Greinke changes up to become ace

Five years ago Thursday, Zack Greinke walked out of the Kansas City Royals’ spring training facility with no plans of ever returning. Haunted by depression and social anxiety, he viewed the ballpark as a living hell. Greinke couldn’t take it anymore.

“I gave up the game,’’ he said.

To the Royals’ credit, they stepped back and gave Greinke time to work on his challenges without any pressures.

They had a major investment in Greinke, who was given a $2.475 million bonus to sign in 2002. He reinforced their belief in his potential by going 12-1 with a 1.70 ERA in 26 minor-league games before an in-season promotion to the big leagues in 2004. In the majors, he went 8-12 with a 3.97 ERA in 24 starts for a team that lost 104 games.

The Royals, however, were more worried about the person than the player.

“We had no idea if he was going to come back, but we also knew this wasn’t about baseball. It was about a young man and his life,’’ pitching coach Bob McClure said.

And today, it’s about a young man who not only has his life back on track, including recently marrying his high school girlfriend, but also has a career back on track.

Even expectations that come with winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2009 are no big deal. He is looking forward to 2010, and there is every reason to think he can be every bit as good this year as he was last year, and most likely, given his ability to learn and adapt, Greinke is going to be even better.

Manager Trey Hillman has certainly let it be known where he feels Greinke sits in the Royals’ pecking order. For the first time, Greinke will draw the Opening Day assignment.

As for Greinke, nothing seems to get him too worked up — anymore.

“It might look like I’m nervous,’’ he said on a rain-chilled Saturday morning as he addressed the media, “but I’m not. I’m shaking because I’m freezing.’’

Greinke is enjoying himself. With the help of counseling and medication, he has been able to deal with the demons of the past. He’s now able to focus on the present, and enjoy the coming challenge instead of obsessing on the past.

Take that Cy Young award as an example.

“My parents have it,’’ he said. “It’s probably hanging up above the fireplace. That’s usually where the main things go up. I would think it’s a main thing.’’

But did he see it this winter?

“I was over at their house two times. … I don’t remember seeing it. … But they get all my awards. I’ve only kept one.’’

And that one is?

“Mizuno gave me a samurai sword,’’ said Greinke, who makes his offseason home in Orlando, Fla., where he grew up. “We’re shipping it to Kansas City. I couldn’t take it on the plane. … It’s cool.’’

So is Greinke. He is an open book. He doesn’t really enjoy the public life, particularly media inquisitions, but there is no false front. Former manager Buddy Bell put it best when he once said Greinke always tells the truth “even when he shouldn’t.’’

McClure remembers being hired as the Royals’ pitching coach and meeting Greinke, the top pitching prospect in their system at the time.

“He told me he didn’t throw a two-seamer, didn’t throw a change-up and didn’t listen to pitching coaches,’’ said McClure. “I said, `OK.’’’

Now?

McClure and Greinke have developed a quality relationship. Greinke has mastered the two-seamer, allowing him to get the ground ball when he needs one. And he is focusing this spring on refining the change-up, a pitch he feels can make him even stronger against right-handed hitters.

He was, after all, good in 2009, leading the AL in ERA and ranking second in strikeouts.

However, he knows he can be better in 2010.

And instead of being haunted by the challenge, as he was earlier in his career, he welcomes it.

“I am the same person I always have been, but my attitude is different,’’  Greinke said. “I used to get so nervous and upset. I was always angry and doing stuff. I over-trained.

“I’d do something and wouldn’t feel it was good enough, and so I’d go out and run three miles or five miles,’’ he said.

Two games last year exemplified how honest Greinke has become in self-evaluation.

He pitched a one-hitter at Seattle on Aug. 30, facing 28 batters and throwing only 114 pitches, but “I didn’t pitch that good. Their team was struggling. Ichiro was out. (Russell) Branyan was out. Two of their best hitters were out.’’

Meanwhile, he pointed to a 3-1 loss at Detroit on July 8 as a point of pride. He gave up three runs in the first two innings, a two-run rally in the first starting when he got ahead of leadoff hitter Curtis Granderson 0-2, and got so caught up with trying to get a strikeout that he walked Granderson.

“I said, `OK, they have three runs,’’’ Greinke remembered. “There was nothing I could do about that. I just had to stop it right there. I couldn’t think about anything except the next pitch I was going to throw and doing what I could to make that pitch the best pitch I could.’’

And that, Greinke said, is how he looks at what lies ahead.

He is having fun — on the field, where he has established himself as one of the game’s better pitchers, and off the field, where the married life suits him just fine.

“(Marriage) has been more fun than I imagined,’’ Greinke said. “We had been taking forever, so it’s not really that different, except we never lived together. I have to pick up things and have to make sure stuff is a little cleaner, but that’s not bad. Having (Emily) there, looking in her eyes makes me feel good.’’