Tigers’ Riley Greene continues to quell doubts about playing center

Detroit News

Dunedin, Fla. — Riley Greene just had to laugh at it.

“That wind was insane today,” he said. “During batting practice I was sitting there laughing. I was shagging balls and there were fly balls hit to the middle of the outfield that were landing in the middle of the infield.”

Gusts up to 21 mph were blowing in from right field throughout the Tigers’ 5-3 spring loss to the Blue Jays at TD Ballpark Thursday, playing havoc with balls hit in the air and adding a massive degree of difficulty to a spectacular, run-saving catch Greene made in right field in the first inning.

Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette, a right-handed hitter, sliced a 2-1 fastball off Tigers right-hander Matt Manning with two on. The ball left his bat with an exit velocity of 107 mph and seemed initially to be heading directly at Greene in right field.

“That wind was crazy,” Manning said. “I saw him kind of slow down and then start drifting to his right. Like, uh-oh.”

Greene, who has all but stamped his spot as the Tigers’ Opening Day center fielder, thought it was hit right at him, too.

“I kind of just drop-stepped and sat there,” he said. “I was trying to see what it was going to do. I thought it was kind of routine. I thought it would fade back toward the line and I was in the right spot. But it kind of kept going.”

He made a quick adjustment with his body, took a couple steps back, running away from the infield and toward the line, then made a full-extension, superman dive toward the wall, catching it backhanded across his body.

“Great catch,” Manning said.

The way the ball traveled made more sense to Greene after he heard the exit velocity was 107 mph.

“In batting practice, balls were dying,” he said. “That one kind of took off. That’s why I had to lay out. It was a tough read.”

Perhaps we aren’t talking enough about Greene’s glove work. Understandable since he came into the game hitting .412 with a 1.5 OPS and legged out another double Thursday. But it’s the defense that will determine if and for how long he stays in center field.

That was a topic of conversation with manager AJ Hinch before the game.

“We’ve got to keep looking at Riley,” he said. “With the bat, the numbers are going to be the numbers in a short sample. But I think some of the stuff in the outfield; his jumps are good, his routes are good. It sounds so elementary but he makes the cut-off throws.

“The calmness with which he plays, he’s just a really good player. Those things are probably more important to me than whether he sneaks in another hit or two in March.”

Greene played right field Thursday because, well, there will be times in the season when he will have to. He needs to stay prepared. But the focus for now is whether he can handle the rigors of center field, especially at Comerica Park.

“He’s going to be tested every game he plays out there,” Hinch said. “It’s brand new for us, actually seeing him in center field. I’m kind of ticked at myself that I didn’t play him more in center last spring — but we were locked in on Derek Hill and Akil Baddoo.

“As Riley matures and grows, he’s going to play outfield differently than others, meaning his routes are really good. His speed is not elite and that’s OK. I played with Mark Kotsay and he was an excellent outfielder. He wasn’t a burner but he made every play. Kevin Pillar finds a way to do it. Sometimes we stereotype what skill sets guys have to have. Maybe it’s not always perfect.”

Greene, by the way, takes issue with the speed thing.

“I wouldn’t say I’m really fast, but I’m sort of fast,” he said. “I can run after balls. My jumps on balls off the bat have gotten really good.”

And for the record, Greene has no doubt he can cover center field, or any field, anywhere.

“I played them all last year on the road and I’m very comfortable wherever I’m at in the outfield,” he said.

Manning’s new weapon

Manning labored through three-plus innings Thursday, needing 67 pitches and walking the two batters he faced in the fourth. But he got an object lesson on how effective his two-seam fastball can play against some of the best right-handed hitters.

“It could be a great weapon for him,” Hinch said. “We saw some uncomfortable swings from good hitters when he was able to drive that pitch in on them.”

Case in point was Manning’s strikeout of Matt Chapman in the second inning. He got ahead 0-2, jamming him inside with two-seamers. After he purposely missed high with a four-seam fastball, Manning finished him off with a sweeping slider off the outer edge.

“I’m trying to use my two-seamer more inside just to get in on righties,” Manning said. “That’s going to be beneficial. I used it a lot last year but it had the same action as a four-seamer. I’m getting a little more sink to it now.”

Of course, Manning won’t always see a right-handed stacked lineup like he did Thursday. His changeup and four-seamer (which hit 97 mph Thursday and sat 94) will be primary weapons against left-handed hitters.

“It’s all about execution for Matt,” Hinch said. “He had some long at-bats that cost him a deep pitch count. I feel like I’m almost on repeat from last year when I talked about (Casey) Mize and (Tarik) Skubal, but we’re still developing here.

“He’s going to be a good one and he’s starting to figure that out.”

Around the horn

The Tigers got a strong inning each from Joe Jimenez and Alex Lange, two right-handers who have all but sewn up spots on the flight to Detroit next week.

“Lange and Joe are ahead of the majority of relievers that are on our team,” Hinch said. “Put Gregory Soto in that category, as well. Lange is so confident coming in off his strong second half last year. We need him to be good.”

… It was a less-than-stellar day for two relievers very much on the roster bubble. Right-hander Will Vest gave up two runs, two hits and two walks in his inning, while right-hander Rony Garcia escaped two innings despite two walks and two hits.

“We are on the long view here,” Hinch said. “Nobody is going to lose an opportunity on one outing. I kind of like the pressure. If they make the team and end up pitching against the White Sox or Red Sox, that’s more pressure than I can put on them.”

… Eric Haase hit his second homer of the spring, hooking one around the foul pole in left.

cmccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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