Out since straining his right flexor tendon on July 22 in a win over Washington, Jason Grilli has been itching to get back on the mound as the Pittsburgh Pirates closer.
On Saturday evening before 6,595 fans at PNG Field, Grilli took a step toward returning to the Pirates as he started for the Curve against the Akron Aeros, who went on to 9-0 romp over the home team.
With a 20-pitch, one-inning limit, he threw 13 pitches, including nine for strikes, gave up a hit to Aeros leadoff hitter Tyler Naquin and struck out one. Grilli didn't know what his velocity was, but he guessed he was throwing in the low 90s.
"That's about what you hope for in an inning," Grilli said after leaving the mound. "You want to make it short and sweet. I wasn't so much concerned about velocity because I just wanted to throw my pitches andhave my command, which was there, especially with my breaking pitch. I can add a little bit more. It's like you never run out of weights in a weight room.
"My arm strength is there, I can tell myself, despite what a radar gun might say. Getting back into it right now, my focus right now is just commanding the strike zone as opposed to throwing as hard as I can.
"It felt great. It felt good to be back on the hill and making forward progress as I have. I'm just excited that I'm another step closer. The ball has been coming out of my hand great. I haven't had one setback, so I'm really pleased with the effort and workload that I've put in."
Pirates fans are used to seeing Grilli enter the game in the ninth inning, not in the first. Grilli said it was a "weird" feeling starting on Saturday, which he hasn't done in awhile.
"I've done everything from the front to the back. I like where I'm at in the back end of it," he said. "Starting is no joke, and we've got a lot of good horses in the front. I'll just stick to what I'm good at right now."
"He threw the ball very well," Curve manager Carlos Garcia said. "He threw the fastball. He threw the breaking ball. I don't think he's where he wanted to be, but there are some signs that he's going in that direction."
He'll likely pitch again on Monday in the season finale for the Curve, and then there will be discussions about what to do from there.
"I'm trying to get back as fast as possible," he said. "Every game up top is a big series and I want to be a part of it, but I want to make sure that I'm not selfish and not rushing myself. I want to be the guy that I was prior to my injury."
Needless to say, Grilli wants to get back with the Pirates and try to help them as they duke it out with the St. Louis Cardinals for the Central Division title.
"It's not fun to watch [while being out], especially when we have pennant race going on," Grilli said. "The fans of Pittsburgh in this area and this whole state are going nuts right now, so I definitely want to be a part of that."
Mark Melancon has been pitching in his place as the Pirates closer, and Grilli has liked what he's seen from him and the rest of the Shark Tank.
"Those guys are doing just as well as they have as when I was there," Grilli said. "I'm proud that they've been carrying the torch and doing their job. It's a relay race. Sometimes the closer gets a lot of the glory, as opposed to some of the guys who are doing the work in the middle. I know that because I've done that part before."
Another former Pirate, catcher Tony Sanchez, went 1-for-4 for the second straight game since he was optioned to the Curve.
The Curve (62-78), meanwhile, were down 1-0 going into the sixth, when the Aeros scored five runs on David Bromberg, including three home runs by Carlos Moncrief, Matt Lawson and Adam Abraham. Bromberg (6-12) pitched five innings in relief of Grilli.
"Bromberg is definitely a guy who competes a lot," Garcia said. "In that particular inning, he walked three guys. When you walk three guys, that doesn't help. He was leaving the ball up, and when you leave the ball up, you're going to get hurt."
Subhd: Three players promoted to Indy
Bromberg is among three Curve players who have been promoted to AAA Indianapolis. Outfielder Gregory Polanco and pitcher Zack Thorton have also been promoted to Indy.
"They're going from a last-place team to a first-place team," Garcia said, "so hopefully they will be able to enjoy their stay over in Indianapolis."
Key player: Aeros designated hitter Adam Abraham with a home run, two RBIs and scored three runs.
Key play: Aeros Matt Lawson hit a two-run home run in a five-run sixth.
Key stat: The Curve were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and left eight on.
How they scored
Top 5th: Adam Abraham walked, scored on a force out.
Top 6th: Tyrler Holt singles, scores on a Carlos Moncrief home run. Jesus Aguilar singles, scores on a Lawson home run. Abraham hits a home run.
Top 8th: Lawson reaches on Adalberto Santos throwing error. Abraham walks. Both score on Ronny Rodriguez home run.