PHOENIX -- At this point, I suppose that I am the North American Dean of Greinkeologists. It's weird. But it's true; I've been writing about Zack Greinke since more or less the beginning, since before he pitched his first big league game. And if there is one thing I've picked up over all these years it is that every Greinke encounter, even the most frustratingly unproductive one, still gives you just a little insight into baseball's most curious player.
Take Sunday, for example. Greinke appeared at a brief press conference to offer some thoughts about starting Arizona's win-or-exit Game 3 tonight against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile. Well, to be technical, he appeared because he was compelled to appear. And he didn't offer many thoughts.
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On facing a patient lineup like the Dodgers': "I feel like you guys are trying to get all my game-plan tips before the game."
On how his personality sets him up for a pressure-packed game like this one: "I don't know."
On if he has a different approach coming into this game: "I don't know."
Then there was my favorite; a reporter mentioned to him that Arizona manager Torey Lovullo, star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and others in the D-backs' locker room had expressed their confidence in Greinke, saying that he was the absolute best guy to be starting an elimination game like this one. Her question was basically: "How does it make you feel to have your teammates show so much confidence in you?"
It was the gimme question of the day, of the month, of the year. … Anyone in that situation, and I mean ANYONE, would instinctively say something like, "Well, obviously it's great that they believe in me. That's the kind of family we have built here. I believe in them." Stuff like that.
Not Zack Greinke.
"First I've heard of it," he said. "So I haven't had time to think about any of it. So it's tough for me to answer something off the top of my head, like, without giving it some thought."
Still, as mentioned, experienced Greinkeologists know that even in situations like this, if you listen carefully, Greinke will inadvertently give away some small secret about his extraordinary pitching success. In the last week or so, my second-favorite Greinke story made the social-media rounds -- when Kansas City's Alex Gordon was going through a severe slump, Greinke called him into the video room to show him something. Greinke's talents for breaking down pitches is legendary, and Gordon was excited to see what Greinke had found.
Instead, Gordon found himself watching video of … the time Greinke hit a home run.
"Do more of that," Greinke said as advice.
That story, along with my favorite Greinke story, begins to explain (just a little) how Greinke's mind words.
My favorite story: When Greinke was in just his second full season, he was teammates with the delightful reliever Jeremy Affeldt. In one game, Affeldt gave up a home run. As he came back to the dugout, Affeldt was raging at himself and he said aloud, "It wasn't even that bad a pitch."
"Yeah it was," Greinke blurted out.
Greinke was just 21 and in the midst of an impossibly bad season -- he would finish that year 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA. But he still did not hesitate to tell Affeldt it was a bad pitch.
"Thanks, Zack," Affeldt said sarcastically.
"No, really, I went back and looked at it on video," Greinke said. "It was a fat pitch."
"Thanks, Zack," Affeldt repeated.
"Right down the middle," Greinke said. "I could have hit it out."
"All right," Affeldt said. "I got it."
To which Greinke looked puzzled and said, "Did I say something wrong?"
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Both of these stories, in addition to being funny, tell of a guy who does not overcomplicate things. Greinke's genius for pitching is real; when you talk to some of the brightest pitching minds around, guys like the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and Brandon McCarthy or Red Sox assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister, they will tell you that Greinke just has a feel for pitching -- for what works, for what doesn't -- that just transcends that of mere mortals.
He gets it, and this is why, through age 33, he is rapidly building a Hall of Fame resume. Greinke has a Cy Young Award, more than 2,200 strikeouts, and 56.9 wins above replacement, which is already more than 20 or so Hall of Fame starters. This season, with a fastball averaging about 91 mph (down three or four mph from his Cy Young days), he had one of his best seasons, winning 17 with a 3.20 ERA and 215 strikeouts.
"Zack is as good at attacking a game plan and executing it properly as any pitcher that I've ever been around," Lovullo said.
So what did Greinke say on Sunday to offer a bit more insight? Well, he was asked a basic question about what went wrong in the fourth inning in the Wild Card Game against Colorado; Greinke was cruising for three innings and then in the fourth, he gave up five hits and four runs and was taken out of the game.
Normally, Greinke would bat that kind of question down easily, but for some reason he decided to take us inside that inning. He went batter by batter:
Carlos Gonzalez lined a single: "I missed my spot by a couple of inches and he hit it pretty good."
Nolan Arenado hit into a fielder's choice: "It was too soft to turn a double play."
Trevor Story hit a ground ball single up the middle. "He didn't hit the ball that good, but it was in a good spot, and he got a hit."
Gerardo Parra did the same, a ground ball up the middle that got through for a single. "He kind of did exactly what I wanted, and it was just a couple of feet away from an ideal spot, and he got a hit."
The ideal spot, I assume, means it was almost a double play.
Mark Reynolds grounded out to first, scoring a run. "Got Mark Reynolds to do exactly what I wanted, so up to then it was everything I wanted," he says.
Then came Jonathan Lucroy, Greinke's former catcher in Milwaukee, and as Greinke said: "He hit me good every time I've ever face him." Lucroy is an amazing 8-for-12 against Greinke with a double, a triple and just one strikeout. So, yeah, Lucroy crushed a double, and Greinke said he just got beat on that pitch.
Finally Alexi Amarista hit a line-drive single to close the scoring and send Greinke to the showers. "Made a mistake on that first pitch curveball to Amarista," Greinke said.
So, what do you take from that? One, you begin to understand the uncommon memory of Greinke -- he remembered every pitch of that sequence, never pausing or hesitating or saying something like, "OK, wait, who came up next?" His memory for pitching is astounding.
But more, you can take away that Greinke just doesn't overcomplicate things. For him, nothing happens on a baseball field that defies explanation. Nothing happens for all those vague reasons that we sportswriters love -- nerves, rising to the moment, the passion of the home crowd, whatever. Miss your spot by a couple of inches, the pitch will get hit. Make a mistake in the pitch sequence, the pitch will get hit. Even when you get what you want as a pitcher, the ball will sometimes slip through.
His mind just naturally strips away the excess. It seems to give him a clarity of thought on the mound that is rare. Monday night, he pitches for the D-backs' season, and everyone on the team is counting on him, and the Dodgers seem to be peaking again … and none of that will likely enter the mind of Greinke.
Here's one more Greinke story. In Spring Training 2004, he had a nice outing -- pitched 3 2/3 innings and allowed one hit. This came after several poor outings, including one in which he gave up seven runs.
"Was this the best you felt?" Greinke was asked after the good outing.
"No," Greinke said. "The best I felt was when I gave up seven runs."
Everyone laughed, but Greinke was serious. When the laughter died down, someone asked Greinke why he felt better during THAT game? Greinke thought hard about how to put it.
"Because," he finally said, "I felt really good."