Detroit— There is a fire that burns inside Tigers lefty Joey Wentz. There has to be. You don’t climb the minor-league ladder for six seasons, get knocked back by the dreaded, if inevitable, Tommy John surgery and still fight your way to the big leagues without an intense competitive flame.
But it’s like the pilot light on an old furnace — you know it’s there, but you aren’t going to see it from the outside. Wentz, if you want a one-word description, is chill. You can’t characterize his demeanor because he doesn’t really have one — on the mound or off.
Stoic is how he presents himself to the world.
Which made his response to facing one of his boyhood idols on Monday almost predictable.
“I try not to really think about who I am pitching against,” he said.
Wentz was born in Lawrence, Kansas, and grew up a Royals fan in Prairie Village, just 14 miles south of Kauffman Stadium. And if you were a young Royals fan from about 2005 on, you were a fan of pitcher Zack Greinke.
“Yeah, I definitely remember growing up, one of the first Royals you heard about as a kid was Zack Greinke,” Wentz said. “He was a really talented young pitcher who went on to be one of the best of my generation of watching baseball.”
Wentz might not have been the type of kid to hang a poster of Greinke on his wall, but he was locked in when the right-hander’s turn in the rotation came around.
“You go to games and you watch him pitch and he’s just a terrific pitcher,” he said. “When I was young, he was the guy you wanted to go watch play in Kansas City.”
Wentz was seven when Greinke debuted. He was 12 when Greinke made his first All-Star team and won the Cy Young Award. He was 14 when he was traded to Milwaukee.
Do you think that broke young Wentz’s heart? No, sir.
“I always felt like when he left Kanas City, you know, he went on to play for some really good teams,” Wentz said. “Yeah, any time you’re a kid and a guy like that leaves your favorite team, it stinks. But at the same time, he’s gone on to do some cool things for some other teams.”
You wonder if there were any 14-year-old Tigers fans who rationalized the Justin Verlander trade to Houston as dispassionately as that.
But he wasn’t wrong. Greinke went on to play for five other clubs, make five more All-Star teams, win six Gold Gloves, two ERA titles, a couple of Silver Sluggers, pitch in two World Series and in 2019 won his 200th game.
And now, at age 38, back with the Royals in what might be his final season, Greinke will take the mound Monday night at Comerica Park. Starting opposite him, a 24-year-old left-hander who grew up cheering for him at Kauffman Stadium.
This is the second time this season a Tigers rookie pitched against his boyhood idol. Back on April 30 at Dodgers Stadium, Beau Brieske locked horns with Clayton Kershaw, whose starts he not only watched, but studied.
“Looking back, I just remember how nervous I was,” said Brieske, who held the Dodgers to a run and three hits in five innings. “I look back at that and say, ‘Man, if I can do that, I can do pretty much anything.’ Because I didn’t sleep at all that night.”
It’s hard to imagine Wentz will lose sleep over this confrontation. Shoot, back on Sept. 9, he blanked the Royals on two hits over 6.2 innings in his first-ever start at Kauffman Stadium. He had half his hometown in the stands and his heart rate was calm as ever.
“Obviously, you know when you have a guy like that (Greinke) going for the other team, you’ve got to be pretty sharp,” he said. “Because you know that guy is going to be pretty sharp. Other than that, try not to think about it.
“Just know he’s going to be good and I’m going to have to try to be just as good.”
On deck: Royals
Series: Three games at Comerica Park
First pitch: Tuesday-Wednesday — 6:40 p.m.; Thursday — 1:10 p.m.
TV/radio: Tuesday-Thursday — Bally Sports Detroit, 97.1.
Probables: Tuesday — RHP Zack Greinke (4-9, 4.21) vs. LHP Joey Wentz (2-2, 3.13); Wednesday — LHP Daniel Lynch (4-11, 5.06) vs. RHP Matt Manning (2-3, 3.43); Thursday — RHP Jonathan Heasley (4-8, 4.87) vs. LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (4-5, 4.37).
Greinke, Royals: This could very well be Greinke’s last start at Comerica Park. He’s 8-5 with a 2.55 ERA in 17 games (15 starts) in Detroit, holding Tigers hitters to a .237 batting average and a .658 OPS. He’s coming off a couple of rough back-to-back starts against the Twins (seven runs, 15 hits in 9.1 innings).
Wentz, Tigers: He threw a gem in Baltimore, blanking the Orioles on two infield hits in 5.2 innings. The cutter that he developed while he was rehabbing has been a vital add to his arsenal. Right-handed hitters are hitting just .182 with 18 strikeouts in 72 plate appearances, largely because of the cutter (0-for-9 with a 40% whiff rate).