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A Royal reminder

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff May 5, 2009 10:26 AM

It’s time to start paying attention to Zack Greinke.

I mean like, real, honest-to-goodness, all eyes on the prize sort of focus.

Hopefully, it won’t be long before ESPN, Fox, and The Baseball Network actually haul the camera crews all the way out to Kansas City, where they seemingly haven’t had a nationally-televised game since back when Bo Jackson’s hip was still naturally attached. It’ll be sort of like how everyone ignored the fact that there was a basketball team in Toronto until the late 90’s, when Vince Carter got NBC’s attention.

Greinke has certainly garnered the attention of the baseball world with his mind-blowing start to the 2009 season. After last night’s 3-0 win over the White Sox, the right-hander is now 6-0 with a major league-leading 0.40 ERA for the first-place Royals. In six starts this season, Greinke has allowed a grand total of two earned runs, both in his “worst” start of the season, a seven-inning win over Toronto on April 29.

Last night was his third complete game of the young season. Third.

You know what other team has that many complete games? None.

It is only May 5, but what Greinke has done compels us to already put it into some sort of historical perspective. USA Today compares his 2009 start to those of Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 (five complete games, four shutouts in April) and Vida Blue in 1971 (six complete game victories by May 1). But when we think of memorable pitchers with this sort of filthy dominance, of course, only one name comes to mind.

Now, as dominant as Pedro Martinez was in his historic Cy Young season of 1999, his start doesn’t come close to the numbers Greinke has put up. Martinez was 6-1 on May 7, with a 1.74 ERA. He hurled one complete game over that stretch, a 3-2 win over Cleveland that was his third-consecutive 10-strikeout game. Over his next 4 starts, Pedro would strike out 13, 15, 15, and 11 batters.

But two years earlier, in his final season for the Montreal Expos, Martinez announced his coming out party, not unlike Greinke is currently doing. In his first six starts of 1997, Martinez went 6-0 with a 0.79 ERA. Three of the six starts were shutouts, two were complete games. Martinez would finish that season going the distance in 13 games, including a remarkable stretch in June-July when he went nine in five of six starts. CC Sabathia led baseball with 10 in 2008.

Of course, there is the argument that Martinez put up his resume in an era when pills and injections were under the category of “See No Evil,” so one can only imagine what sorts of numbers he’d put up in a relatively clean era of the game. Stick Greinke against the likes of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and the steroid behemoths of last decade and who knows what to expect.

With all apologies to memorable stretches by the likes of Francisco Liriano (who’ll always have the magical summer of 2006) and Sabathia last year in Milwaukee, Greinke’s start to this season is the most fascinating we can remember in more than a decade, ever since Martinez promised to twirl amazement every fifth night. Both pitchers entered the pros at the tender age of 20, and each had his breakout season at the age of 25; Martinez in ’97, Greinke in ’09.

The Royals are in town for just four games this season (again, just loooove that unbalanced schedule) July 9-12. Red Sox fans ought to hope that Greinke is scheduled to pitch somewhere closer to the ninth, otherwise they will be denied the pleasure of watching him live, seeing as he’ll need his rest to start the All-Star Game the following Tuesday.

Greinke’s next start is Saturday in Los Angeles. Fox will bring you the Red Sox-Rays game. The Royals are one of eight teams (Blue Jays, Marlins, Padres, Nationals, Pirates, Reds, and Rockies) not currently on the network’s slate of games. Three of those teams are currently in first place. But, to be honest, I’m not salivating at the thought of watching the Blue Jays or the Marlins any time soon. You?

MLB Network is carrying next Thursday’s Orioles-Royals game. Greinke is scheduled to go Friday.

But the mere fact that we’re even looking that far ahead for a Kansas City Royals game underlines what Greinke is doing. It’s special, memorable, and potentially historic. And it feels a whole lot like what we remember of the spindly Dominican more than a decade ago.

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by eric wilbur

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