‘Special player’: Riley Greene shines again as Tigers kick off Instructional League play

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
| The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. – His swings are full and fluid. One thing about Riley Greene during an at-bat is that he gets his cuts.

But they’re under control.

And they’re tough on a baseball.

Greene, who two weeks ago turned 20, ranks either first or second on just about any list of top Tigers prospects. He was as close to a star as the Tigers offense featured Wednesday in a 3-1 loss to the Blue Jays in an Instructional League duel at Publix Field at Marchant Stadium.

Batting second in a lineup skippered by Tigers farm manager Andrew Graham, Greene laced a triple into the right-field corner in the first inning, then scored on a RBI single by second baseman Kody Clemens.

On a 3-1 pitch in the third, Greene just – just – missed a fastball that he popped a mile high into a bright blue sky for a putout in short right field.

Then, in the fifth, he drilled a liner to the Blue Jays center fielder, who snagged it in front of the warning track.

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“For sure, those were good at-bats,” Greene said after the Tigers’ and Jays’ top-shelf prospects met in what was essentially the first Tigers minor-league game of 2020, due to COVID-19’s season cancellation. “I’m just trying to stay gap-to-gap with my swings – let the ball travel more. Keep my hands inside and, again, trying to stay gap-to-gap.”

In the first, Greene teed off on a 3-1 fastball and sent it screaming down the right-field line. Speed is one of his pluses, and one of the reasons the Tigers took him fifth-overall in the 2019 MLB Draft. He steamed past second base and a few strides later was parked at third, all ahead of Clemens’ hard ground-single to right that put the Tigers on top, 1-0.

Greene had a 3-1 count in the third when he got a fastball and sent a pop-up into short right that seemed as if it got stuck high in the 84-degree air. After a few pregnant moments it finally landed in the second baseman’s mitt.

“It was a little too high,” Greene said. “I was on time for the fastball, but I tried to get it and just missed it.

“If that pitch was even a little lower, it would have gone real far.”

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In his last at-bat, in the fifth, Greene tore into a 2-2 pitch and drove it on a line to a back-tracking Jays center fielder, who snagged it.

“I think the pitch he threw me before was a slider, and I kind of check-swung at it,” Greene said. “I figured another off-speed pitch would come ‘cause of the way I looked on that slider. Again, I was just trying to see the ball deep and get it on the barrel.”

Andrew Graham, the Tigers’ Single A Lakeland manager who skippered Wednesday’s game, agreed Greene’s day had been a winner.

“He’s going to be a special player to watch,” Graham said of Greene. “It’s not like he has tools and there’s no production. Every time he’s out there you wait for him to do something exciting.”

Graham added: “I don’t know what the exit-velocity was on that lineout to center, but it was up there.”

The Tigers used two platoons Wednesday, allowing their starters the first five innings before replacing them with a second unit.

They also used nine pitchers who each got an inning-long shift. There was, however, a wrinkle Wednesday: Because of 2020’s lost season, and because protecting pitchers is something of a first commandment during the five-week Instructional Camp, some innings ceased with two outs if a pitcher had approached his pitch-count.

The Tigers got only three hits Wednesday: Greene’s triple, Clemens’ single, and a single from 2019 draft-pick Kerry Carpenter.

Spencer Torkelson, the Tigers’ first-overall pick in June, had a nifty day nonetheless: two walks, and a fly-out to the 420-foot mark in center field. Torkelson, like Greene, just missed getting the meat of a pitch in the third but still drove it with easy power to the deepest stretch of Publix Field.

“The wind was blowing in and he was a little frustrated there,” Graham said of Torkelson, who played third base, without blemish, Wednesday. “He was on that taxi squad in Toledo, where they use major-league and Triple A balls.

“So that ball held up. But, even then, he sure didn’t get all of it.”

Gage Workman, who replaced Ryan Kreidler at shortstop, had two walks in two at-bats. Workman was Torkelson’s teammate at Arizona State and was the Tigers’ fourth-round pick in June.

The Jays had about the same fortunes against nine Tigers pitchers, scoring a pair of runs and getting three of their five hits in the seventh against 20-year-old Rodolfo Fajardo, a left-hander. A home run, triple, and double did the trick on a day when hitters showed how much they missed the usual 140-game schedule.

The Jays got a final run in the ninth on a homer to right against right-hander Joseph Salazar.

Wilkel Hernandez, 21, and part of the Tigers’ payback after trading Ian Kinsler to the Angels in 2017, started and had two strikeouts in a 1-2-3 first.

“He’s a young kid, but so poised, with great pitchability,” Graham said, noting that Hernandez’s fastball topped out Wednesday at 97. “Every time I see him, I’m more impressed.”

Alex Lange, who 15 months ago was dealt from the Cubs as part of the Nick Castellanos trade, also struck out two in a clean second. Others who threw Wednesday: Wladimir Pinto (two walks, swinging-bunt single), Ethan DeCaster (one strikeout, no hits), and Will Vest, a 12th-round pick in 2017 out of Stephen F. Austin, who was firing fastballs at 98 mph and who got one of his two strikeouts on a mean slider.

“He’s an interesting guy,” said Graham, who managed Vest in 2019 during their mutual time at Lakeland. “He was a position player who’s developed into a power pitcher with a sharp fastball. It was 94 to 96 before, but now it’s 98. And he’s got a good curve.”

And even a new slider that he used in racking up Wednesday’s second strikeout.

Paul Richon, Brendan White, and Salazar finished, with a swinging-bunt single against White, and the homer off Salazar, the Jays’ remaining hits.

Wednesday’s game was yet another display of pandemic precautions. Only a handful of family or friends were allowed to watch in a strictly spaced area well behind home plate.

Masks abounded. Players kept their distance.

But the dividend from Instructional Camp, and perhaps even more the chance for hitters to work against game-caliber fastballs and breaking stuff after a seven-month layoff, is the surpassing value from games the Tigers are still trying to arrange with other Florida teams.

“One hundred percent,” Graham said. “The more reps and the more live at-bats we can give them, the more beneficial so that they don’t lose a whole year of development.

“We’re going through drills, working with velocity machines, and even standing close to the machines every morning as a means to get them ready for velocity – and get them as game-ready as possible.”

A second game is set for Friday against the Pirates at Lakeland.

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