ANAHEIM -- Perhaps you've heard this before: Zack Greinke pitched an eight-inning gem, was pulled in the ninth inning with 109 pitches and closer Ernesto Frieri lost the game via the home-run ball.
It happened Saturday in Kansas City. And on Thursday night, with the urgency peaking and the time dwindling, it happened against the Rangers at Angel Stadium.
Greinke mowed through Texas' vaunted batting order, matching an equally stellar Yu Darvish with eight innings of one-run ball. But with the game tied heading to the ninth, manager Mike Scioscia removed Greinke and went to Frieri, who gave up a two-run homer to Adrian Beltre that handed the Angels a heartbreaking -- and, perhaps, backbreaking -- 3-1 loss.
"It's tough," Greinke said. "We need to win these games. It's getting close to the end of the season."
The countdown is now at 12 games.
As recently as Sept. 10, the Angels were one game back of a playoff spot. But since then, they've gone 4-6, dropping three of four to the A's, winning two of three against the Royals and dropping two of three to the Rangers. Now, they're 4 1/2 games back of the A's and Orioles, both tied for the lead in the American League Wild Card race. The Rangers, meanwhile, are 8 1/2 games better in the AL West.
Is this the end of the Angels' playoff hopes?
"We're not going to give up," said veteran Torii Hunter, part of an offense that has scored less than five runs in eight of their last 13 games. "We're going to keep fighting, we're going to keep doing what we need to do. We have to catch a break somewhere, that's outside of our control, but all we can do is worry about what we can do here."
Against the Royals on Saturday, Greinke pitched eight shutout innings, then left after giving up a one-out single in the ninth, with 109 pitches under his belt and a 2-0 lead on the scoreboard. Three pitches later, Frieri had given up a two-run homer to Billy Butler and a solo shot to Salvador Perez for the walk-off loss.
On Thursday, after Greinke gave up only a sacrifice fly in eight innings -- scattering five hits, striking out eight and walking none in 109 pitches -- Frieri gave up a leadoff single to Michael Young in the ninth, then hung a 2-1 slider to Beltre, who blasted it out to left field for his 34th home run.
Frieri had gone away from his fastball, the one that got him in trouble at Kauffman Stadium, but also the one that made him nearly unhittable in the first half.
"Most of the time I look for the fastball, and his is sneaky," said Beltre, who wasn't going to play because of gastrointestinal issues until he talked himself into the starting lineup during batting practice. "He threw me a breaking ball and I hit it good."
"I just pitch," Frieri added. "That was the pitch that I wanted to throw. He hit it, so what? Every pitch that I make is because I wanted to throw it. He hit a pitch, he's a good hitter, and that happens. That happens. Maybe I didn't execute the pitch where I wanted, but I wanted to throw that pitch."
The big question was Greinke's pitch -- or, pitches.
Asked about the decision to once again remove Greinke just before the 110-pitch threshold, Scioscia kept referencing a certain point in the game the Angels, and Greinke, are more comfortable with. In 11 starts with the Angels, Greinke has surpassed 110 pitches five times, but has never thrown more than 115.
In 49 career starts with the Brewers, Greinke surpassed 115 pitches only three times (116 twice, 118 once).
"I think he's got a range that he's comfortable in, we're comfortable in, and we're not going to extend anybody," Scioscia explained. "We didn't lose this game because of what Zack didn't do out there. He pitched a terrific game, got us to a certain point, and I think when you start to get in a certain range, you want to be careful. He was pushed back once this year, too. You have to balance things out."
Greinke, who came in with a 1.70 ERA in his previous five starts, was sharp throughout the night. He struck out four of the first seven batters he faced, retired 11 of his final 13 and didn't get into a three-ball count until the seventh.
The 28-year-old said he felt "normal" by the time he finished the eighth. But Scioscia had already made up his mind that it would be his final frame, a decision partly based on a plan Scioscia, Greinke and pitching coach Mike Butcher ironed out when Greinke first arrived in Anaheim in late July.
"I don't know if it's 110, but it's a certain point in the game," Scioscia said. "And if we're stretching him to 115, 120, we're going to start to push him not only for what he's going to do bouncing back, but for his career. And I don't think we're at that point right now where we want to push that envelope with him."
Greinke didn't want to get into specifics about his limitations.
"I just pitch as long as I can," he said. "We talked about stuff when I first got here of what I feel best in, and he makes his decision from there."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.