Greinke a Royal relief

After struggling as a starter, K.C.’s prospect now an anchor in bullpen.
Friday, July 6, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:01 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008
Royals pitcher Zack Greinke earns a save in the ninth inning of Kansas City’s 8-1 win over the Chicago White Sox on June 29.

KANSAS CITY — Perhaps Zack Greinke’s moody, restless talents have finally found their niche.

Since moving to the bullpen about eight weeks ago as an utterly failed starter, the young right-hander who once admitted he hated baseball and left the team for emergency emotional counseling has ranged from unhittable to near-brilliant.

Working two innings to help preserve a victory over Philadelphia on June 10, he struck out five of six batters. His ERA in his past nine appearances covering 19 innings for a revitalized Kansas City relief corps is a minuscule 0.95. He’s always wielded a baffling change-up. And now as a middle reliever, his fastball is regularly hitting 97 or 98 mph with great movement, while his breaking pitches bite sharply at the corners.

Typical were 1 2/3 hitless innings in a tense 3-2 victory Monday night that snapped Seattle’s eight-game win streak.

“I know he’s had problems here and there, but it looks like hard work has paid off for this guy,” said Mariners manager John McLaren. “He’s got his confidence back and his game together. When you bring that kind of stuff in from the bullpen, you’re actually bringing in sometimes better stuff than the guy that’s starting the game.

“It looks like he’s on the move again, back on course to be a real good pitcher.”

Perhaps most importantly, the Royals’ first-round selection in the 2002 draft is finally having fun playing baseball. Stamped with that detestable “can’t miss” tag as an immature 20-year-old, he was rushed to the majors by a front office desperate to attach something positive to a failing franchise, and it very nearly wrecked his career.

A wiry, athletic 6-foot-3, he was an obvious physical talent. But he was also a sullen loner who never seemed at ease. In 2005, he wound up losing an American League-high 17 games and then walked out of spring training the following February for treatment of what the team described as a social disorder.

Back in the rotation this spring, his ERA shot up past 7.00. Rock bottom was probably May 6 when he gave up three two-run home runs to Detroit all in one inning.

In what looked like the last desperate act of an organization and a player on the verge of calling it quits, he was shifted to middle relief.

“He’s hard to read,” an exasperated manager Buddy Bell said at the time.

But it may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened for the Royals’ relief corps and the mercurial young talent who, for the moment at least, now anchors it.

“I think Zack felt like, for whatever reason, that he had to pace himself when he was in the rotation, which brought his stuff down a notch or even two,” says Bell. “You just can’t do that in this league.”

Teammate Brian Bannister agrees with many organization insiders that the Royals will eventually make one more attempt at putting Greinke in the rotation. Why waste such great stuff on a middle reliever?

“Zack is a starter,” Bannister said. “But to see him just be able to unleash his stuff out of the pen is tremendous. As a starting pitcher, you can’t just go with stuff. You can get in pitch-count trouble, in all kind of trouble in different situations. Being a starter, you know you’re going to have to go through the lineup three times.

“But with his arm coming out of the pen, he can just unleash it one time through the lineup. He’s really clicking right now. It’s exciting to watch.”

Despite all that he’s been through, Greinke is still only 23. Like so many men in their early 20s, he remains unsure of exactly where he wants to take his career.

But why this amazing turnaround from rotation to bullpen?

“Well,” he said with refreshing candor, “I don’t know.

“I’ve always wanted to be in the bullpen because I hated starting. I told people that. I hated playing baseball at the time. Now I just like whatever. I’ve always told the front office and the coaches, ’Please put me in the bullpen.’ But they wouldn’t listen because, I don’t know why.

“But now that I finally like starting, they put me in the bullpen. But I like being in the bullpen, too, so it really doesn’t matter.”

Like Bell said, Greinke is hard to read. And as McLaren noted, these days he’s also a devil to hit.

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