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This year sighs, not Cy, for Greinke

Zack Greinke, who was 8-1 at this time a year ago, allowed just one run to the Red Sox last night, yet still fell to 1-6 on the season. Zack Greinke, who was 8-1 at this time a year ago, allowed just one run to the Red Sox last night, yet still fell to 1-6 on the season. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Nick Cafardo
May 30, 2010

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He sat in his chair in a blue Royals hoodie, explaining the night and the season in a soft tone that oozed frustration, but more team frustration than any personal plight.

At this time a year ago, Zack Greinke was 8-1 and on his way to the American League Cy Young Award. After last night’s 1-0 loss to the Red Sox, he is 1-6, though his ERA is a respectable 3.39. The Royals, baseball’s No. 2 hitting team (.280), simply don’t support Greinke. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why, but they have produced two or fewer runs in six of his 11 starts. And that will get you a lot of losses and no-decisions.

Greinke was baseball’s best human interest story last season, when the talented righthander overcame emotional issues that nearly ended his career to become one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. He went 16-8 with a 2.16 ERA in 33 starts with 242 strikeouts, second most in the AL, and captured 25 of 28 first-place votes to win the Cy Young.

This year, not so much.

“Just trying to go deep in games and keep the game close,’’ said Greinke, when asked about pitching better than his record. “Usually it works out . . . and it would be nice because if we win half those, we’d be a lot closer to .500 and a better team, so that would be the nice thing. If we’d won half those starts . . . but since we’re losing those games it puts us behind. It makes it harder.’’

Manager Ned Yost dismissed the notion that the Royals press when Greinke pitches. In fact, Yost said his team ran into one of the AL’s best pitchers in Clay Buchholz, and that, not anything to do with Greinke, was the reason for last night’s loss. Yet, when you’re 1-6 and you shouldn’t be that bad, it has to cross your mind that you’re better than this. Frustration has to set in.

Not so, said Yost.

“He’s about as balanced a guy as I’ve seen,’’ said the manager. “That stuff doesn’t bother him. His focus is on what his task is today. That stuff has no effect on him at all as far as I’ve seen.’’

Pitching at Fenway for the first time in his career, there seemed to be no fear factor in baseball’s smallest park. The Red Sox had chances to break this game open, but were 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position, a sign that when crunch time comes, Greinke can do the job.

The game’s only run came in the second when Greinke allowed a single to Adrian Beltre and a double to J.D. Drew to start the inning. Mike Lowell got the run home with a ground out to second base. The Sox got two runners on to lead off the third, one as the result of an error by shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, but Greinke struck out David Ortiz for the first out and Beltre for the third to wiggle out of the jam.

Greinke had to work hard, and by the end of the sixth inning he’d thrown 115 pitches, and that was more than enough. The outing was a good comeback from his previous game, when he was battered for nine hits and seven earned runs in 3 1/3 innings in an 11-7 loss to Colorado. It marked the only time this season he had fizzled.

Greinke believes the biggest difference between last season and this is the lack of effectiveness with his slider.

“I used to get six outs a game with the slider last year and now it’s one or two a game,’’ he said. “Don’t really know why it’s not working. If it’s right, you can tell the person it’s coming and it still works. It’s a good pitch even if they’ve seen it a million times. So obviously there’s something wrong with it. I can’t throw it any harder between starts or my arm will fall off, so hopefully it’ll just come.’’

Greinke is 0-4 in six road appearances, but with an ERA of just 2.48. He’s 1-4 against the Red Sox, but with a 2.88 ERA. Sense a pattern? On Friday night, the Royals pounded out 20 hits and scored 12 runs; last night they scratched out five hits and scored none.

“It has a lot to do with pitching, too,’’ Greinke said. “Clay’s been pitching good. If you pitch good, no matter how you’re swinging the bat you’re going to win more than if you’re [just] hitting well.’’

Greinke had some nice moments last night. With two outs in the fifth inning, Ortiz doubled to right-center on a changeup. Yost popped out of the dugout to ask Greinke whether he wanted to face Victor Martinez or Beltre. Greinke picked Martinez.

“Beltre has been swinging really good this year so I didn’t really want to get to him,’’ explained Greinke. “I felt I would just pitch around Victor and hopefully he chases one of my pitches. Whatever I did I wanted him to run into a single and not drive the ball. I definitely didn’t want to let him on for free.’’

As it turned out, he walked Martinez and Beltre, each on four pitches, to load the bases. With eight straight balls, he got a gift when Drew swung at the first pitch and grounded to first base.

Greinke’s proficiency with runners on base is a sign that he’s pitching well. In the sixth, there was an error by second baseman Mike Aviles, but Greinke then induced a double-play grounder from Mike Cameron.

“Usually that’s when I start pitching better,’’ Greinke said. “Today it worked out good. It could have gone a different way. The last inning the ball [hit by Cameron] was smoked, but right at [third baseman Alberto] Callaspo. The inning before I made a good pitch to Drew to get out of the bases-loaded jam. I missed my spot eight straight pitches before that. Finally made a good pitch and it worked out.

“I struck out Ortiz [in the third] and that was probably the biggest one for me because I felt if I threw a fastball, he’s gonna hit it. I didn’t want to walk him, so I just threw a ball with the slider and I think [Jeremy] Hermida [in the second with a runner at third] I threw a slider for a ball on 3-2 and he chased it. The slider wasn’t real effective except for the 3-2 counts.

“I just kept missing by a little bit and it was just a battle all day. It wasn’t a smooth six-inning outing. It was a real stressful game. It would take its toll if every game was like that.’’

It seems like most games he pitches have been like that.

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