Undoubtedly recognizing that the end of Zack Greinke's stellar career is so much closer than we'd prefer, and may come when the KC Royals end their season just 11 days from now, the fans who attended Wednesday afternoon's series finale with Cleveland stood and applauded as he left the Kauffman Stadium mound in the fourth inning.
Paying homage to Greinke, whose 224 career wins represent an almost certain ticket to Cooperstown, was definitely the thing to do. Despite a scary few minutes during his pre-second inning warmup when he appeared to experience arm trouble, Greinke held the Guardians scoreless for three innings before giving them a pair of runs in the fourth; he struck out five and walked no one in making Wednesday's one of his better games of the season.
But as much pleasure as fans derived from Greinke's performance, don't blame them if they enjoyed Ángel Zerpa's even more. Tasked with manager Mat Quatraro, who brought him in with two outs and the potential tying run on second base, Zerpa struck out José Tena to end the inning, then retired eight in a row before Tyler Freeman doubled with two away in the seventh. Undaunted, Zerpa allowed only two runners the rest of the way, didn't yield a run, finished with four strikeouts and no walks, and Kansas City won 6-2.
The victory, which evened Zerpa's record at 3-3, secured for the Royals a sweep of this three-game series, and they've won seven of their last eight contests.
For Zerpa, the victory represents another big step toward finishing the season with the big final month he probably needs to secure a spot on next season's Opening Day roster.
Pitcher Ángel Zerpa is having a superb September for the KC Royals
This, the final full month of the season — Kansas City concludes the campaign Oct. 1 against the Yankees — is critical for Zerpa who, after two short but promising Royal stints in 2021 and 2022 (the Royals called him up in late September two seasons ago and he pitched five scoreless innings, then was 2-1 with a 1.64 ERA in three appearances last season), struggled this year until September rolled around.
Although it's probably appropriate to attribute at least some of his troubling pre-September work to the knee injury that sidelined Zerpa much of the the last two months of last season, and a shoulder problem that kept him from the majors through July of this campaign, August cast some doubt on his prospects for next year. He gave up 19 runs in 23 innings last month, and was 1-3 in eight appearances.
Now, Zerpa is in the midst of a strong turnaround, one that should, if it continues, lock down a place for him in KC's 2024 rotation or bullpen. Before beating Cleveland Wednesday, he'd fanned eight batters and surrendered only two runs in nine innings this month, and had held opponents scoreless in two of his four appearances. He's reduced his ugly 7.04 ERA to 4.82.
Quatraro will find more work for Zerpa, who still has rookie status, during Kansas City's final nine games. If he pitches as well as has so far in September, he'll be in good position for 2024.