The Minnesota Twins somehow missed Zack Greinke the first 14 times they faced the Kansas City Royals this season.
Now, they get him twice in a week _ it couldn't have come at a worse time.
Greinke worked through several jams in seven innings to bolster his Cy Young Award chances and put a dent in Minnesota's postseason hopes, helping the Royals win their home finale 4-1 on Sunday.
With a chance to pull within one game of AL Central-leading Detroit, Minnesota couldn't overcome Francisco Liriano's short-lived return to the rotation and let Greinke (16-8) wriggle out of a bases-loaded jam with no outs in the third inning. The Twins, who had won five straight, hope to have learned something from the outing: Greinke is scheduled to pitch against them again Saturday in Minnesota.
"I'm not happy we faced him today, but I'm happy we've only faced him once this season," Twins right fielder Jason Kubel said. "We've got to face him one more time. Unfortunately, it's bad timing."
Before they get to Greinke again, the Twins have a pretty important series coming up: four games in Detroit, starting Monday. Even with the loss and slugger Justin Morneau out for the season, Minnesota heads into the series on a roll, with 11 wins in the past 13 games.
"It's in our hands," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We've got to win this series and see what happens."
Dominant all season but particularly over the past month, Greinke had to fight through some tough spots against the Twins.
He opened the third by walking Matt Tolbert, a .228 hitter, then gave up two soft singles to Nick Punto and Denard Span. The right-hander worked out of that with a forceout at home and consecutive strikeouts of Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel, who slammed his bat to the ground in frustration.
After whizzing through a five-pitch fourth, Greinke ran into more trouble in the sixth, giving up his second earned run in 40 2-3 innings on Michael Cuddyer's groundout that made it 4-1. The Twins had two on with no outs in each of the next two innings against him, failing to score both times.
Greinke allowed one run and seven hits to beat Minnesota for the first time in his last seven starts against the Twins. Joakim Soria got the final six outs, inducing a groundout by Mauer with two on in the ninth for his 29th save in 32 chances.
"Until there's people in scoring position, I kind of attack and let the hitters do their thing," Greinke said. "When there's guys in scoring position, that's when I try to stop them and not let anything happen."
He's certainly been good at it and is making a strong case for the AL Cy Young.
Greinke's baseball-best ERA dropped to 2.06 after his first home win against Minnesota since 2004. He has allowed one run or less in 17 of 32 starts and has struck out at least eight 16 times, including Sunday.
Greinke has been at his best when it matters most for awards, going 5-0 with a 0.73 ERA over his last seven starts, and probably could have at least 20 wins if the Royals hadn't scored a baseball-worst 4.72 runs behind him.
"He's the guy for me. It's a no-brainer for me," Royals manager Trey Hillman said. "If anybody is going to evaluate it fairly _ before his last start against Boston I heard some of the buzz that he doesn't have to pitch against the American League East _ just look at the statistics."
Liriano (5-13) didn't get the same kind of leeway.
With the Twins trying to catch the Tigers in the Central, Gardenhire didn't have a lot of patience for the left-hander in his first start since Aug. 17.
Try 45 pitches worth.
Liriano made it through the first inning, stranding Willie Bloomquist at third. In the second, he gave up a leadoff double to Alberto Callaspo and walked Miguel Olivo. Both runners moved up on a sacrifice before Betancourt hit a 1-2 pitch out to left for his sixth homer.
A four-pitch walk to Luis Hernandez _ a .169 hitter _ another walk to Mitch Maier, and Gardenhire came to the mound. Liriano was done after five outs.
"I was making a lot of mistakes," Liriano said. "I wasn't making good pitches, walking too many people. I think it was a good idea to take me out of the ballgame."
NOTES: Royals trainer Nick Swartz, who's retiring after 33 seasons with the organization, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. The entire roster joined him on the mound. ... Mauer is 25 for 55 against the Royals this season after going 2 for 5. ... The Royals drew nearly 1.8 million fans this season, their most since 1993.