Brewers’ Greinke needs to justify the upgrade

ST. LOUIS – Tonight is try No. 3 in Zack Greinke’s(notes) personal put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is contest. The first ended amid a deluge of home runs and the second under a flood of hits. The third will go a long way in deciding who will represent the National League in the World Series and, if it goes like the previous two, bankrupt his and the Milwaukee Brewers’ season.

Greinke will start Game 5 of the NL Championship Series for the Brewers, whose 4-2 victory Thursday night turned a best-of-seven contest into a best-of-three cockfight. After forcing his way to Milwaukee this offseason, Greinke needs to peck and claw to justify the Brewers’ faith in him as well as the off-putting fashion in which he positioned himself here.

Brewers pitcher Zack Greinke walks off the mound after the fifth inning of Game 1 of the NLCS. He was the winning pitcher despite allowing six runs in six innings.
(AP)

During the middle of last winter, Greinke let the Kansas City Royals know he had no intention of pitching for them in 2011. The list of players who request trades is short, and those who insinuate they won’t show up at spring training even shorter. This didn’t sit well with the Royals, who had nurtured Greinke through crippling anxiety and depression, insulated him from the attention he loathed and left him to his whims otherwise. That didn’t matter. Greinke’s filter never has been great, and he essentially told the Royals they stunk and he was tired of pitching for them.

So off he went to Milwaukee, a team that didn’t care about his idiosyncrasies and worried more about his right arm and what it could mean for their postseason aspirations. They expected success and saw it during the regular season. Once the postseason hit, not only did Greinke turn into an eminently hittable version of himself – 16 hits and four home runs in 11 innings – he avoided the ignominy of losing both because the Brewers provided his very own TARP each time out.

“I’ve given up some runs,” he said, “but I’ve been really happy with how I’ve pitched.”

He shouldn’t be. An 8.18 earned-run average isn’t good enough. His fielding-independent pitching number does him no favors, either: 6.11. If that’s all it takes to make Greinke happy, perhaps he should’ve just stayed in Kansas City, because pitching like that tends to show up on the type of team Greinke fled.

The moment Greinke told the Royals they weren’t good enough for him, he cast his lot as someone from whom excellence should be expected. He won the American League Cy Young award in 2009 with one of the most dominant pitching performances in years. His raw numbers this year were comparable to that season – a better strikeout rate and slightly higher walk rate were offset by his predilection to allow home runs – and Greinke finally would fulfill his desire to pitch in games that count.

And out he’s gone with the 37th- and 40th-best starts of the 56 thrown this postseason. That’s according to Game Score, a statistic that encapsulates a starter’s performance in one easy-to-digest number. The best start this season belongs to St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter – the same Carpenter, by the way, whom Greinke ripped for being “a phony” before Game 1 of the NLCS – whose shutout of Philadelphia in Game 5 of the division series was one of only nine postseason shutouts in the past decade.

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Otherwise, it hasn’t exactly been a postseason of bravura pitching performances from starters. Including Justin Verlander’s(notes) start Thursday, only seven starters have gone more than seven innings, a measly 12.5 percent of starts – even lower than the regular season, when 14.6 percent of starters went past the seventh. When Milwaukee’s Randy Wolf(notes) lasted seven in Game 4, huzzahs echoed. He was the first starter in the NLCS to survive past the sixth inning.

“Zack has kept us in games,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “That’s what you ask from a starting pitcher, especially in the playoffs … “

Hold on. That’s what you ask from the starting pitcher who makes $13.5 million a year and cost four young players with a combined 23 years service? Sorry. As Roenicke was saying …

” … but he has not been the lights-out guy that we have seen for quite a while. So I still … every time we have him going on the mound, we still think he’s going to throw a good game, and that’s what we ask for.”

If those are Roenicke’s truthful expectations, hey, he might be the best boss in the world. The expectation should be simple: Zack Greinke, with his mid-90s fastball, his disappearing slider that spins without the telltale dot and his slow-slower-slowest curve, should dominate in the postseason, because that is what aces do, and someone with his stuff who begs off a losing team in order to pitch in the playoffs damn well should consider himself an ace.

Zach Greinke delivers a pitch during the first inning of Game 1 of the NLCS against the Cardinals.
(US Presswire)

“Elite pitchers come up big in big games, and there are no bigger games than the playoffs,” said Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook(notes), who pitched in Cleveland alongside CC Sabathia(notes) and Cliff Lee(notes), two aces who proved their mettle in past postseasons. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a must. A lot of really good pitchers never make the playoffs. But it definitely helps. If you’re an elite pitcher, you usually find ways to put up good performances.”

More than anyone, Greinke can take control of this series in Game 5. His raw stuff is better than any pitcher in the NLCS and anyone left in the postseason outside of Justin Verlander. He struck out nine or more batters in a dozen games this season, tied for the most in the major leagues with Lee and Clayton Kershaw(notes). That’s the thing: He is capable of being the guy who twirls seven shutout innings and hands off the game to Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford(notes). Greinke cannot be the guy who gives up a run an inning and leaves satisfied.

“If he’s on, he’s going to be awfully tough. We all know that,” Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman(notes) said. “By the same token, we feel like we’ve had some games where we’ve had success hitting him also. So it’s kind of a coin flip. You go out there and … hope you get Slightly Off Greinke as opposed to Really Sharp, Nasty Greinke.”

This is the biggest game of Greinke’s career as well as the one that could help justify general manager Doug Melvin forfeiting such a haul for two years of a pitcher who could leave for free agency after next season. The Brewers went all-in with him, something the New York Yankees weren’t willing to do because they didn’t think Greinke could survive the pressure – especially come the postseason.

He hasn’t made them regret the decision yet. He can with Game 5. Greinke’s attitude isn’t important. Neither is his personality nor his lack of a filter nor anything about him other than what his arm spits out Friday and how the Cardinals handle it.

“In all honesty, it’s just another game, kind of,” Greinke said. “I thought it might, like, be a lot different, but it’s really just a normal game.”

No, it’s not. It’s nothing close to normal. It’s the playoffs. It’s where Zack Greinke wanted to be.

Now it’s time for him to pitch like he belongs.

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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 Friday, Oct 14, 2011