Greinke shines amid Royals' struggles

Greinke shines amid Royals' struggles

MINNEAPOLIS -- There was such a sweet end to 2008 and such a sweet beginning to 2009. Who could have thought everything could turn so sour so quickly?

But it certainly did.

The Royals, buoyed by an 18-8 September and a step up into fourth place last year, sprang into the new season with great optimism. Hardly anyone doubted that a .500 season and even serious contention in the American League Central were at least possibilities. And when 2009 began with the club at 18-11 and three games ahead in first place by May 7, fans rejoiced.

Zack Greinke was the shining leader of this brave, new frontier with a 6-0 record and a 0.40 ERA which encouraged Cy Young Award talk even at that early juncture. He didn't give up a run in his first 24 innings and didn't allow an earned run in his first 29 innings.

The club got to 18-11 with six straight victories, but then the fade began. The Royals lost their next six games, part of a 6-22 spiral that dropped them into last place on June 9. Two days later at Cleveland, they ended a 2-7 road trip with a 10-inning, 4-3 loss when center fielder Coco Crisp couldn't field Shin-Soo Choo's hit because the ball struck a flying gull and rolled away.

It was that kind of year.

Along the way, several players crucial to the optimistic hopes were injured, including newly acquired Crisp and the rookie sensation of 2008, shortstop Mike Aviles, lost for the season early on. Aviles' absence was felt so acutely that the Royals traded for shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt from Seattle in July.

The Royals displayed an alarming inability to score runs and, likewise, to prevent them.

With holdover slugger Jose Guillen hurting and newcomer slugger Mike Jacobs struggling, the Royals were deficient in production departments. They ranked 13th out of 14 American Leagues teams in runs, home runs and RBIs as well as bases on balls and on-base percentage. Only in triples -- they led the Majors with 51 -- were they especially proficient.

But there were pluses, as first baseman Billy Butler matured into a reliably consistent hitter and second baseman Alberto Callaspo became a steady everyday hitter with surprising power.

Not even Greinke's Major League best ERA of 2.16 could keep the Royals' staff from slogging in 26th in team ERA. And their defense showed so many holes that it ranked tied with the White Sox for last in the AL. Once again there was a lack of overall speed and they were ninth in stolen bases and made far too many baserunning mistakes.

Yet Royals owner David Glass saw enough progress behind the scenes that on Aug. 31 he extended general manager Dayton Moore's contract through the 2014 season. Moore asserted that manager Trey Hillman would return for his third season.

"I don't see guys quitting. I see them continuing to fight," Hillman said in early September. "I wish we were performing better but in spots obviously we haven't. We've scuffled out of the bullpen, we've scuffled all season long with run production. We've made offensive mistakes, we've made defensive mistakes."

Still, the Royals had another encouraging finish, winning 14 of their last 26 games.

A look at the Royals' 2009 season:

Record: 65-97, tied for fourth in AL Central.

Defining moment: The division-leading Royals were jaunty and jubilant after winding up a homestand with their sixth straight victory -- a 3-1 win over Seattle on May 7 that ended breathlessly with closer Joakim Soria retiring Ichiro Suzuki with the bases loaded. Off they went to California and promptly were swept in three games by the Angels, including a 1-0 complete-game loss by Greinke. That turned into a six-game skid with two losses at Oakland and at home to Baltimore. They never recovered. Less than a month later, they were in last place and 7 1/2 games behind the first-place Tigers.

What went right: Greinke's performance was a continuing story that kept the Royals, despite their lowly standing, in the national spotlight all season. He not only led the Majors with a 2.16 ERA but had 242 strikeouts, walked only 51 and had six complete games. He had a one-hitter and struck out a club-record 15 in a game. ... Butler did so well that he went into the No. 3 slot in the lineup and led the club with 93 RBIs, a .301 average, 51 doubles and 58 walks while also swatting 21 home runs. He also made his mark by adjusting well defensively in his first full year as a first baseman. ... Callaspo, a full-time player for the first time, had a .300 average and showed surprising power with 11 home runs. His RBI total, 73, got him raised to the fifth spot in the lineup. ... Left fielder David DeJesus overcame a sluggish start to hit .281 and he led the club with 74 runs. DeJesus went through the season without an error, had 13 assists and made so many sliding and diving catches he was worthy of a Gold Glove. ... Catcher Miguel Olivo hit a career-high 23 home runs to lead the club. ... With so many injuries, Willie Bloomquist's ability to play many positions well, hit steadily and steal 25 bases was a plus. ... Late in the season, Robinson Tejeda came out of the bullpen to show excellent starting ability.

What went wrong: Injuries were very costly. Aviles and Crisp went out for the season in the first 2 1/2 months. Third baseman Alex Gordon had hip surgery after just seven games and didn't come back until after the All-Star break. Closer Soria had a sore shoulder and went on the disabled list for a while as did catcher John Buck and relievers Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz. Right fielder Guillen's legs ached and finally a knee strain put him out for the year. Starter Gil Meche's back acted up and later shoulder fatigue prematurely ended his season and that of fellow starters Brian Bannister and Kyle Davies. ... Soria, babied early because of a stiff shoulder and lacking leads to protect later, had just 30 saves after racking up 42 the year before. ... In fact, the refurbished bullpen was constantly porous with newcomers Cruz and Farnsworth especially disappointing. ... For a while, Meche, Bannister and Davies looked strong but, over the whole haul, were inconsistent. ... Jacobs was obtained to add power but his 19 homers and 61 RBIs were a letdown. ... Mark Teahen was the primary No. 3 hitter for the first month and a half but he didn't produce enough to stay there. ... The Royals gave away far too many bases through a Major League-high 89 wild pitches plus 14 passed balls.

Biggest surprise: Greinke was always a great prospect, but after missing most of the 2006 Major League season because of a social anxiety disorder, pitching out of the bullpen most of 2007 and reasserting himself as a regular starter only in 2008, hardly anyone could have foreseen what a dominating pitcher he became this year.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.