Brewers catcher Wil Nieves caught Zack Greinke for the second time in as many spring starts Sunday and got another glimpse at the right-hander's fierce competitiveness.
"He's not there just to get his work in," Nieves said. "He wants to get people out."
Retiring hitters remains a work in progress for Greinke, who needed 38 pitches to get through his two innings in an 8-1 loss to the Rangers at Surprise Stadium and fell behind nine of the 11 hitters he faced. That sort of command trouble is very un-Greinke-like, considering he owns the fifth-best ratio of strikeouts to walks (3.99) of all Major League starters over the past two seasons and was 11th-best in that span with only 2.12 walks per nine innings.Greinke did limit the damage against the Rangers to one run on five hits; he didn't walk a batter. He was originally scheduled for about 45 pitches, but with only seven left in that allotment after two innings decided to call it a day and count it as another positive step toward the 2011 season."Maybe next start I have to pick it up a little more," Greinke said.
But even if he struggles again in five days, Greinke won't be worried. He expects to remain in the "working on things" phase for two more starts before using his final two spring outings to fine-tune for his regular-season debut.
Manager Ron Roenicke and pitching coach Rick Kranitz still have not named Greinke the Opening Day starter, but given the 2009 American League Cy Young Award in his war chest, he's certainly a candidate.
Greinke continued tinkering with a new curveball on Sunday and also threw fastballs and changeups, topping out at 93 mph on the stadium radar gun but sitting around 90 mph most of the time. Ian Kinsler sparked a Rangers rally with a bunt single leading off the game, Josh Hamilton put Texas in position to score with a long double that barely eluded center fielder Carlos Gomez, and Michael Young cashed in with an RBI single.
Greinke threw Ball 1 to each of the first five hitters he faced before getting ahead of No. 6 hitter Mitch Moreland. The Rangers' first baseman eventually was called out on Greinke's first 93-mph fastball.
Getting behind in the count hurt, Greinke conceded.
"That was exactly what happened," he said. "Just two times getting ahead in the count. That made things a lot harder. But, overall, I felt a lot more comfortable out there today than the last outing [against the White Sox on March 1]. I was coming closer to executing pitches, it just hurt being behind in the count too much. ... The results weren't great again, but it felt a lot better."
Given it's so early in spring, does it bother him at all that the results aren't there?
"It's nice to strike everybody out," he said, "but especially at this time in Spring Training, it's not a big deal. The last one or two Spring Training outings, you want to feel pretty good. ... If the season was next start, that wouldn't be a good thing."
"He felt better, and that's the important thing," Kranitz said. "He's working to find the strike zone more than anything, working on hitting his spots. His velocity was down today, but, heck, he got out of it what he needed to get out of it."
Kranitz said he did not care about the slightly reduced velocities and revealed something new about the usually reserved Greinke.
"He likes to talk between innings, which I like," Kranitz said. "Each guy is different. Some guys don't like to [talk]. That's OK. I want to see how he's feeling, what his strengths are. I need to find out what the pitchers do right."
They have been talking a lot these days about Greinke's new curveball grip, something suggested by Royals pitching coach (and former Brewers pitcher) Bob McClure before Greinke left Kansas City. Greinke is working on a firmer curve for this season, and he won't begin introducing his slider into the mix until the new breaking ball feels right.
"I want to give the curveball the time that it's going to take," he said. "It's been pretty good, though, in between starts. It's got a little 'spike' on it, so it's a pretty big difference. It was a lot sharper today."
His fastball command, meanwhile, "was bad if it was season-time, but for where we're at, it's not too bad."
"He already knows himself so he's just getting in shape for the season," Nieves said. "He knows what he can do. Right now, I think what's most important for him is to be healthy and 100 percent."
Greinke was pleased with his progression on the pitcher's mound, but said his production in batting practice with the rest of the pitchers is lacking. Brewers pitchers have yet to hit in games, but they have been getting occasional work at Maryvale Baseball Park.
"Right now, I'd say I'm the worst hitter on the staff, so that's kind of disappointing," Greinke said. "Maybe Randy [Wolf] might be worse right now, based on [batting practice]. It hasn't been very impressive so far."
Just like his pitching, there's plenty of time to get things right.