ANAHEIM, Calif. – The best two starting pitchers in baseball – through three weeks – sit a few lockers from each other but live in the strike zone, pitch a day apart but share their starts, and together account for much of the reason Kansas City may be close to celebrating baseball again.
The Royals have one winning season in the last 13, just had their organization assessed at $4 million less than what Alex Rodriguez alone is worth, and haven't sniffed a playoff game in a generation of hard winters and worse summers.
Yet here they are, nine wins already, so far propped up by the pitching staff (of all things), and holding to a young roster that can't help but pick up momentum and confidence in a bear of a division.
So after three starts each, Zack Greinke leads the American League in ERA and Brian Bannister is second, and through 16 games no team has pitched with the Royals. In fact, despite being outscored by every team in the league, the Royals not only have ensured they'll carry contention into May (which is something) but also have accumulated and developed enough pitching to suggest there's a future in Kansas City that one day will mean contention in August and September.
On Sunday in Kansas City, Bannister threw the second complete game of his career, a 5-1 win over the Minnesota Twins. It took him 112 pitches. The next day in Seattle, Greinke threw the first complete game of his career, beating the Mariners 5-1. It took him 107 pitches.
They were the first back-to-back, complete-game wins for the Royals in eight years, those 36 hours pushing the notion this franchise – and GM Dayton Moore – are onto something more than a few spring days of false hope. Suddenly, the Gil Meche signing makes sense, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler buy a few more days to figure this out, and there are damn good reasons to defend and run the bases with the urgency new manager Trey Hillman demands. The Royals, apparently, are going to pitch. Might as well play the rest of the game, too.
Traded from the New York Mets before last season for the strong-armed and mercurial Ambiorix Burgos, Bannister lost his first three decisions as a Royal and won 12 of his next 18. Now he has won 15 of 21. And the Mets, incidentally, really could use a starter or two.
Bannister doesn't have Greinke's hard, lively fastball. Greinke lacks Bannister's innate feel for the game. But they spend a lot of time together, sometimes huddled with the veteran Meche, often under the direction of pitching coach Bob McClure, so far taking turns cutting up American League lineups by throwing strikes, stressing command over full-bore exertion and working the hitters away from the bat barrels.
Bannister, a right-hander, likes to point out that in six professional seasons, he has had one right-handed pitching coach. His father is Floyd Bannister, a left-hander who won 134 games in a 15-year career. So, Bannister said, with his sinker-curveball-changeup repertoire, he leans to the mindset of the lefties, pitching to weak contact rather than blow-away four-seamers.
"I consistently describe myself as a right-handed lefty," he said. "Lefties see the game differently. They pitch differently."
He takes the ball with two goals: seven innings in fewer than 100 pitches, and an entire game in 2½ hours.
"To pitch at this level you have to be fearless," Bannister said. "You can't be afraid of the strike zone."
Greinke, by most accounts, has one of the best arms in the game. Working more often in relief last season he routinely pitched in the high 90s, and scouts rave about his arm speed. Now, after spending a year away from the game because of personal issues and then being fed back into the rotation, Greinke, at 24, apparently has aligned his head and arm and heart into baseball again.
"I'll tell you right off the bat, I'm his biggest fan," Bannister said of Greinke. "I love this game and he has the kind of physical talent anybody would love to have. It's the kind of physical talent I don't have. … And he's getting ahead in counts like I do. He's saving his stuff for critical parts of the game. I love it because I almost feel like I'm doubling it, because he'll go out the next day and be successful."
When he's not watching Meche, whose stuff more aligns with his own, Greinke is leaning on Bannister for the more cerebral issues of the game. For example, when he recently couldn't get his computer to work right, he brought it to Bannister.
"Brian's one of the smartest guys I've met, especially when it comes to pitching," Greinke said. "He knows how to pitch his way, Felix Hernandez's way, other guys' ways. He just really knows how to pitch. When I have questions, Brian's the guy I go to."
So, together, they pitch to strike one and go from there. They pitch to contact and figure it'll work out. They pitch at something like 90-percent effort, and know it'll mean greater accuracy and longer arm life. And they pitch to push the Royals to something bigger than a respectable April.
They'd like to think this can be sustained, what they've done through six starts and what the Royals have done in 16 games. That still is out there. But maybe it begins for everyone with a couple of young arms, a good month, followed by another. Maybe it begins when you give the ball to those two young arms and don't get it back for nine innings.
"Yeah, conviction," Hillman said. "We've talked a lot about conviction, believing in what you're doing."
For the moment, the concept of six months, of righting an entire organization, is a bit large for Bannister and Greinke. Bannister gets the ball Friday in Oakland, Greinke the next day. They'll leave it at that.
"All I'm trying to do," Bannister said, "is get a person out."
- Floyd Bannister