Greinke gives Royals fans reason to believe

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Kauffman Stadium was a little more than half-full Monday night. Weekday games here don’t draw crowds like that, unless they’re giving away a Build-A-Bear, or selling hot dogs for $1, or blowing up a bunch of fireworks.

Zack Greinke was pitching, and these days that qualifies as an event in Kansas City. Understand, this is a town with one season of .500-plus baseball since the strike in 1994. The standards aren’t really standards.

And so they came out, 21,843 people total, 6,515 of whom purchased walk-up tickets, to see if this was all genuine, if the best pitcher in baseball really wears a Royals uniform.

Photo Zack Greinke struck out 10 White Sox en route to raising his record to 6-0 on Monday.
(Charlie Riedel/AP Photo)

He does. No disrespect intended to Johan Santana or Roy Halladay or anyone else who has been in the discussion for years, of course. It’s just fact. Greinke, at this moment, embodies pitching preeminence, the six-hit shutout he spun against the Chicago White Sox another notch in a belt that, at this rate, will run out of room any day now.

Greinke struck out 10, all swinging. He needed only 104 pitches. The last time someone threw a shutout with double-digit strikeouts in fewer than 105 pitches was nearly four years ago. The only performance White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen could compare it to came Aug. 26, 1991, when he was a player and Chicago visited Kansas City. Bret Saberhagen threw a no-hitter that night.

Mind you, Guillen was the Florida Marlins’ bench coach when Josh Beckett closed out the 2003 World Series with a five-hit shutout. And he watched his White Sox starters throw four consecutive complete games in the 2005 American League Championship Series. Such is the impression Greinke left in Kansas City’s 3-0 victory: one of dominance and helplessness, an unshakeable nightmare of 95-mph fastballs and sliders that bite with the ferocity of a shark and curveballs that dawdle into the strike zone.

“He’s special, man,” Royals outfielder Jose Guillen said. “He’s becoming one of those guys – unhittable. We need to show the White Sox we’re better than them. That we’re not the regular team from Kansas City.”

What he means is: The Royals are good. In first place at 15-11, they entered May without the usual goal of avoiding the indignity of drafting first overall. Greinke owns six of those victories, and the shutout dropped his ERA to 0.40. One sure sign of brilliance: when an ERA dips only a tenth of a point following a shutout.

To say the 24-year-old Greinke is off to one of the great season-opening runs in major league history is no exaggeration. In his first six starts of 1981, the standard bearer of such dominance, Fernando Valenzuela, went 6-0 with a 0.33 ERA along with 50 strikeouts and 11 walks in 54 innings. In nine fewer innings, Greinke has struck out 54 and walked eight, including none Monday.

The six hits Greinke allowed are rather misleading, too. Three bounced off Royals fielders or their gloves. Another was a broken-bat flare to center field, one more an excuse-me single on a pitch at the ankles. The last came on a bloop double that kicked up chalk down the left-field line. Luck was about the best Chicago could muster.

“That’s probably my favorite game of the year so far, if not ever,” Greinke said. “It was just a lot of fun. It was.”

Fun and baseball used to show up inside different circles in Greinke’s Venn diagram. Three springs ago, a social anxiety disorder tore him away from the sport. Greinke wasn’t sure he wanted to play. Happy and healthy thanks to antidepressants, Greinke has written a story of redemption and resolution, one that’s sure to enthrall more and more people as the season wanes.

Because it’s a treat to watch Greinke pitch, a true embodiment of performance art. Take his at-bat against White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez in the third inning. The second pitch Greinke threw, a cheek-buzzing 93-mph fastball, turned Ramirez into a limbo practitioner, and it set up the next three pitches: a knee-buckling curveball for a called strike, a front-door slider for a called strike and a down-and-away slider at which Ramirez flailed for a punchout.

Of the 15 hitters Greinke backed into a two-strike count, he sent two-thirds back to the bench marveling at the pitch they swung through. White Sox hitters whiffed on 17 Greinke pitches, the majority sliders that disappeared into the dirt. Greinke was as much a magician as a pitcher, wowing not just his audience but the participants in his tricks.

“Today was the best I’ve seen Zack throw,” Royals catcher Miguel Olivo said. “Everything was perfect. Everywhere I put the glove, he hit the glove.”

As the evening progressed, the crowd understood what it was witnessing. The fans gave Greinke a standing ovation at the end of the seventh inning, and another at the end of the eighth, and one more as he walked to the mound in the ninth. Though Greinke fed off the cheers, he never acknowledged them explicitly. He expects this.

Winning is Greinke’s great aphrodisiac, and when he signed a four-year contract extension in the offseason, unspoken was a promise that he’d help bring respectability, if not glory, back to Kansas City. The Royals were once a model franchise. Years of financial flux and bad decisions wrecked that. Now solvent and stable, they have the sort of team that can generate excitement, a newly refurbished stadium that supports such a renaissance and a kid from Florida who could be the great uniter.

The longest and loudest cheers continued after the final out, as the camera that feeds the gargantuan HD videoboard in center field trained its lens on Greinke and didn’t let go. There was his smirking face and the back of his uniform and the irrefutable truth that this whole thing isn’t some cruel dream.

“The games matter,” Greinke said, still a smidge surprised at such a foreign concept. “Right from the get-go, everyone thought we had a chance to do something this year.”

They were right. So as spring turns to summer and school lets out, perhaps the sight of filled seats on a weeknight won’t seem alien. Baseball’s best pitcher is here, after all. And this wasn’t a one-time-only event.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, May 5, 2009