PITTSBURGH - Tuesday's Major League Baseball All-Star Game marked the unofficial halfway point of the baseball season, and this week's Sports Illustrated previews the top story lines of baseball's second half, including how the lights-out Pittsburgh bullpen has the first-place Pirates on a playoff trajectory and is re-stirring a romance with the fans in the Steel City.
All-Star closer Jason Grilli's first SI cover appearance is also the first time a Pirate has been on the cover since Barry Bonds on May 4, 1992.
Grilli, a 36-year-old first-time closer, has bounced around as a starter and middle reliever for eight teams, including stints in the minors, since 2000. Yet, he enters the second half with an NL-best 29 saves and a 2.15 ERA.
Along with All-Star set-up man Mark Melancon, the duo have emerged as baseball's top and least likely shutdown eighth- and ninth-inning combination.
"Give us seven innings, and we'll figure it out from there," said Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle.
Grilli, who served as the Pirates' set-up man last season, said his time with the Tigers in 2006 made him think that he might want to try closing games.
"I saw the rock 'n' roll of Joel Zumaya and Todd Jones entering games, and I thought, 'Jeez, I'd much rather do that,'" he said. "Nobody says, 'I want to be a middle reliever in the big leagues!' That's like saying, 'I want to be an offensive lineman in the NFL.' There's no glory in that."
Thanks to Melancon, the Pirates' bullpen has a nickname to match its new identity: the Shark Tank.
The name stuck after he told teammates in spring training that he and his wife had gone shark-cage diving two winters ago. Researchers on the same trip encountered an unfamiliar great white shark and asked Melancon if they could name it after him.
"When the [bullpen] gate opens, you smell blood, just like a shark," explained lefthander Tony Watson. "You're going out there to attack hitters, be aggressive. That kind of symbolizes the way sharks are in the water... I guess. I'm not a big oceanographer."
The Shark Tank's ERA of 2.89, second best in the majors, is a big reason why the Pirates enter the second half tied with the Cardinals atop the NL Central.
And while skeptics will point to each of the last two seasons when Pittsburgh flirted with a winning record only to collapse in the second half, this year's team appears primed to end the longest streak of losing seasons in major American pro sports (20 after 2012).
G.M. Neal Huntington said the rejuvenated fan base now expects even more than a winning season.
"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," Huntingdon said.
Grilli hopes to not only bring fans a championship but to also be the last guy standing.
"I'd be honored to be the last guy on the hill, get that last out and celebrate," he said. "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."
Pirates All-Star closer Jason Grilli appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated
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