KANSAS CITY -- Highlights from Zack Greinke’s Royals career flashed across the Crown Vision scoreboard as he took the mound Sunday afternoon. Scenes from his rookie season in 2004. Strikeouts from his 2009 American League Cy Young Award year, when he posted a 2.16 ERA for the Royals. Even his first Major League home run was highlighted.
The video finished with the past two seasons, his 19th and 20th in the big leagues, as he returned to Kansas City. He has been a much different pitcher than the first time he donned a Royals uniform.
But on Sunday, he turned in a vintage performance in the Royals’ 5-2 win over the Yankees at Kauffman Stadium in the season finale, tossing five-plus innings and allowing one run on four hits and two walks with two strikeouts.
“He’s one of the hardest workers,” said shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., who finished one stolen base shy of a 30-homer, 50-steal season. “It shows why he’s going to be a Hall of Famer.”
It was Greinke’s second win this season and his first since May 3 at home against the Orioles. The Royals finished the 2023 season 56-106, which tied the ‘05 club for the worst record in franchise history, and plenty of questions remain about the team moving into what figures to be a busy offseason.
But Sunday was Greinke Day, and it was all about the 39-year-old. It’s not known if the free agent-to-be will retire -- he said “I don’t know yet” and declined further comment about his future -- but Sunday might have been his last start as a Royal.
If so, Kansas City honored him the right way.
Greinke headed to the mound for the top of the sixth inning to face one more batter. He walked DJ LeMahieu, leading to a pitching change. As Greinke walked off the mound, the crowd at The K gave him a standing ovation, and he waved to all different parts of the stadium in acknowledgement.
“Chills the whole time,” Witt said.
Then Greinke got a curtain call, and he obliged, stepping out from the dugout to wave one more time at the crowd of 20,662.
Greinke pocketed the ball that put him in line for the win, and then he went to the side of the dugout to see his sons and wife, Emily.
“It was nice,” Greinke said with a small grin. “There were a lot of people here today, so that was good.”
Greinke finished 2023 with a 2-15 record and a 5.06 ERA. It hasn’t been the easiest year as he has dealt with injuries and fatigue, but he has been a constant veteran presence in a young Royals clubhouse.
“I’m kind of running out of ways to describe him other than the ultimate competitor, the ultimate team guy,” manager Matt Quatraro said. “He was preparing for that start today as if it was his first career start. Anywhere along the way this year, the preparation was the same. … To me, that’s remarkable.
“For as many games as he’s pitched, as many things he has under his belt, that’s the kind of example that the other guys can follow.”
Greinke’s 225 career wins rank second among active pitchers to Justin Verlander’s 257 and 68th all time. His 541 starts rank 33rd all time, while his 3,389 1/3 innings rank 84th. He has racked up 2,979 strikeouts – only 21 away from becoming the 20th pitcher ever with 3,000. Perhaps that’s enough to bring him back to baseball for another year.
But if this is it, he’ll go down as one of the best pitchers of this generation. Drafted No. 6 overall by the Royals in 2002, Greinke made his debut just two years later as a 20-year-old. Over 20 years, he has reinvented himself, but still with plenty of success.
He won the 2009 Cy Young Award but was traded in December 2010 to the Brewers after he expressed an unwillingness to remain in Kansas City. In return, the Royals got Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi, and they later sent Odorizzi in a package to the Rays for Wade Davis and James Shields. Cain, Escobar and Davis were key parts of the Royals’ World Series-winning team in ‘15.
Meanwhile, Greinke went on to pitch for the Brewers, Angels and Dodgers, where he went 19-3 in 2015 with a Major League-leading 1.66 ERA. After signing a six-year contract with the D-backs and then being traded to the Astros in ‘19, Greinke became a free agent after the ‘21 season.
That’s when he returned to where he started.
Greinke signed a one-year contract with the Royals for the 2022 season and again for ‘23. He didn’t have to come back to Kansas City, a team in the middle of a rebuild, but he was adamant about doing so.
Aside from winning, his time with the Royals has been what Greinke had hoped.
“It’s been perfect for me and the family,” Greinke said. “There are so many positives about it. The winning has been not a positive, but maybe everything else has been great. … There have been a lot of guys who have taken some positive steps. And [the team] is in a better place than it was at this point last year. There still has to be some guys getting better and some improvements being made.”