Zack Greinke didn’t lose a game last year until May 9. At that point, he was 6-1 with a 0.51 ERA, and it wasn’t until almost one month after that — June 5 — that he allowed his first home run of the season.
He’s 0-1 with a 3.55 ERA entering Friday’s start against the Twins. He surrendered two homers — back-to-back, no less — in his second start of the year.
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What gives, you say?
It’s simple. Last year Greinke had one of the greatest Aprils in recorded bat-and-ball history. He wasn’t going to do it two years in a row.
In 2009 he became the first pitcher with 36 or more strikeouts and a 0.00 ERA in the opening four starts of a season. As in, first pitcher ever. What could he do for an encore?
Making history isn’t an annual event.
“You just don’t see years like that very often,” Royals pitching coach Bob McClure said.
“One of the best years for a pitcher — ever,” new Kansas City catcher Jason Kendall asserted.
Greinke’s 2009 season will always be remembered for how it began. The ending wasn’t bad, either. The right-hander finished 16-8 with a 2.16 ERA and was a near-unanimous winner of the American League Cy Young Award.
The overwhelming vote was a victory for those who believe award candidates shouldn’t be penalized because their teams stink. (The Royals went 65-97.) As brilliant as Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander were, Greinke clearly deserved the honor.
He has a chance to repeat, but the odds aren’t in his favor. A decade’s passed since Pedro Martinez became the AL’s last repeat winner.
Greinke, 26, need not have a record-setting April to win the award again. Tim Lincecum was 0-1 with a 7.56 ERA after two starts last year. By season’s end, he’d secured his second straight Cy Young. Something else to keep in mind: The Royals’ outfield has improved defensively. That should help Greinke, who tends to generate more fly balls than grounders.
But to carry forward the Lincecum comparison, the San Francisco right-hander had the advantage of pitching for a team that was in contention virtually all year. Greinke probably won’t be as fortunate. The Royals are 4-5 and lack a reliable bullpen. Even in the so-so American League Central, they don’t have the firepower to compete.
All things being equal, pitchers involved in pennant races — or those who play in the more competitive AL East — deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Of course, that didn’t matter last year. Greinke was the clear choice.
Greinke hasn’t changed much, if at all, since winning the Cy Young. He didn’t like talking about himself before and he doesn’t like doing it now. (He declined an interview request on Thursday.)
“Zack doesn’t put pressure on himself,” Royals starter Gil Meche said. “Zack is Zack. He’s different. Some people act like they don’t care about all the attention. He really doesn’t even think about it.
“It’s almost like he doesn’t even like it. That’s why he’s able to stay consistent and keep his composure.”
But what accounts for the 3.55 year-over-year increase in Greinke’s ERA? Well, he’s thrown his changeup more often. As a result, he’s going to his standby “out” pitch — the slider — a little less frequently.
“I noticed him doing that in spring training,” Meche said. “He knows his slider is there. It’s an unbelievable pitch. I think he wants to get to another pitch, where he doesn’t need to throw [the slider] as much.
“Everything he throws is dominant. He locates the fastball – a good, power fastball. He keeps the ball down. He knows how to pitch. Put all those things together, we’ve seen what happens.”
We have. And we will again. But don’t expect the numbers to look quite the same one year later.