, and Prado lined out on a 94-mph fastball. By the end, it was obvious that the tone of the inning was set by the aggressive approach against Stanton.
"I've faced him many times," Grilli said. "I know he's one of the faces of baseball, and he's going to do what he's going to try to do, and that's hit a long ball. I just made the pitches on him and took the good approach I wanted to take on him and put the ball where I didn't think he would put the bat on it."