LOS ANGELES – On the morning he was to catch Zack Greinke for the first time, just a spring training session but still, Los Angeles Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis found the introverted pitcher by the Camelback Ranch bullpen to let him in on the news.
Ever earnest and adaptable, Ellis told Greinke he was his guy that day, and asked if there was something Greinke preferred in terms of setup or pitch sequences or, you know, anything to get their relationship off to the proper start.
Greinke stared straight ahead and said nothing for a moment. Then, still gazing at the horizon and not at all at Ellis, Greinke said quietly, "Well, I'm pretty easy. You go over there behind the plate and squat down. I'll throw you the ball."
Ellis waited for the smile. When it didn't come, he thought, "I'm gonna love this guy."
Through 24 starts and one broken collarbone as a Dodger, Greinke remains intelligent, honest and chillingly funny. More, he has become the second-best starter on a club whose ace – Clayton Kershaw – appears headed for his second Cy Young Award in three seasons. In the finest summer of baseball Los Angeles has ever seen, Greinke is 8-1 with a 1.58 ERA since early July, over a dozen starts in which batters are hitting .197 against him.
Ask Greinke the details and he grins tightly. There are so few absolutes. He pitches well because his changeup has been so effective, until it isn't, and then he'll come up with something else. He wins – they all win – because he smoothed his mechanics at pitching coach Rick Honeycutt's suggestion, and now he hits the mitt with his fastball more often than not, and that frees his cutter and his slider to work over jumpy hitters. After all the incessant speculation about where Greinke might fit in, and whether a city the size of L.A. would suit him after he'd found happiness in Kansas City, Milwaukee and Anaheim, he's good with L.A. Sure, the money – $147 million over six years – helped bring him here, but it was Greinke (and wife, Emily) who'd have to live with the place, and here he is, pitching as well as he ever has, with the possible exception of his 2009 Cy Young season.
"Yeah," he said. "Um, team's good, weather's good. The stadium. The staff here is good. The chef is good. The wife likes it here. Coaching staff, training staff, video staff, all of them are fun to be around. I think I'd be happy wherever I'd be, and I'm 100 percent happy here. And I think I'd be happy other places."
Few absolutes. Except perhaps first-pitch strikes, and fastball command, and field your position (his last error was in 2010), and swing at strikes (he's batting .333). When he asks a question, teammates have learned to tell the truth, because that's what he wants, and if they fudge it a little, he'll verify their information on the video machine anyway.
The Dodgers were in Chicago earlier this summer and Sandy Koufax was in town, so he went to the ballpark and spent part of the pregame in the clubhouse. He was in the food room when Greinke walked in.
"Hey Zack, you're throwing the ball great," Koufax said. "It's fun to watch. And hitting it, too."
"Thanks," Greinke said stone-faced, "especially hitting those left-handers. Matter of fact, I woulda crushed you back when you pitched."
Koufax looked at him. Greinke stared back. Greinke grinned finally, and Koufax did, too.
"I'm sure you woulda, too," Koufax said, laughing.
As Greinke left, a teammate of Greinke's said to Koufax, "I'd love to see that simulated game," and Koufax, 77 years old, replied, "I would too."
Greinke is scheduled to pitch again Thursday against the San Francisco Giants, and then perhaps three more times before the postseason. He is, in all, 14-3 as a Dodger with a 2.79 ERA. Beyond the month he missed allowing his collarbone to heal, he has been all the Dodgers might've hoped. Even the injury – sustained when he claimed the inside portion of the strike zone and Carlos Quentin bull-rushed him for it – became proof of his toughness, and stubbornness, and spirit.
Soon enough, he'll get the ball again in the playoffs. He made three postseason starts for the Milwaukee Brewers two years ago, and he was just so-so. There was a pitch here or there he'd perhaps not throw again, but otherwise October felt good to him. The baseball was good and pure, and the moments were never too big. They just didn't turn out quite often enough.
"Winning was fun," he said. "And then it was just baseball. Every game was extremely important, but it was the same type of feel as a regular game. I mean, a lot of it was stupid. There's more media being annoying. The travel was worse. The schedule was worse. Game times were different. It was just like a regular game, but it was really important.
"Every game I pitch, every hitter is the most important hitter I face. I'm assuming it'll be the same this year if we make it. And next year, the same."
It's a simple thing, the way he likes it, and the very reason they like him.
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"He's probably the most refreshing teammate I've ever played with," said Ellis, who has caught 18 of Greinke's starts. "This can be a league where people kind of worry about people's feelings, which is great. But with Zack, it's brutal honesty all the time. Because of that, he's great to catch. And anytime you do get a compliment from him, you hold onto it like it's gold."