LOS ANGELES – Zack Greinke had a huge day. Not only did he keep the Dodgers in the postseason derby by pitching out of big jams and beating the Cardinals 6-4 on an afternoon he had far from his best stuff, but he also found time to squeeze in a blockbuster fantasy trade, sending Tony Romo and a package of others in a deal for Drew Brees.
The key to helping keep the Dodgers alive, he said, was that he has a bet with a teammate he won't be in last place in the Dodgers clubhouse fantasy league when the Dodgers' own season ends. Currently, he is tied for last.
“I got a $10 bet on it,” Greinke said.
He waited a few seconds before assessing the meaning of that bet to him, maker of $147 million through 2018.
There were all these questions, doubts even, about whether Greinke was equipped to pitch in big markets or even big games when he first hit the trading block after telling the small-market Kansas City Royals he was tired of all the losing and wanted out. Folks knew he was quirky.
They understood he was reputed to be an introvert. They read he was on meds to stay calm. So they made assumptions.
The reality is, there's nothing wrong with Grienke beyond his bad fantasy team. He's acclimated easily into a $220-million Dodgers clubhouse that's full of personalities, different types and difference makers. He is all of the above.
Yankees brass interviewed him in Orlando at a winter meeting when he was on the block a few years back. Greinke tried to convince them he could pitch in the Big Apple. Greinke was on his home turf in central Florida, too.
Yet, Yankees people came away with the impressions he wasn't a good fit for New York. And they were far from alone.
Greinke, habitually honest, admitted to having nerves before his vital Game 5 start here. But he's no different than anyone else on that score. He's only more likely to reveal it.
Turns out, he can handle big games, big markets, and especially big spots. He pitched out of a bases-loaded, no-out first-inning jam without allowing a run, he twice got MVP candidate Yadier Molina to ground into double plays and he navigated “the most professional hitting team in baseball,” in the words of battery-mate A.J. Ellis, four days after facing the very same lineup nonetheless.
Turns out, his only obvious weakness is his absolute inability to run a team, fantasy or otherwise. He analyzes everything to death. “A processor,” pitching coach Rick Honeycutt calls him.
This works for pitching adjustments, where he'll take direction, like Honeycutt's suggestion not to over-rotate his shoulder after coming back from his one really bad moment of his first season in L.A. – yes, that brief fight with burly Padre Carlos Quentin, who won in a TKO when Greinke held his ground, and worse, leaned into the charging slugger and former linebacker, earning himself several weeks off.
Beyond Greinke's smarts (that moment of foolishness notwithstanding), his amazing athletic ability and crazed competitive spirit also contribute to make him one of the best pitchers this side of Clayton Kershaw. These two guys are good for each other, each pushing the other (though Greinke, honestly, admitted, “I don't try to compete with him because I don't think it's possible to.”)
Kershaw's presence also allowed Greinke to be the highest paid second fiddle in the history of all sorts of fiddles, at $147-million over six years (with an opt out). “Clayton can wear the big hat, and Zack can fly under the radar a little bit,” Ellis said.
There isn't much that's under-the-radar in L.A. even if it has a mellow rep that's as undeserved as Greinke's own former rep. Manager Don Mattingly, who'll be returning as Dodgers manager despite a city of second guessers, can tell you it's a tougher town than anyone thinks.
The only idiosyncrasy Mattingly noticed with Greinke is that twice he wouldn't come out for introductions (“I don't know what that's all about,” Mattingly said).
The postseason brings more media, more attention. Greinke prefers we're not there. How do we know that? Of course he tells us.
“I think the biggest difference is there are more people. I mean, this room is full and the clubhouse is full of media. I mean, it's crazy,'' Greinke said. “The biggest difference is just all the people and having to get used to it and find a way that is comfortable dealing with all the extra people around. Ideally, there would be less people around, but that's just not the case. It's not my favorite having it, but if it was like this the whole year, I don't know. It might be a little tough.”
All of us don't seem to be a hindrance to his performance, anyway. Without the good stuff, he lasted seven innings, allowing six hits and one walk while striking out four and leaving with a 5-2 lead. He got Molina to ground into double plays in the first and two-run third innings, with the first started by the resurrected third baseman Juan Uribe and the second by Greinke himself.
Everyone in that Dodgers clubhouse remarks that the two things that surprised them most about Greinke are how competitive he is and what a great athlete he is. In the regular season, he batted higher than all but four players with at least 50 plate appearances: Miguel Cabrera, teammate Hanley Ramirez, Josmil Pinto and Michael Cuddyer. In Game 5 he singled to knock home a run off 99-mph thrower Joe Kelly, saying his strategy was “not to strike out,” a revealingly low bar for someone who batted .328 over the season.
There's nothing Greinke can't do, it seems, except run a fantasy team. About Greinke's fantasy team, Ellis said, “They stink.”
Ellis said the issue with Greinke's team is that he seems to enjoy the process of making trades more than actual game matchups, and he winds up just churning players through his team. “We call him Trader Joe,” Ellis said.
One time, Greinke even suggested he'd like to trade one of his teammates. When the team was struggling early in the season Ellis asked Greinke what he'd do to make it better. Ellis figured he'd get an honest answer.
But maybe he wasn't expecting it to be quite as honest as it was. Greinke thought about his answer awhile, and eventually he told Ellis he'd trade him, and replace him with Brian McCann. He also told Ellis he figured he might be able to get a “Double-A prospect” for him.
A few months later, after Ellis started heating up with the bat, Greinke amended his deal.
“I think we could get more for you,” Greinke told him. “For you, maybe we could get a lefthanded specialist, too.”