Can Zack Greinke Shed Postseason Demons Under Bright Lights of L.A.?
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As a free agent last December, Zack Greinke made a curious decision.
No, not to accept a six-year, $147 million contract, because, well, who wouldn't? But to accept such a contract—and all the expectations that come along with all that money—from the Los Angeles Dodgers, of all teams.
Other factors played a part, obviously, but for all intents and purposes, Greinke chose that team and that city.
With it's constant culture of celebrity and spotlight, L.A. isn't exactly the low-key, under-the-radar home base that one might've expected Greinke—who was diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder seven years ago and nearly quit baseball altogether—to actively seek out in free agency.
Greinke took a four-month sabbatical in spring training of 2006 to get a better handle on his approach to the game—and his life.
As Greinke told Seth Livingstone of USA Today back in 2009, the year he won the American League Cy Young Award with the Kansas City Royals: "I hated being around attention and all the stuff in the clubhouse. I really didn't want anything to do with being around people. A talking situation would make it worse. I've gotten a lot better at that."
Of course, one would figure that Greinke had to know, at least to some extent, what he would be in for and what he would be comfortable with, especially given his personal situation and history.
In fact, Zack Greinke did his homework before deciding on Los Angeles, as Ken Gurnick of MLB.com wrote after the right-hander signed:
[Greinke] wants his team to excel. He researched the teams that pursued him during free agency, studying their rosters and farm systems to assure he wouldn't wind up in a rebuilding phase. With the deep pockets and championship aspirations of the new Dodgers owners, Los Angeles became a logical landing spot.
Sometimes, though, the best way to overcome an obstacle is to face it head-on. And in Greinke's case, he chose to do just that.
Presumably, despite all the money being thrown his way, if Greinke didn't think he was up for it, he might not even have considered Los Angeles—baseball's second-largest market—let alone signed to play there. And yet, 10 months later, here he is—a 29-year-old (turns 30 on Oct. 21) who's been battling an almost debilitating disorder—about to step into Major League Baseball's national spotlight Friday night.
That would be the pitching mound at Turner Field in Atlanta, where he'll take on the Braves in Game 2 of the National League Division Series.
Even though the Dodgers won Game 1 Thursday night, Greinke's postseason experience has been limited, his performance lackluster.
To that end, in his 10 seasons, Greinke has made three October starts—all in 2011 with the Milwaukee Brewers—and in those he allowed 12 earned runs on 23 hits (including four homers) in only six in 16.2 innings. If you're scoring at home, that's a 6.48 ERA and 1.62 WHIP. And none of his outings was any good, so it's not like the bottom line is inflated by one poor showing.
It's a small sample size, yes, but that's what the postseason is—chunks of small sample sizes, one series, one game, one batter at a time.
The narrative that comes out of those numbers, obviously, is that the guy with social anxiety disorder can't handle the pressure and the attention that comes with everyone waiting, everyone watching in October. But just because that weaves oh-so-neatly into a story doesn't mean it is the story.
As Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times wrote this past February after Greinke addressed his condition with the L.A. media for the first time: "[Greinke] said that, contrary to popular assumption, a pitching mound surrounded by thousands of people is actually his refuge. 'I don't mind people looking at me,' Greinke said, 'that's never bothered me.'"
And it hasn't. Let's not forget that last season, while pitching as a hired gun down the stretch for the Angels—who, you might have heard, also play in Los Angeles—Greinke went 5-0 with a 2.04 ERA over his last eight starts as the Halos were making a furious push for the postseason.
Let's also realize that Greinke is a big reason why the Dodgers are even here in the first place this year, having overcome a disappointing start to the season to win the National League West. Since coming back from a broken collarbone that stemmed from an April brawl with Carlos Quentin of the San Diego Padres, the right-hander has been on an incredible run, posting a 1.85 ERA over the second half.
And it's rather fitting that Greinke is going up against the Braves in Game 2. Entering his June 6 outing against Atlanta at Dodger Stadium, the righty's ERA sat at a season-worst 4.80. Seven shutout innings later, Greinke was on his way.
In fact, the Dodgers turnaround—that historic 42-8 stretch—kicked off on June 22, a game Greinke started against the Padres in San Diego. It was his first trip back there after the brawl on April 11, and amid all that emotion in enemy territory, what did he do? Only hurl eight innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts.
How's that for a narrative?
So while October didn't quite work out for Greinke in his first go-round, he has been pitching in big spots, in front of big crowds in a big city over the past season-and-a-half. And he's acquitted himself pretty darn well in such situations.
"I play to see what I can accomplish," the uber-competitive Greinke told Gurnick. "I don't play for fun. I play to see how good I can be."
Greinke will get his wish Friday night. Is he capable of getting over whatever postseason demons he may or may not have to this point in his career? One thing's for sure, October baseball isn't the biggest challenge Greinke has faced in his life, and he's come through both professionally and personally.
As far as being ready for another shot at the playoffs, sometimes, the best way to overcome an obstacle is to face it.
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