By Bo Allegrucci
KANSAS CITY--Zack Greinke made his final home start of the 2009 season Sunday at Kauffman Stadium, and it has been quite some time since sports fans in Kansas City have rallied around a cause like this.
The Chiefs have made just two playoff appearances in the last decade (and lost in the first round both times), while the Royals have just two winning seasons in the last 17. There are no NBA or NHL teams for the small-market Kansas Citian to pass the rest of his or her time with.
The Royals are a different team with Greinke on the mound, and likewise their fans are a different faction whenever Greinke is the scheduled starter. 28,721 fans -- the first 10,000 of whom received Greinke for Cy Young T-shirts to commemorate the occasion -- filled a stadium that averages just over 16k for Greinke-less home games. With the heat index and the four-seam fastballs well into the 90's, Kansas City's ace of diamonds treated his following to one last Cy Young-quality start before heading to Minneapolis for his final 2009 appearance Friday against the same Minnesota Twins he stumped Sunday.
Greinke allowed seven hits and one earned run while striking out eight in seven innings Sunday, and he needs just nine strikeouts on the road Friday to break Dennis Leonard's franchise record of 245 K's in a single season. The question now is, what else must Greinke do to win an American League Cy Young Award he has already earned? I would say 'already deserves', but as Clint Eastwood pointed out in the movie Unforgiven, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it...", and the argument can be made that a few other American League aces "deserve" the Cy Young too.
Grienke is now 16-8 with a league-leading 2.06 ERA in his 32 starts, and that's with an otherwise terrible team going to bat for him and playing defense behind him. 30 of his 32 starts have been "quality starts", and his ERA in eight no-decisions (3.17) is lower than C.C. Sabathia's overall (3.21). Grienke is in the top five in every American League pitching category that matters, and in most cases, the top three.
On Sunday, Grienke's poise, maturity and focus were as self-evident as his fastball, slider and curve. After working around an Orlando Cabrera double in the first and a Delmon Young single in the second, the Royal ace made a miraculous escape in the top of the third. Greinke issued a leadoff walk to Matt Tolbert, and five pitches later, the Twins had the bases loaded and no outs after Nick Punto's dribbly infield single and Denard Span's fluttering blooper into shallow left.
With Minnesota's 2-3-4 hitters due up and a Cy Young campaign with no margin for error hanging in the balance, many major league pitchers might lose their cool. Greinke simply dialed up the heat.
After Cabrera grounded Tolbert into a force play at the plate, Joe Mauer stepped into the left-handed batter's box with one out and the bases still loaded. This is the same Joe Mauer who will win his third batting title in four years and probably his first MVP award at season's end, and he was the DH Sunday in the Twins' 3-hole, meaning he was free to face Greinke without the physical labors of catching on a muggy Midwestern day.
Greinke, whose fastball was between 94 and 96 mph to the rest of the Minnesota lineup, gassed Mauer up with a pair of 98 mph heaters and then K'd him for the second time in as many at-bats with a ferocious 91 mph slider down and in. Mauer was left shaking his head on the way back to the dugout, but he would stroke a sixth-inning single off Greinke in their final confrontation of the day. If nothing else, the Twins' all-star catcher can take comfort in one particular stat: the 2009 American League all-stars are now batting 24-for-122 (.197) against Grienke this season with 49 strikeouts.
That little nugget of knowledge should go a long way towards silencing the critics who say Greinke hasn't faced the American League contenders enough this season to validates his statistical dominance. We'll discuss that in more detail after his final start Friday against the pennant-chasing Twins in Minnesota, but now back to Sunday:
With Justin Morneau out for the season, Twins right fielder Jason Kubel followed Mauer in the top of the third with the bases still loaded and two outs. Greinke cut Kubel some slack with a pair of 97 mph fastballs and an inning-ending 89 mph slider. The long-starving Kansas City crowd exploded as Kubel slammed his bat down and constructively criticized homeplate umpire Mike Reilly as if he had thrown the pitch himself or triggered Kubel's bat hopelessly through the hitting zone.
Greinke had already been blessed with a rare 3-0 lead before his Houdini act in the top of the third, and the Twins were never a threat after that. Minnesota starter Fancisco Liriano -- once the next big thing in the American League before Zack Grienke and before Tommy John surgery in 2007 -- lasted just an inning and two-thirds. Twins pitching walked eight Royals on the afternoon, and Liriano allowed three hits, three walks and three earned runs on an embarrassing 3-run homer by Yuniesky Betancourt in the bottom of the second.
Alberto Callaspo doubled leading off the bottom of the second and Miguel Olivo walked before Mark Teahen's sacrifice bunt put runners on second and third with one out. Betancourt -- who was batting just .243 with four homers in 66 games with Kansas City this year -- found a belt-high fastball he liked and dropped it into the back of the Twins' bullpen in straightaway left.
Betancourt finished the day 3-for-3 and scored on a passed ball in the bottom of the fourth to put the Royals up 4-0.
With Greinke on the mound, it might as well have been 14-0, but the crowd let out a collective grown when Cabrera singled leading off the sixth and scored an earned run on Michael Cuddyer's groundout. Greinke had a shot to finish the season with an ERA under 2 if he zeroed Minnesota in these last two starts, and the crowd's disappointment probably comes from the assumption Greinke couldn't help but win the Cy Young if he posted the first sub-2-ERA season in the majors since Roger Clemens went 1.87 in 2005.
Cabrera would finish the afternoon 3-for-5 at the plate, but Greinke said goodbye to the hometown crowd (and Cabrera) one last time in the top of the seventh with another strike three at 98 mph on his last pitch of the day.
My buddy Bryan, once a college pitcher himself, went to the game with me, but we were not among the first 10,000 fans who received free T-shirts. When we asked to see the shirt of a generous soul in front of us, he inexplicably offered the shirt to us for nothing in exchange. I refused the gift, but Bryan accepted, and moments later, I found one of those same free T-shirts in question laying on the ground beneath the seats over my left shoulder. No one in the immediate area claimed it, so I took as my own.
It was the end of another well executed day in which we avoided game-time traffic thanks to the Royals' mediocrity and the fact the stadium was still only two-thirds full for a Greinke start, then parked for free at the hotel across I-70 and walked to the right field entrance, where we claimed our tickets and made it to the Royals' bullpen in time for Greinke's pregame warm-up.
Meanwhile the Twins, a division rival and small-market success story the Royals should be trying to emulate, are busy chasing the Detroit Tigers down from behind in the AL Central. A four-game set in Detroit this week is all the opportunity the Twins need to settle the score, but facing Zack Greunke twice in the final week of the season won't help Minnesota's cause.
This article's photos, designed as a slideshow, chronicle the final home start of what should be a Cy Young season. Kansas City certainly wants -- and needs -- it to be, and Major League Baseball does too, whether they realize it or not.