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Greinke returns to KC, where he got his start

MILWAUKEE -- Zack Greinke figured the weirdest part of his return to Kansas City would come right off the bat, when the Brewers checked into their hotel on Monday night.

"My house is, like, 100 yards away from the hotel," said Greinke, set to start Tuesday's Interleague series opener for his new team, the Brewers, against his old one, the Royals.

"But I'm renting it out," he said. "I won't be able to stay there."

Someone signed a two-year lease at the condo after the Royals traded Greinke to the Brewers. So the onetime Kansas City right-hander will have to settle for keeping an eye on his former residence on the Plaza from his hotel room window.

The rest of his visit won't be so strange, Greinke insisted, even though he's returning to the place his Major League career began, where he briefly walked away from baseball only to return to win the 2009 American League Cy Young Award, where he became a star.

"I've thought about it," Greinke said. "I don't think it will be much different. The biggest difference will be being in the visitors' dugout, warming up in the visitors' bullpen. I've never thrown in the visitors' bullpen there. That will be strange."

Not as strange as he thinks, however. Greinke probably hasn't heard that after he left Kansas City, the Royals switched bullpen locations with the visiting team, so actually, on Tuesday night, he'll be warming up in the same 'pen he used in his Royals days.

If these sound like small adjustments, consider the extent to which Greinke relies on routine. Asked the other day about his remarkable success at Miller Park over the past year-plus, versus his relative struggles on the road, Greinke cited a variety of factors -- including the fact that hotels sometimes have bad coffee.

At least Greinke will know where to go for a cup of joe if that proves to be an issue this week.

Greinke was the Royals' first-round Draft pick in 2002, and he pitched for parts of seven seasons in Kansas City. Social anxiety nearly made him give up the game in 2006, but he returned as a reliever, made it back to the rotation, and in 2009 was the best starter in baseball, logging a 2.16 ERA and 242 strikeouts in 33 nearly perfect starts. Greinke won the AL Cy Young Award in a landslide.

The following December, the Royals traded Greinke -- who had two years left on his contract -- to the Brewers, who gave up their young starting shortstop (Alcides Escobar), a young center fielder (Lorenzo Cain) and two top-flight pitching prospects (Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi) to get Greinke and free-swinging shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt.

"I don't think I've been back since then," Greinke said. "It will be nice to see the city, and the fans were always really good to me. I don't know how they'll be when I go back, but while I was there, they were great to me. I could never say anything bad about them -- ever."

What about the franchise itself?

"It was all right," Greinke said.

Changing of the guard

Most of his former teammates are gone, Greinke noted, though his wife, Emily, remains close with some of the Royals' families.

Royals left fielder Alex Gordon has fond memories of the Greinke days.

"I was definitely sad to see him leave; I kind of wish he would've stayed here, but it wasn't working out for him, he didn't want to be here," Gordon said. "He seems to be happy where he's at now, and it's seemed to work out for both sides."

True enough. Escobar has played superb defensively at shortstop and has revved up his hitting this year. Cain began the season as the Royals' starting center fielder, but has been out with injuries. Odorizzi has zoomed through the system and is flourishing at Triple-A Omaha, knocking on the door to make it up to Kansas City. Jeffress is relieving for Omaha, hoping for another callup. And, oddly, Betancourt is back with the Royals, signed as a free agent after the Brewers cut him loose.

Zack has been Zack -- 23-8 and a 3.62 ERA in 40 starts in his two seasons with Milwaukee.

"I never faced him, I know he's a really good pitcher," Escobar said. "He won the Cy Young and then got traded to Milwaukee and I came here -- and I'm happy with the situation. It's been really good for him and for me, too. It's good for both teams."

What Greinke's ex-teammates remember most is his Cy Young pitching in 2009.

"It didn't matter what part of the season we were in, the stands were packed. It was electric in that stadium," outfielder Mitch Maier said. "You knew when he was pitching that year, you just needed a couple runs, because Zack was going to take care of the rest. That was a very special year and it was a lot of fun to play behind him, because you knew every fifth day when he was out there, you were going to win."

Gordon missed part of 2009 because of hip surgery, but marveled at Greinke's mastery from the sidelines.

"And then later in the year, I got to go out and play third, but I never got a ground ball because he was either striking 'em out or doing something -- it was really remarkable what he did that year," Gordon said. "That year was probably something that I'll remember forever."

What Gordon also recalls is that Greinke always was forthright in expressing himself.

"He's a guy that's always going to tell you the truth and be honest, so some people take that in a bad way," Gordon said. "I always took it and laughed at it. That's how it is -- he's going to tell you what he thinks and he's going to be honest with you. Some people might not like it, but it's Zack."

Maier concurred -- Greinke never was afraid to say what he thought.

"You've got to respect it; he'd never sugarcoat anything for you. If he had an opinion on a certain subject, he wasn't going to change what he believed in just based on what other people may have perceived as something different, or right or wrong," Maier said. "You've got to admire that about people."

Royals slugger Billy Butler, who competed against Greinke in their Florida high school days and later became his big league teammate, has great respect for Greinke's ability.

"He got to go to the playoffs last year with Milwaukee, and it was good for him," Butler said. "He's a free agent at the end of the year, and he pretty much gets to choose where he wants to go, and he's one of the best pitchers in the game."

This season, Greinke is 7-2 with a 3.13 ERA.

"I know he's had a great year so far this year. He's pitched real well and it'll be a fun game, it'll be competitive," Butler said. "The way we're playing, we're a lot better than we were in the past, and maybe he'll see that, too -- he'll see how much better we are now than we were."

Back on familiar turf

One of Greinke's new teammates, Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez, already went through his homecoming this year. He played parts of nine seasons with the Cubs before signing a free-agent deal in December with Milwaukee.

The Brewers' first 2012 road games were at Wrigley Field.

"It's going to be weird for him, because he was drafted by the Royals and played there for so long," Ramirez said. "I'm sure it's going to feel a little different, but for me, once the game starts, it's over. I saw the Cubs like any other team."

Ramirez was unsure going into that series at Wrigley how the crowd would receive him. He left after the Cubs made clear they wouldn't try to re-sign him.

In the end, Cubs fans cheered Ramirez's return.

"That means they appreciated what I did for a long time there," Ramirez said. "I don't know what kind of reaction Greinke is going to get. It's not like he left. He got traded. He can't control that."

Much has been made of the contrast in Greinke's home-away splits for the Brewers; he's 15-0 at Miller Park but just 8-8 on the road. But of course, he'll be at his old home on Tuesday night -- the mound at Kauffman Stadium.

"I think it will feel good," Greinke said. "It will be normal pitching once you're out there. [The Royals] have a good offense, at least, so it will be a good challenge."

For both sides.

"I don't care what he is on the road, he's still going to be tough," Butler said.

Milwaukee Brewers, Alcides Escobar, Alex Gordon, Zack Greinke, Aramis Ramirez