50 Greatest Kauffman Stadium Moments, #39: Greinke Strikes Out 15 (August 25, 2009)

Note: April 10, 2023 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first game at Royals/Kauffman Stadium. Each week, I will look at one memorable moment in stadium history, with the top moment revealed on April 10, 2023. Missed an entry? You can find past ones here.

In the great desert that was Royals baseball from 1994 to 2013, fans had to find whatever oasis they could to get some enjoyment out of their team. One of those came in 2009, when Zack Greinke turned in a performance for the ages; not just once, but pretty much every fifth night. On a team that went 65-97, a team that gave Luke Hochevar 25 starts (and received a 6.55 ERA in return), gave Kyle Davies 22 starts (5.27 ERA), and Sidney Ponson nine starts (7.36 ERA!), Greinke’s 2.16 ERA in 33 starts stood out like Las Vegas rising above the Nevada nothingness.

If you use the Game Score metric, Greinke’s start on August 25 was not his best of the season. That would be his next start, when he pitched a one-hitter against Seattle. But on this night, Greinke did something that no Royals pitcher had ever done, piling up 15 strikeouts as Kansas City beat Cleveland, 6-2.

When Greinke took the mound, the Royals were looking to snap a five-game losing streak, because of course they were. The righthander, despite a 2.44 ERA, was 11-8 on the season. That was because he had received the worst run support in the American League, with his teammates helpfully failing to score more than two runs in eight of his 25 starts. So, as usual, Greinke probably figured he needed to be perfect, or close to it, to get a win. 

And wins were a big deal, because there was plenty of doubt (especially among Royals fans) as to whether Greinke would get the Cy Young consideration he deserved due to his rather pedestrian win-loss total. Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, and Justin Verlander all appeared headed for 20-win seasons. Greinke had better peripheral numbers than any of them, but would the media realize that? Plenty of voters in that time were skeptical of advanced stats.

Greinke’s game plan was to let Cleveland put the ball in play. But the Indians, not a juggernaut themselves at 55-69 coming into the game, seemed to be in a mood to take pitches. Perhaps they thought their best bet was to run up Greinke’s pitch count, then pounce on the Royals’ fairly lousy bullpen.

“They were taking a lot early and letting me get the two strikes,” Greinke said afterwards. “With two strikes, I usually try to strike guys out.”

After a fly ball to start the game, Greinke picked up two strikeouts. The second one, of Shin-Soo Choo, gave Greinke a career high in strikeouts in a season, with 184. He picked up two more in the second, although a Luis Valbuena single removed any perfect game/no-hitter suspense. He only had one strikeout in the third, but notched a couple more in the fourth.

Meanwhile, the offense had built a 4-0 lead for their pitcher. Mitch Maier walked with one out in the first, then stole second and scored on a Mike Jacobs single. Kansas City picked up three singles to start the third off Cleveland starter Justin Masterson. Yuniesky Betancourt, David DeJesus, and Maier had the bases loaded with no one out. Billy Butler grounded into a forceout (admit it, you expected a double play) with one run scoring, and Jacobs drove in another run with a single. In the fourth, catcher Miguel Olivo helped out his battery mate with a solo home run.

Buoyed by this offensive explosion, Greinke struck out the side in the fifth, running his total on the night to 10. He made his first mistake of the evening in the sixth, leaving a fastball belt-high that Andy Marte hit over the fence in left center. But after a groundout, he struck out two more batters.

Greinke issued his only walk of the game to start the seventh, to Jhonny Peralta. But after another strikeout and a line drive, he caught Kelly Shoppach looking to end the inning. His 14th K of the night meant he had tied Mark Gubicza’s team record, set in 1988. Now he needed just one more.

He had to wait a little bit. Cleveland reliever Rafael Perez gave up a single to DeJesus with two outs in the seventh, and Maier followed with a home run, the first of his career. Now with a 6-1 lead, Greinke returned to the mound for history. He had already thrown 101 pitches, so this was almost certainly his last inning.

Matt LaPorta led off the eighth with a double. But Greinke got ahead of Marte, then snapped off a slider that Marte swung through for strike three. The crowd of 17,353 roared its approval, which confused Greinke.

“I don’t know why,” he said, “but I thought Hochevar had 15 and no walks (earlier in the season). So I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I was wondering, ‘Why are they cheering so much?’”

Hochevar had struck out 13 earlier in the season, but not 15. Greinke was all alone in the Royals’ record book.

Unfortunately, Asdrubal Cabrera hit a double into the gap in left-center, scoring LaPorta. But Cabrera got thrown out trying to stretch that into a triple, and Greinke got the last out on a harmless fly ball. Robinson Tejeda pitched a scoreless ninth to make sure Greinke got the win on his record-setting night. In characteristic Greinke fashion, he didn’t exactly revel in his accomplishment.

“Strikeouts are easier now than they were in the past,” he said. “It’s a different story. It’s definitely nice to do it, but strikeouts are a lot easier now. At least, I think they are.”

Greinke would go on to win 16 games and easily win the Cy Young award, with 25 of 28 first-place votes. His 10.4 bWAR for the season is still the best mark for a pitcher in team history. While Danny Duffy would break the strikeout mark in Tampa Bay in 2016, picking up 16 Ks, Greinke still has one of the most memorable pitching performances in stadium history.

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