Monday, August 15, 2011
Greinke's surge reminds of CC, Sutcliffe
By Steve Berthiaume
Zack Greinke is delivering right on schedule in Milwaukee. The Brewers already had offensive firepower and GM Doug Melvin has added the bullpen pieces that will get critical outs late in important games. But Greinke's acquisition in the offseason was the key addition, and now it's his time to deliver in big games, a facet life with the Royals never permitted. He's Bud Fox walking into Gordon Gekko's office, pitching like the dominant ace who arrives with win after win as September becomes October.
In 1984, it worked in Chicago. Rick Sutcliffe had been scuffling with the Indians when he was dealt to the Cubs on June 13 of that season. Sutcliffe went a remarkable 16-1 with a 2.69 ERA the rest of the year, won the NL Cy Young Award and brought the Cubs to within one game of the World Series. Like Sutcliffe, Greinke is the guy expected to lead the rotation.
"I've been that guy," Sutcliffe told me. "I was a guy in Cleveland that was 4-5, and what people don't know was, I was pitching my ass off. I mean, we were a bad team and we were playing against Boston and New York and teams that were better than us and just to be close to .500 was about all I could do. Now all of a sudden, I go over and I've got Gary Matthews and Jody Davis and Ryne Sandberg. Well, that's what's happened to Greinke. All of a sudden, now he gives up three runs in the first inning and he goes back out in the top of the second up 5-3. That's the feeling you get. You don't go out there feeling like every mistake you make is going to cost you the ballgame. You realize you've got a lot of help."
Greinke seems to have arrived at that realization. Acquired in December from his a stagnant existence in Kansas City, Greinke was, in a sense, brought in after the start of the season. He broke a rib in a pick-up basketball game and didn't make his Brewers debut until May 4. He went 6-0 in seven starts from May 9 to June 11 but wasn't dominant, allowing 44 hits in 44 innings over that span with a 4.30 ERA. Run support, precisely what had always been missing with the Royals, was quickly evident: the Brewers scored at least five runs in six of those seven starts and Milwaukee won all seven games. "It's a lot easier to go out there and succeed now than it was for him in Kansas City," Sutcliffe said. "What I see is a shutdown-type guy."
Greinke has been exactly that lately, going 4-1 with a 1.75 ERA in his past seven starts. He's allowed just 36 hits over 46.1 innings with 54 strikeouts and the Brewers are 6-1 in those games. Overall, he's blowing opposing hitters away with 143 strikeouts against just 26 walks. In Friday's win over the Pirates, Greinke induced 20 swings and misses, tying the most he's had in any start in the past three seasons. His curveball, which Greinke noted after the game was as good as it's been, produced seven missed swings; the most for him on that pitch in three seasons. Greinke moved his fastball inside and outside equally, increased his curveball frequency from a season average of 14 percent up to 26 percent and is again showing the form with which he won the 2009 AL Cy Young -- only this time, on a team with postseason aspirations.
It's worked before in Milwaukee, of course.
Like Greinke, CC Sabathia was a former Cy Young winner on a team going nowhere in 2008. Like Sutcliffe, Sabathia was watching things go south in Cleveland, where he was 6-8, 3.83. Traded to the Brewers in July, Sabathia was spectacular, going 11-2, 1.65 with seven complete games in 17 starts. The Brewers won 14 of those starts and went to the postseason for the first time since 1982. Can Greinke dominate down the stretch in Milwaukee, as Sabathia did three seasons ago?
"This is untested waters right now with Greinke as far as the pressure of a game that actually matters late in the season," Sutcliffe said. "You say you pitched in big games? Yeah, you go to Fenway or Yankee Stadium -- it's a big game. But a lot of times, that's in April or May or June; you don't have 200 innings in your arm. What's he going to be like with 200 innings in his arm? Even though he missed the first month of the season, he's going to have a lot of innings and to have those pressure games, where you're going to go out there at times where you don't have your best stuff -- and you've got to realize that you can't pitch like you have your best stuff. Sabathia learned that -- he put a lot of time in improving that changeup. Greinke's going to have to do the same thing."
Greinke has pitched at least 200 innings in each of the past three seasons. He turns 28 years old in October, the same age at which Sutcliffe won the Cy Young in 1984 and Sabathia led the Brewers to the postseason in 2008. He's 8-0 in 10 starts at Miller Park this season. Milwaukee is 44-15 at home and a win over the Dodgers Monday will make the Brewers the first team to win at least 45 of its first 60 home games since the Yankees and Padres both did it in 1998.
Those two teams met in the World Series that year.
Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.