When Zack Greinke takes the mound Sunday afternoon -- two days later than originally planned, because of the birth of his son -- at Citi Field 16 innings from breaking the major league record for consecutive scoreless innings, the man who holds that record will be sitting facing him, 100 feet above, describing nearly every pitch.
Funny, because that's the way it was 27 years ago, too, when Orel Hershiser pitched 59 consecutive scoreless innings to lead the Los Angeles Dodgers to an improbable World Series run. Don Drysdale, the man who had broken Walter Johnson's record 20 years earlier, was a Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster.
In fact, when Hershiser took the mound for the 10th inning that day, Sept. 28, 1988, on the verge of breaking Drysdale’s record, all he could think about was finding Drysdale in the broadcast booth. Hershiser had told manager Tommy Lasorda he felt he should be pulled after nine innings in a scoreless tie to rest up for the playoffs, but Lasorda practically pushed him out of the dugout. Only by pitching that 10th scoreless inning of that game in San Diego was Hershiser able to break the record that day.
"I was trying to salute him, trying to say, 'They forced me to go out there. I know you'd want me to do my best,'" Hershiser said.
As dominant as Greinke has been in his past six starts -- not only hasn’t he allowed a run in 43 2/3 innings, but batters are hitting .094 against his fastball and he has walked only four batters -- Hershiser can attest that a lot of luck goes into a streak of this length.
"It's one more good pitch. It's one more ball being hit at somebody. It’s one more baseball probability being in your favor," Hershiser said. "Sometimes, you do know in the back of your mind the probabilities can go the other way, but that's not controllable. I think what you do, as a thinker, you think, 'I need to do the things I control,' instead of worrying about the things that are out of your control."
Hershiser, a former ESPN analyst who now works for the Dodgers' SportsNetLA station, initially was hesitant to be interviewed about Greinke's streak, because Drysdale declined interview requests in the run-up to Hershiser's record. Unlike many players from another era, Hershiser thinks today's players are the best in the history of the game. He also said he is rooting for Greinke to break his record. He said the same thing last season when Clayton Kershaw had a 41-inning scoreless streak.
"In my whole career, I never threw the ball better than Zack Greinke. Never," Hershiser said. "I never threw with his velocity, I never threw with his change of speeds, I never was able to execute as many pitches as he can on any given night to both sides of the plate. On any given night in my career, I haven't ever thrown the ball better than Clayton Kershaw. These guys are just better."
Hershiser thinks the proliferation of conditioning regimens, nutrition and private coaching at an early age has revolutionized the game and produced stronger, more athletic players. He said he didn't lift a weight until after his first season in the major leagues. But after Lasorda slapped the "Bulldog" nickname on him, he soon gained a reputation for pitching well in big games. He was the MVP of the both the National League Championship Series and World Series that October.
In some regards, Hershiser and Greinke are similar pitchers. They're right-handed, they have good -- but not overpowering -- velocity and they are viewed by their peers as among the most intellectual practitioners of the craft. One glaring difference: Hershiser was a workhorse, throwing five complete games during the streak. Greinke has thrown one complete game this season but none during the streak. It will take at least eight starts for Greinke to break a record that Hershiser pulled off in six.
"That's one of those records that everyone thought wouldn't be broken," said Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who caught Hershiser and managed Greinke. "Drysdale had it. When Orel broke that, it was incredible the way it kept adding up. I'm sure there’s going to be some excitement his next couple starts, for sure."
The last time Greinke faced the New York Mets, he held them to four hits and no runs. It was the Fourth of July. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly pulled him after 100 pitches and seven innings. The Dodgers hung on to win that game 4-3. Until his past three starts, Greinke had miserable run support, which, oddly, might have helped launch this scoreless streak. The best pitchers pitch to the game.
"It was never about the streak. It was really about trying to win games," Hershiser said.