Tigers’ Riley Greene recovering nicely from concussion, eyeing Opening Day in Detroit

Detroit News

With fewer than 24 hours remaining in his bust-out 2021 season, Riley Greene’s big baseball year ended.

Competitively, anyway.

During the fourth inning of the Toledo Mud Hens’ next-to-last game, Oct. 2 at Fifth Third Field, Greene was playing center field. At bat was St. Paul Saints shortstop Drew Stankiewicz.

Stankiewicz popped a Logan Shore pitch on a high path into left-center field. Greene raced toward it from the right — but couldn’t find the ball in a tough early-October sky. Left-fielder Jake Robson quickly sprinted from the left, hoping to rescue what should have been an easy put-out.

Greene dived as the ball fell between them, and just as Robson zoomed past his head, which in Greene’s words, “clipped” Robison’s right hip. The ball fell and Stankiewicz ended up with a triple.

Getting popped by Robson’s hip was more than a slight blow. Greene knew as much later that day, and during the ensuing week, when all the ills spurred by a blow to the head — wooziness, fogginess and headaches — followed.

More: Tigers’ Spencer Torkelson suffers ankle sprain, expected out for Arizona Fall League

He finished the game. But played his final innings of 2021. Trainers later put him under concussion protocol. He was told that his next stop, the Arizona Fall League, was canceled.

Greene spoke to The Detroit News this week about the collision, his recovery — he and the Tigers agree that three weeks later all is satisfactory — and what the next four months will involve as he gets ready for spring training and what could be an audition to be the Tigers’ 2022 Opening Day center fielder.

On the collision:

“Jake and I communicated before the play, but it was a tough sky that afternoon, just before sunset, and it’s tough to see whenever fly balls are hit, so we communicated before that, Greene said.

“Sure enough, a fly ball gets hit and I throw my hands up — tell him I can’t see it. Robbie runs over, I find it at the last second and try and make up (ground), so I dove just as he was coming through.

“There’s kind of nothing you can do about it. It’s one of those things.”

Greene is the Tigers’ top minor-league talent. Status aside, he was headed for Lakeland and for the TigerTown complex where injury rehab — in this case, concussion recovery — would be overseen for the next week-plus.

“I feel great,” Greene said. “I went to Lakeland, went through concussion protocol, I passed it, everything went well, and I’m feeling good today.”

Why hasn’t he headed to Phoenix for the final three weeks of the Arizona Fall League?

“You know, I feel like concussions are something you shouldn’t play around with,” Greene said. “If I go there, and for some reason something happens and I get another concussion, it just makes it worse. I’m just trying to heal all the way and get back 100 percent.”

Greene concedes that losing AFL ball hurts. Maybe most of all, because his buddies during those Erie and Toledo stints, Spencer Torkelson and shortstop Ryan Kreidler, have been playing for the Salt Water Rafters team for which Greene also was ticketed. Torkelson sprained an ankle during a game Wednesday, and appears shut down as well.

“Me and Tork and Kreidler were all looking forward to going there,” Greene said. “But stuff happened. It would have been a lot of fun. But I’ve been texting Tork, texting all the guys, keeping up with them, keeping up on the games, and all the stuff on Twitter.”

Greene, who turned 21 on Sept. 28, is now operating from a different script, all as his age makes those 2021 numbers brighter: .298 batting average, .381 on-base percentage, .908 OPS, with 16 home runs, all in 84 games at Double A Erie. He kept it up after being pushed to Triple A Toledo for a closing 40-game set: .308/.400/.953, with eight homers. His slugging percentages at each stop: .525 and .553.

Factor in his defense and everyone knows why Greene is a heavy bet to be Tigers manager AJ Hinch’s pick to begin the 2022 schedule in Detroit. It all is a product of a left-handed hitter who so awed Tigers scouts in 2019 that Greene, even as a prep player, was the 2019 MLB Draft’s fifth-overall pick.

For the next four months, he plans on staying at his folks’ home outside of Orlando, Florida, not far from Hagerty High, in Oviedo, where he played high school ball. He works out at the complex there, as well as at the hitting clinic his dad operates: Alan Greene’s Promoting Athletes Center, also in Oviedo.

“I took a couple of days off to relax,” Greene said. “I’ll start to get back in the gym pretty soon. I lost a few pounds this season (he is listed at 6-foot-3, 200), and I’ve got to put those back on.

“But I’ll start hitting maybe a month or two before we report (in February). I’m going to go fishing, hang out with friends, have some fun.”

The Oct. 2 mishap aside, Greene has otherwise been healthy during his 124 minor-league games and the preseason tune-up at Lakeland.

It was always going to be his toughest competition: the long, six-month adaptation to daily play that almost all prospects say is what most taxes them during their first full year of professional baseball.

Greene had a relative adjustment to it all, a year ago, when he was working with the taxi squad at Toledo that doubled as a Tigers reserve unit during the pandemic-pulverized 2020 schedule.

But this year he handled any fatigue, any of the typical bumps and aches and strains, with a kind of resignation. He also grew immensely as a hitter, against all flavors of minor-league pitching, with his only jagged mark those 153 strikeouts in 124 games.

“There were definitely a lot of ups and downs, but this season was big for me,” Greene said. “It’s because I learned. It was my first full season and I Iearned a lot about routines, about keeping the body healthy, being able to be ready for every single game. If you’re healthy, you’ve got a shot to make a difference, just showing up.”

Hitting is what alters games, breaks them up, allows a team to impose itself on a rival. Hitting, integrally, is why the Tigers drafted Greene. Hitting is what surpasses his defense or baserunning or any other asset as the Tigers ponder Greene’s place in 2022.

Greene says the difference in 2021 was, not surprisingly, a matter of confidence. The Tigers gambled last spring that a 20-year-old would survive at Double A. Then, when he not only held his own, but thrived there, they bumped him to Toledo. And there his numbers got even better, although the whiffs need to ease.

“Striking out is part of the game, and I definitely struck out more than I wanted to,” Greene said. “But it’s part of the game. It’s going to happen.

“I’m trying to be selective early in the count, trying to find that pitch. You know you’re going to be at two strikes more than you want to. But I feel, with two strikes, it’s a team at-bat at that point.”

Sacrificing extra bases is a tradeoff he’ll be tempted to make as he fights to put a ball in play, which with his speed, is a sacrifice his manager and lineup mates will take.

“But early in the count, I’ll let it go,” he said. “I’ll try and find a gap. I’m working on all that now — just trying to stay calm, breathing, keeping my heart rate down. I feel like that’s a big thing for me — relaxing in the box, and whatever happens, happens.”

Greene understands spring camp could be a dress rehearsal for Opening Day with Hinch and the Tigers.

“I want to make it up there (Detroit) and play a long time,” he said. “I’ll just take it day by day, work hard, and know I can’t control what happens. I can only control what I do. So, I’ll go out there and have as much fun as I can, and whatever happens, happens.”

The Tigers’ brass and many fans will not be shocked if a 21-year-old is starting in center field on March 31 at Seattle.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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