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Greinke rides heater into 1st round

By Buddy Collings
May 23, 2002

ORLANDO--For his first three seasons at Apopka High, Zack Greinke was a hitter who could pitch. A rugged, slugging shortstop in the mold of Florida natives Alex Rodriguez and Chipper Jones.

But the fastball was always there, a trump card he pulled out every eight or nine days. He made enough appearances to torment high school hitters, tantalize pro scouts and tell longtime Blue Darters coach Sonny Wise he could be a dominant force.

"When you start running the ball up there at 92, 93, 94 miles an hour like Zack was last summer, people start to notice," said Brian King, an Apopka assistant coach who has seen big league pitching from behind the plate as a spring training umpire. "This was the year Zack realized the ability he had up on the mound. He was a little more locked in on the pitching part of it. It's not just the arm strength. It's the command of all his pitches."

Command is an apt term for a 6-foot-2, 202-pound righthander who could blow hitters away with his fastball and hit his spots with a curveball, changeup and cutter. Greinke, who shifted from shortstop to first base reduce the strain on his arm, went 9-2, 0.55 with 118 strikeouts in 63 innings. He surrendered eight walks and 22 hits--a.107 average for opposing batters in one of Florida's toughest high school circuits. In his losses, a 1-0 defeat to archrival West Orange and a heartbreaking 3-1 region championship loss to Oviedo, Greinke surrendered a total of five hits in 14 innings.

Now he commands attention from big league scouts. Greinke signed early with Clemson, but the likelihood he will play for the Tigers dropped every time he took the mound this spring. His pro stock, already high as a position prospect, has soared as a pitcher.

Successful Experiment

Greinke still has the stroke that produced 31 career home runs, 144 RBIs and four consecutive high school seasons at .444 or better. But his ace in the hole is that he could be an ace with big league velocity. He has the manners of a Boy Scout, the smarts of an honors student (which he is) and the tenacity of a bulldog.

"I think he will go in the first 10 picks," King said. "The Reds are really, really interested. The Orioles and Angels also like him a lot. Philadelphia has shown a lot of interest."

It won't take long to find out if the Reds are interested. Cincinnati picks third, behind Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. Baltimore chooses fourth, Anaheim 12th and Philadelphia 17th.

Credit for the wise move goes to Wise, a 24-year Apopka icon with more than 560 wins.

"He had his college scholarship," Wise said. "We wanted to see how effective he could be as a pitcher. To do that, we needed to take some of the stress off his arm and concentrate on his production on the mound."

It was not a difficult sales pitch. Greinke analyzes the benefits of everything from his long toss routine to the school lunch menu. He was easily persuaded and not afraid to step into the role of unquestioned No. 1 for a team that won its first 20 games and finished 30-3.

"I didn't really want to move from shortstop, but coach Wise talked and I listened," Greinke said. "He thought it would help the team, and I knew it would probably be the best thing for me. We compromised."

Greinke worked his four best pitches but compromised little at the plate. He took fewer batting practice cuts, but still hit .480-10-40 with 11 doubles and 39 runs.

"In the past years, I put all my thought into hitting," he said. "I just went out on the mound and threw. This year, as soon as I came off the mound from one game, my mind was already on my next start. Everything revolved around pitching."

Just Wants To Play

Greinke has played the game almost year-round since Little League won his heart over tennis and golf. But because his parents have been watchful, his coaches mindful of his long-term future in the game, and his teams deep in pitching, he could be the ultimate prize prospect: a Sun Belt high school ace with a fresh arm.

He was 6-2 with four saves in 67 innings as a sophomore. Then he pitched 52 innings with a 0.94 ERA as a junior, as Apopka was careful with an arm that tightened slightly at midseason.

"I think he's always been taken seriously as a pitcher, but it's a real plus that Zack was never over-pitched as a young man," said Greinke's father Don, a middle school teacher. "Now Zack is understanding that may be his best tool. We try not to put our expectations about the draft too high because we know there can be disappointments. We're hopeful."

Greinke too is guarded about his draft hopes. But he is confident he can play any role a team desires.

"If a team wants you just for your arm, it's not up to you, it's what they want. I would miss hitting, but it comes with the territory. If they want my stick, then put me in the field. That's fine with me too."

Buddy Collings covers high school sports for The Orlando Sentinel.

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