He's the same guy, they all had said. The same pitcher. The same introverted kid with maybe a handful more whiskers on his chin, a couple hundred more innings in his arm, and the weight of a franchise on his back. Nothing's changed, they had said.
He left the mound as he arrived, expressionless, head slightly bowed, eyes clearing his path. Only once did he veer away, and then to hold a brief conversation with plate umpire Jim Joyce. He held his glove over his mouth, nodded, and continued to the dugout.
We worry about Zack Greinke. We can't help it. We want him to succeed, but more we wish for him satisfaction, to enjoy this. But, it's his thing. It's none of our business if he laughs along the way, if this is his passion or just a job, if he bounds into work or punches the clock. He prepares hard, works hard, cares wholly about this. He said as much last week, practically begging the Kansas City Royals to make the losing stop, to – as he told the Kansas City Star – "Put a team together that has a fighting chance."
On a room-temperature afternoon, Greinke pitched through a gentle breeze that cooled the faces of the folks in the right-field bleachers at Angel Stadium. He'd been gone for two innings by the time that draft hoisted Bobby Abreu's(notes) home run another row or two, sending the Royals to another loss, their fourth in a row.
Greinke pitched eight innings, gave up six hits and let in a run. He left with the score tied, so stuck on seven wins. After 111 pitches, his ERA stood at 3.99, under 4 again. He'd been very good against the Angels. The only walk he allowed appeared strategic. He struck out six. He threw first-pitch strikes, and he pushed his fastball to 97 mph when he needed it, and he rationed his signature slider for the bigger moments.
What it got him, what it got all of them, was another quiet clubhouse, another dreary flight to another ballgame, and another day closer to another losing season.
Afterward, at a clubhouse table for six, Greinke sat alone. A year ago, he was collecting Cy Young Award votes. He'd won 16 games and might have won 10 more, had a 2.16 ERA and 242 strikeouts. Now he was 7-11, his ERA close to doubled, his strikeouts down, and he worked through a plate of lasagna, stress-testing a plastic fork.
The same guy, they had said.
"Really up and down," Greinke said. "I think the main thing is – well, it's not the main thing – but every season you have one really good stretch. Maybe at the beginning of the year I was pretty good. But you go 20 innings or so without giving up a run. I might have had one, but it's not the same. It helps. It makes everything look better when that happens."
Balls fall in. Strike zones shift. The wind changes direction. The game slides an inch to the left or right and suddenly your ERA leads with a 4.
It was at least a few years in the major leagues before Greinke felt comfortable, taming an anxiety disorder. It was another before he'd reached something like baseball maturity.
"I'm trying to keep it there," Greinke, still just 26, said of his evolution. "That's where I'm at now."
Toward that end, he'd adjusted before they did, hoping to stay off the bat barrels, hoping to stay ahead of the video, and hoping to save his arm. For what, he wouldn't say. But, citing the arm-strain caused by sliders, he is throwing fewer of them, replacing them with fastballs – a four- and two-seamer – and changeups. Rather than the 20 or more he'd throw last year, many of which accounted for all those strikeouts, he said, he'll throw 15.
Fewer strikeouts mean more balls in play, leading potentially to more baserunners, and apparently to more home runs, though not on Wednesday. He can pitch that way and win, certainly. But the margin for error is slimmer, and slimmer still in Kansas City, where run support is not guaranteed.