Before the game, two scouts were debating whether Dodgers right-hander Zack Greinke would risk swinging the bat in his return from a broken left collarbone.
One expressed doubt, but the other, possessing a better working knowledge of Greinke, chuckled at the idea the pitcher would hold back.
“He’s got a bigger ego about hitting than he does about pitching,” the scout said.
Sure enough, Greinke’s first at-bat Wednesday night came in an important situation — two outs in the third inning, a runner on third and the Dodgers leading the Nationals, 1-0.
Was Greinke swinging? Of course he was. And on a 1-1 count, he lined an opposite-field RBI single off Nats’ left-hander Ross Detwiler, delivering the second run in the Dodgers’ eventual 3-1 victory.
Greinke had grimaced after swinging through the previous pitch, admitting later it felt “uncomfortable.” But not to worry. He also swung and missed while striking out in his second at-bat, and said he felt fine.
He pitched without restriction, allowing one run in 5 1/3 innings. Offensively, though, he made a grudging concession, becoming Zack Light.
“He wasn’t going to let it fly,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “For the most part, he tries to pull and hit homers when he’s healthy. But he told us tonight that he was going to try to just put it in play, slap it a little bit.”
Was Greinke content to be an opposite-field guy?
“Tonight, yeah,” he said, smiling. “I was hoping they weren’t playing so shallow that (if he hit a flare) I would get thrown out at first base. That was the biggest thing that made me nervous.”
That’s Greinke, forever anticipating his next AB.
Welcome back, Zack.
The Dodgers, sticking to their injury-a-day theme, cleared a spot for Greinke by placing right-hander Josh Beckett on the disabled list with a left groin strain. But now that Greinke again is part of the rotation, the team might actually start, in Mattingly’s words, to “see the vision” of what it was supposed to be.
General manager Ned Colletti called Wednesday night’s victory “maybe one of our biggest,” noting that it enabled the Dodgers to take two of three from the Nationals behind back-to-back triumphs from their aces, Clayton Kershaw and Greinke.
Matt Kemp extended his hitting streak to 14 games, hitting the ball hard three times. Carl Crawford drove in the insurance run with a pinch-hit, eighth-inning sacrifice fly. And five relievers navigated the final 3 2/3 innings in grand style, operating like an actual, functioning bullpen for a change.
The late innings offered relentless drama, one thwarted Nationals rally after another. Dodgers right-hander Kenley Jansen escaped a first-and-third, none-out jam with a one-run lead in the eighth. Embattled closer Brandon League survived a leadoff single and pinch-hit appearance by Bryce Harper in the ninth.
Greinke, though, made the biggest impression on this night of many heroes, looking like himself in his first start since April 11, when you-know-what (a brawl) occurred with you-know-who (Carlos Quentin) in San Diego.
“It’s pretty amazing what this guy was able to do tonight … amazing he was throwing strikes like that,” Mattingly said. “I’m sure Dr. (Neal) ElAttrache was sitting at home patting himself on the back as he got that hit and was getting outs.”
ElAttrache is the surgeon who operated on Greinke two days after L’Affaire Quentin. And if you want to know how Greinke made it back in under five weeks when the Dodgers originally said that he might need eight, the surgery is where you start.
The insertion of a metal plate stabilized Greinke’s fracture, preventing movement and eliminating pain sooner. Greinke was comfortable enough to resume throwing just three days after his operation, preventing his arm from “de-conditioning.” He got the rest of his body ready. And once his fracture healed, he was ready to go.
Greinke called the decision to undergo surgery “a no-brainer.”
“It was kind of like, ‘If you don’t have it, it will take the full eight weeks, maybe more. You’re not going to be able to throw the first three weeks or so. But the other one, you’ll be able to start doing stuff earlier,’ ” Greinke recalled.
“They didn’t say I would be ready to pitch by now. But by the time the three weeks came, I would have been in a better position to come back.”
Greinke said he actually was healthy enough to pitch two weeks ago, but not sharp enough. Still, the Dodgers wrestled with the decision to bring him back so quickly.
On Monday, Mattingly described the risk of starting the $147 million free agent, who threw 80 pitches for Class A Rancho Cucamonga in his only rehab start last Friday.
“I think his arm strength is going to be good enough,” Mattingly said. “It’s just the little worries about covering first, running into somebody, hitting and sliding, covering the plate, blocking the plate, diving for a bunt. A lot of little things can happen when he lands on his shoulder.”
As it turned out, none of the Dodgers’ worst fears were realized. Greinke never fielded a bunt, never had to cover first base. And even though he toned down his swing, he still managed to deliver a big hit.
Sometime soon, he will let it fly again. And who knows? Maybe now the Dodgers will start to fly, too.