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05/06/12 2:10 PM ET

Grilli setting the course for setup success

PITTSBURGH -- Through 2009, Jason Grilli was already a Major League veteran who in eight seasons had never had a higher strikeout rate than the 9.2 (per nine innings) he reached in '09, and had a 6.6 career mark.

Now, the Pirates setup man has fanned 20 in his first 11 innings, a rate of 16.4. Yes, the man who goes by GrillCheese on Twitter, is throwing hard cheese.

If you didn't know better, you'd think Grilli sat out all of the 2010 season to get that bionic arm transplant. He did spend that year recovering from a surgery -- but it was on his right knee.

The 35-year-old Grilli ascribes the late-career change to having fully adapted to his relief role (he dabbled in starting when he broke in with the 2000 Marlins) and not having any other reasons for holding back.

"I'm just laying it all on the line," Grilli said. "I'm bowing my neck and going after it, and being as aggressive as I can be. I'm throwing every pitch with conviction, which is what you have to do in this role. I don't try to strike everyone out, that's not really my first priority. I'd like to get an out on the first pitch, if possible.

"But later in a game I know [a strikeout] is always a big thing. The strikeout does come into play. With two strikes now, I go for it. I've had to earn my way through this whole thing, and going through the adversity has helped me develop a lot of confidence."

McCutchen to rest up before Nationals series

PITTSBURGH -- Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen made a quick return Saturday from the stomach flu that had waylaid him. On Sunday, he was told to take two days off from the lineup and get right.

"Left to his own means, he'd wander out there again," said manager Clint Hurdle, who again replaced McCutchen with Nate McLouth in center field for the series finale against the Reds. "It's not fair for him right now. It's not fair for us."

With an off-day following Sunday afternoon's game at PNC Park, McCutchen will have the benefit of consecutive days of rest before he tries another return. In Saturday's game, he went 1-for-3, and also played a single into a triple, allowing a hard-hit ball to slither under his glove.

"You saw him. I think we're all best served by giving him a break, and we'll revisit his situation on Tuesday [when the Bucs open a set against the Nationals]," Hurdle said.

Hurdle gets to match wits with Nats' Johnson

PITTSBURGH -- As a journeyman outfielder during his playing days, Clint Hurdle played for a number of different managers. But now, Hurdle has a chance to match managerial wits with one of them -- which is why he is looking forward to the three-game series with the Washington Nationals that begins Tuesday night at PNC Park.

Hurdle played for Washington skipper Davey Johnson as a member of the Mets in 1985 and '87 (unfortunately for him, he detoured to St. Louis in 1986, when the Mets won the World Series).

The 69-year-old Johnson was "retired" for 10 1/2 years until replacing Jim Riggleman in the middle of last season -- and his decision to stay on the job is interpreted by Hurdle as a sign that the Nationals' fast start (18-9 entering Sunday with a game-and-a-half lead in the National League East) is not a mirage.

"For him to re-engage in that job ... there must be something significant going on for him to get involved," said Hurdle, who has "a lot of affection and respect" for Johnson.

Worth noting

• The Bucs may not have played a full season of plus-.500 ball since 1993, but they have been a dramatically winning ball club since 2009 in front of PNC Park crowds of 30,000-plus. Since the start of the '09 season, and including Saturday night's 3-2 win over the Reds in front of 33,019, the Pirates' big-crowd record is 30-17.

• Neil Walker batted in a different spot in the lineup for the third consecutive game on Sunday, when he made his season debut in the No. 3 hole, replacing Andrew McCutchen. He was the cleanup guy on Friday and jumped to No. 2 on Saturday when Pedro Alvarez debuted in the four-hole, This season, Walker has already appeared in every spot from second to sixth.

The Last Word: "I giggle when I see the handshakes. Some days we have trouble remembering the signs, but guys have 17 different handshakes they can throw down in the blink of an eye." -- Bucs manager Clint Hurdle, on one of the ways men playing a boy's game keep him young.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.