Joe Mauer shook his head. He looked down at the ground, then back at home plate. More head shaking.
Jason Kubel had the same disbelief, but his came while his bat slammed into the ground, immediately followed by his helmet. He screamed something, though at this point the crowd was yelling too loud for anyone to make it out.
Behind Kubel, Zack Greinke made that slow, confident walk back to the dugout after another scoreless inning. An ovation that belies the Royals’ disappointing season showered down from 28,721 who came to cheer Greinke on his march toward the Cy Young Award in a 4-1 win for the Royals against the Twins at Kauffman Stadium on Sunday.
“It’s pretty annoying, actually,” Greinke said of the cheers about the Cy Young Award. “I don’t like it at all. I guess it’s nice that they’ll do that, but it’s annoying to me.”
This is the Greinke that Kansas City has grown to know this year more than any other, completely unfiltered in his words and mostly untouchable in his pitches. Get him away from the attention, and he admits that, yes, if he’s going to pitch the way he’s always wanted to pitch he’ll have to deal with the attention that comes with it.
He has been the best pitcher in baseball this season, by most measurements, and is still just 25 years old with three more years on his contract with the Royals. So even as his breakout season winds down — his last start is Saturday at Minnesota — Greinke’s relationship with the city that adores him is only getting started.
On this day, his last start in front of the hometown fans, a three-run homer by Yuniesky Betancourt in the second inning gave Greinke all the support he’d need, allowing the rest of the afternoon to be spent taking in pitching brilliance of Greinke. There’s a lot to take in, too, with the best individual season by a Kansas City athlete in years — since at least Tony Gonzalez’s prime.
“We knew he’d be good,” Royals manager Trey Hillman said. “We felt like he would be durable. But I don’t think anybody could’ve predicted the impact of his statistics here before his final start.”
Greinke’s best came in the third, when a walk, infield single and blooper loaded the bases with no outs. Orlando Cabrera grounded into a fielder’s choice, and then Greinke did his thing against Mauer and Jason Kubel.
Four fastballs at 97 or 98 mph, sliders anywhere from 80 to 91 — each of them swerving like a go-kart — for two strikeouts and the end of the threat.
For Mauer — who makes contact with more than 87 percent of his swings — it was just the second time all season he struck out twice against the same pitcher.
This is when Mauer shook his head, and when Kubel slammed his bat. Two more of the world’s best hitters, left helpless against a 25-year-old pitching genius having a season for the ages.
“Until there’s people on base or in scoring position, I just kind of attack and let the hitters do their thing,” Greinke said. “When there’s guys in scoring position, that’s when I try to stop them and not let anything happen. That’s when I’m trying my hardest.”
The Twins did score against Greinke, on a soft groundout to second base by Michael Cuddyer in the sixth. That was it, just one run, buried under eight strikeouts in seven innings — another clinic, everything from 98 mph fastballs to the 69 mph curveball Greinke patterns after closer Joakim Soria.
Greinke’s Cy Young candidacy is a shock-and-awe attack of historically impressive numbers: he’s now 16-8 with a 2.06 ERA that is nearly a half-run better than runner-up Felix Hernandez and would be the lowest in the American League since Pedro Martinez in 2000.
He has 229 strikeouts in 223 1/3 innings with an ERA less than half the league average. Only seven pitchers have done that since 1901: Roger Clemens, Martinez, Dwight Gooden, Ron Guidry, Bob Gibson, Pete Alexander and Walter Johnson.
All-Stars are hitting below .200 against Greinke, who is now 7-4 with a 1.24 ERA against winning teams. He’s given up two earned runs in his last 42 innings, a stretch that goes back more than a month. He has the league’s best ERA since the All-Star break, and also the best ERA before the All-Star break.
And so on.
“It’s nothing new,” said Miguel Olivo, who has caught all but two of Greinke’s starts. “It’s nothing new. It’s Zack Greinke being Zack Greinke.”
This is what a healthy crowd — particularly on an NFL Sunday — came out to appreciate and to say goodbye to a welcome bright spot in an otherwise miserable Royals season.
Greinke’s 33rd and final start will be Saturday at Minnesota, the second-to-last game at the Metrodome. Mauer called Greinke “flat-out nasty,” so you don’t figure the Twins are looking forward to facing him again in their push for the AL Central title.
“He’s got some of the best pure stuff in the game, and he’s locating,” said Twins outfielder Delmon Young. “Now when he does (make a mistake), guys are baffled because it’s the only pitch you’re going to see all game, it’s tough to square up, and you know if you don’t square that one up, you’re out of luck because once you get to two strikes, he’s going to finish you.
“If you get a two-strike count, most of those guys are walking back to the dugout or putting a weak swing on the ball.”
The most consistent knock against Greinke’s Cy Young candidacy has been his relatively low win total. That’s a product of Greinke’s terrible run support, worst in the American League, but Hillman has taken notice enough that he brought in Soria for a six-out save and a career-high 46 pitches in what was otherwise a meaningless game for the Royals.
The win put Greinke in a three-way tie for fifth with 16 wins — one behind fellow contenders Hernandez and Justin Verlander, and three behind league leader CC Sabathia — and left Hillman doing what at this point is probably unnecessary campaigning.
“Just look at the statistics,” he said. “This is an individual award. It should not be held against you if you’re the individual going for the award because you’ve lacked a severe amount of run support. Zack could have 20 wins, easily.”