Something wasn't quite right with Zack Greinke.
The 26-year-old defending Cy Young Award winner had a 3.59 ERA on the season; quite good, but certainly not great. Even though his walk rate was down from his glorious 2009 campaign, Greinke wasn't receiving the attention that he used as fuel.
With a merely above-average strikeout rate this year, Greinke was slipping from national acclaim back to the anonymous ace he was in 2007 and 2008.
Greinke can attribute his slip to many things, but pitching for one of the worst teams in baseball is on the top of the list. It's extremely difficult to maintain an aura of winning and success on a team that is 15 games below the .500-mark. Just ask Felix Hernandez.
But while the environment may not be ideal, Greinke has also seen his fastball lose its zip and his breaking balls go flat. His struggles against the Twins on July 26 were hardly indicative of his season, but Greinke did suffer through the same things that have been haunting him all season.
Greinke's struggles Monday night allowed Danny Valencia to hit his first major-league home run, which happened to be a grand slam and the most devastating swing in Minnesota's 19-1 rout of the Royals.
I won't claim to know what went on in Kansas City's bullpen before the 7:10 p.m. matchup between the two division rivals, but I'd wager that Greinke struggled to make his breaking balls work for him. His slider wasn't dropping in the strikezone like he wanted, and his curveball had very little curve.
If Greinke's warm-up pitches had been televised, more people could have predicted the quick Minnesota runs. Without being able to utilize his breaking balls, Greinke would be forced to rely on a fastball/changeup duo. Facing Minnesota's deep lineup, Greinke most likely knew it was going to be a long time.
Facing Jason Repko to start the game, Greinke threw a 92-mph fastball that landed in the upper half of the plate. Repko was likely ordered to take that first pitch, which he probably regretted. For the next pitch Repko sat on Greinke's fastball, which was again offered in essentially the same position. Repko belted Greinke's pitch to left field for a two-base hit.
If Greinke would have had his slider working that night, he would have painted the lower corner of the plate to take the count to 0-2 and possibly make the eventual outcome of the game a little less ugly. But Greinke was hesitant in throwing his usually-deadly breaking balls in the first at-bat of the game, which likely excited the entire Twins' dugout.
Over the next seven pitches, Greinke threw six fastballs and gave up a triple, a single, and a double. With two runs already on the board and two Minnesota runners in scoring position with the heart of the Twins' lineup due up, Greinke received a visit from his coaching staff.
Greinke managed to strike out an over-zealous Thome on a slider in the dirt, and rung up Cuddyer by painting the strikezone and throwing a rising fastball that Cuddyer couldn't pass up.
Greinke fell behind a much more patient Kubel, though, barely missing the strikezone with three consecutive fastballs. Even the obligatory 3-0 count strike barely caught the outer corner of the plate. With two outs, Kubel was walked to load the bases for rookie Danny Valencia.
Valencia, with a career triple-slash line of .298/.353/.469 in five minor league seasons, certainly knows how to take advantage of a struggling starting pitcher. He had undoubtedly been watching Greinke's pitch selection up until that point, and knew the former Cy Young winner was throwing almost exclusively fastballs and was failing to find the strikezone.
With that knowledge, Valencia worked out his game plan for this crucial bases-loaded plate appearance: Work the count, force Greinke to throw a strike, and sit on his fastball. The plan worked to perfection.
Greinke tried his slider once more against Valencia, hoping to get ahead early, but missed high and outside. Knowing he would be forced to rely primarily on his fastball, Greinke upped the velocity a few miles per hour and started painting the corners. Missing twice low, though, Greinke was in danger of walking in a run, a cardinal sin for anyone and especially for a pitcher of Greinke's caliber. After taking another fastball down the middle of the plate to make the count 3-1, Valencia sat on Greinke's fastball.
In the fifth pitch of the at-bat and his 28th offering of the inning, Greinke threw a fastball up in the heart of the strikezone. Valencia knew it was coming and launched it to left field for a grand slam to push the score to 6-0 and set the tone for the remainder of the game.
For Greinke, the home run represents one of the worst starts of his career and the latest in a series of struggles this season. He's certainly not a liability to the Royals, but he's gone a long way in the wrong direction since last year.
For Valencia, the home runs represents the emergence of his status as a power threat. Having reached double-digit home runs most seasons through his minor league career, Valencia was thought to have sufficient pop to be an above-average third baseman in the big leagues. He's doing all he can to prove it to us.
For the Twins, this home run and 19-1 slaughtering of the Royals represents their return to threats in the American League Central. The seasonal outlook among fans before this road trip was remarkably dim; most expected the team to stand pat at the deadline and fall to the White Sox.
After showing off their muscle against Kansas City, Minnesota's chances this season look better, even to the most pessimistic of people.
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