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Friday, April 5, 2013
The many grades of Zack Greinke

By Mark Saxon

LOS ANGELES -- Zack Greinke threw a 95-mph fastball to Starling Marte and a 73-mph curveball to Jonathan Sanchez.

That's an impressive spread -- a 22-mph difference -- between his fastest and his slowest pitch of the night. But what sets Greinke apart is how he finds ways to hit virtually every number in between.

Zack Greinke
When Zack Greinke is on -- as he was Friday night in his Dodgers debut -- he has as many as seven pitches that opposing hitters must keep track of.
There was the 83-mph changeup to Neil Walker, the 79-mph slider to Clint Barmes and the 87-mph cutter to Travis Snider, not to mention his fastball that ranged from 88 to 95 mph.

Facing Greinke is like exiting the freeway directly into a school zone, then accelerating back onto the autobahn. It's full of screeches and jammed brakes, checked swings and awkward lunges. When he's on, as he was in the Los Angeles Dodgers' 3-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday at Dodger Stadium, it can be a thing to behold, like a cat toying with nine mice, one after the next.

"He was pretty amazing, really. He was like Felix Hernandez," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "I've seen both those guys pitch since they were like 19. Both of them had great command early, great touch with their off-speed early and you just don't see that very often."

Greinke doesn't just throw a slider and a curveball, but a variation of each. Add that to a fastball, cutter and changeup and you've got an array of, essentially, seven pitches. If you're a hitter, you run out of fingers trying to keep track of them all.

When the Dodgers gave Greinke $147 million for six years back in December, there were plenty of people who thought it was a reach, another example of the Dodgers paying above-market prices. His best ERA since his 2009 Cy Young season was a 3.48 last season. He is, to put it kindly, unproven in the postseason.

His spring wasn't entirely encouraging either, mostly because it was interrupted midway by some inflammation to his right elbow, a development that sent ripples of worry through Dodgers fandom.

But nobody criticized the deal because Greinke can't pitch. We found out a little something more about him Friday, that he's apparently immune to the pressure of his record-breaking contract. He said he didn't feel any more jittery before Friday's start, in front of more than 40,000 at Dodger Stadium, than he would have in Kansas City or Milwaukee in July or August.

"Calmer, I guess," he said. "Pitching each year, you get more experience, I guess. It felt natural out there."

That could bode well for a season of elevated expectations around the Dodgers. If their first starts are any indication, Greinke and Clayton Kershaw could make the Dodgers practically slump-proof.

When Greinke walked off the field in the seventh inning, having held the Pirates to two hits and no runs, he didn't flinch at the crowd's standing ovation, neither tipping his cap nor looking up before jogging down the dugout steps.

"I guess I was blocking it out then," Greinke said. "I didn't know it was that good."