Zack Greinke and the Astros stare down another World Series that could be their last

ATLANTA — Zack Greinke is not ready to address next year.

On the one hand, that makes all the sense in the world. He is in the middle of the World Series, for crying out loud. His team just lost one of his starts, 3-2, to put them on the brink of elimination, down 3-1 in a series with one more game on the road.

Also, I don’t know if you know this but, he’s not particularly prone to public examination of his interior life.

On the other hand, he is a 38-year-old athlete without a contract for 2022. On Saturday night, he played in his 552nd big league game. If it was his last, it was bittersweet.

At this point — Oct. 30, Game 4 of the World Series and one year removed from an entire baseball calendar that lasted just three months instead of seven-plus — the final two teams standing are pitching on dregs.

The Atlanta Braves opened with a kid who brought just about four innings of major-league experience into what would be his first-ever start. Although that part didn’t work, the rest of the planned bullpen game did. Without better options — and with a cast of relievers pitching so well their manager is ready to reward them with an all-expenses paid vacation to Hawaii — the Braves will do it again in Game 5.

Across the diamond, the Houston Astros handed the ball to the reticent veteran, who delivered four laborious yet scoreless innings in what his manager Dusty Baker deemed “vintage Greinke.”

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 30: Zack Greinke #21 of the Houston Astros pitches during Game 4 of the 2021 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves at Truist Park on Saturday, October 30, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke gave the Astros a chance in Game 4, but they're once again on the brink as his chances at a World Series ring dwindle. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Perhaps inflated praise for a former Cy Young winner whose nine seasons of 200+ innings are second among active players only to Justin Verlander (and is he even still an active player?). But it was the first time this postseason Greinke has gotten out of the second inning, the longest outing he’s had since Sept. 19. COVID-19 and a minor neck injury limited his starts down the stretch. The natural and inevitable degradation of physical ability that comes with age limited his effectiveness.

“Best outing for me in like a month-and-a-half or so,” Greinke summed up succinctly. “So, yeah, it was good.”

“And don't forget,” Baker said, “Greinke is an outstanding hitter at the same time.”

It’s true. The first pitcher to hit higher than the 9-hole in a World Series game since Babe Ruth himself did it in 1918, Greinke singled in the second to the delight of National League purists everywhere. It’s unlikely to move the needle on the seemingly inevitable universal DH looming on the other side of a new collective bargaining agreement, but for a career .225 hitter it was a fitting swan song.

“He's a good hitter,” teammate Carlos Correa said pregame, “but he thinks he's Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron if you talk to him.”

Even Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron needed a little help from their teammates to score after a single, though. Ultimately, Greinke was left stranded on the basepaths — one of 11 Astros who reached but never scored in another disappointing game, in a series where the vaunted lineup has hit .206.

“They say good pitching beats good hitting,” Baker could only manage by way of explanation. “And they've been pitching good against us.”

The Baseball-Reference WAR leaderboard for active players looks like this:

  1. Albert Pujols, 41 years old, a first ballot Hall of Famer and two-time World Series champion.

  2. Mike Trout, who turned 30 this season and missed significant time but probably still reigns as the Best Player in Baseball, and a compelling reason for the Angels to do everything they can to contend now lest his prime go to waste.

  3. Zack Greinke, whose 18-year career could be coming to a close, and whose latest if not last chance to get a ring is hanging by a thread.

Greinke's best chances have come with the Astros. Acquired at the trade deadline from the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2019 to bolster Houston’s window for winning, they’ve gone to the postseason together every year since. And have nothing to show for it.

For the Astros as a whole, they’re one loss away from watching what could have been a dynastic core go down in history as the guys who could only get it done in the year they cheated. October is such a crapshoot that such a legacy will hardly be fair to the talent they had — in their victorious but tainted 2017 campaign, as well as in the Greinke years in which they repeatedly came up just a couple games short — but talented teams and players end up disappointed all the time.

Teams don’t end, but players’ careers do. Each offseason that comes too soon sets them back to Square One, another year older. There’s probably some wisdom in doing that 18 times, but there’s got to be some weariness as well.