LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Jason Grilli gave up a two-run homer, but it was little more than a footnote Thursday.
Far more important for the Braves and the veteran closer was this: He pitched in an inning, had normal velocity and showed no sign of favoring the left Achilles tendon that was ruptured just over eight months ago.
“I felt good,” Grilli said after his Grapefruit League debut in a 5-3 loss to the Astros, his first game since a July 11 Achilles injury and season-ending surgery. “Obviously a few adjustments I still need to make, but to be out there in eight months’ time — like I said, I know confidently that I can get ready, that I can be ready when I’m called upon.”
Grilli, 39, was charged with two runs, one hit and one walk with no strikeouts in one inning. He threw 12 strikes in 21 pitches and hung a breaking ball that Danny Worth stroked for a two-run homer with one out.
“First time out in a while, I thought it was a good outing, positive outing,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. “His Achilles is healthy. He just hung a breaking ball to the right-handed hitter. I was pleased with his performance. Got his pitch count up. But just getting him out there pitching was a plus for us.”
One of the Braves’ other closer options, veteran Jim Johnson, gave up a three-run homer to A.J. Reed that turned the Braves’ 3-2 lead into a two-run deficit.
Grilli converted 24 of 26 save opportunities last season and had a 2.94 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings. The Braves hope to have him ready when the regular season begins April 4, and Grilli has said since the day he got hurt that he’d be back.
He said it again Thursday, when he didn’t tire and topped out at 93 mph with his fastball. The velocity wasn’t the most important thing, but both Gonzalez and Grilli didn’t try to act like it wasn’t important.
“It’s an indication that it’s in there,” Grilli said of the 93 reading on the radar gun. “It’s just controlling the adrenaline. You can get in as great a shape as you want, in baseball shape and all the intangibles that come with it. Obviously I’m an adrenaline guy, so I had to calm myself, slow myself down.
“Getting ahead on the first hitter, I was really geeked up to just try to punch a ticket there and lost him. So it’s just the rhythm and timing of the game that’s probably more of what I’ve got to get to grips with.”
He got ahead against Luis Valbuena to start the inning before Valbuena worked the count full, fouled off a couple of pitches and drew a walk. After Colby Rasmus flied out, Worth squared up a breaking ball and hit it over the left-field fence.
He threw consecutive breaking balls to Valbuena, a good sign considering Grilli couldn’t get a good grip on his curveball six days earlier when he pitched an inning in simulated-game conditions.
“It’s fine-tuning,” Grilli said. “Like being a radio station, you know, on either side of it. You know where the station’s at and you just kind of dial it in so you get a clear sound. And that’s honestly how I feel, it’s just little things, intangibles, like maybe getting a little more extension. I can tell you that the thing I’m thinking about the least is my foot. So it has nothing to do with that.’”
He retired the last two batters he faced on a fly ball and a grounder.
“This is a spring training game. I was pretty geeked up for it, obviously, but I was also trying to stay within myself and just say, hey, throw strikes,” Grilli said. “Make sure stuff is working. Throw consistently in the zone. I left a couple of pitches fat, but I’m not going to be overly critical of my first one.”