DETROIT — Ever since the Tigers drafted Riley Greene fifth overall in 2019, his baseball skills have been under a microscope. But beyond the sweet swing, quick strides and instinctive play, there’s this: He hates to lose.
“He’s a competitor,” said Braves prospect Vaughn Grissom, Greene’s best friend and high school teammate in Oviedo, Fla., “and he’s not going to be OK with just folding.”
Lots of professional athletes have that trait. But Greene really hates losing.
“This guy literally golfs righty,” Grissom said of the left-handed Greene, who golfs with his off hand so as not to mess with his baseball swing, “and he’s good, just because he doesn’t want to lose.”
Grissom said that in a phone conversation Friday, just a few hours before the Tigers made the call to bring up Greene for his Major League debut. Greene, who was with Triple-A Toledo on the road and couldn’t fly back on Friday evening, caught a Saturday morning flight into Detroit, went to Comerica Park and joined a Tigers team that had been in freefall for much of the week. The hug he received from Miguel Cabrera in the clubhouse showed what his arrival meant.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to win, and now I’m going to try my best to help this team out and do whatever I’ve got to do,” Greene said early Saturday afternoon. “But we’re going to win baseball games. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
A few hours later, as Greene trotted home with the Tigers’ 14th run of the day, it was difficult to argue that he didn’t make a difference. No, he didn’t score all those runs, just a couple of them, nor did he drive in any with his first two big league hits. But the energy with which the Tigers played in their 14-7 win over the Rangers supported the case manager A.J. Hinch made Friday that Greene’s Spring Training foot injury that delayed his debut by two months was a gut punch to the entire team.
“That speaks to how much credibility Riley had gained in our clubhouse by how much energy he has, how much he works, his vibe around him,” Hinch said.
Hinch didn’t want Greene to feel the weight of the club’s slow start on his shoulders. The way the Tigers hit up and down the lineup, he didn’t have to.
“I was just trying to have fun today,” Greene said. “That’s the name of the game, in my opinion. Just have fun and everything else will take care of itself.”
By the time the Tigers were done batting in the first inning, not only had Greene — batting sixth — recorded his first Major League hit, but the Tigers had also recorded more runs (three) than they had in their previous four games combined (two).
When a five-run fourth inning increased their lead to 9-1, they had their second-highest run total of the season.
Two more runs in the fifth inning, one scored by Greene after a leadoff walk and a Kody Clemens sacrifice fly, meant the Tigers had as many runs in five innings (11) as they’d posted in the previous eight games of the homestand combined.
A three-run sixth inning — again including Clemens driving in Greene — pushed Detroit to its highest run output of the season, past the 13-0 win from April 23, the same day Cabrera recorded his 3,000th hit.
That outburst was short-lived; the Tigers scored 10 runs total over their ensuing six-game losing streak. But Greene isn’t going anywhere, and the Tigers hope his lift isn’t either.
“This is not the first breakout game,” Hinch said. “We’ve had long stretches in between, but I’m thankful, because these guys needed it. This team needed it. Our staff needed it. Our fans needed it.”
Greene reached base safely four times off four pitchers. Both of his hits were opposite-field singles off lefties. He needed just two pitches, one in the strike zone, to record his first Major League hit, flaring a single into short left field off Texas starter Taylor Hearn. Members of his family, who flew from Orlando to Pittsburgh and then drove to Detroit on Saturday due to packed flights, were behind home plate to cheer him on.
“When I ran out to center field [for the first inning, I was] a little nervous,” Greene said. “But once I got my first hit, I was all good after that.”
Greene led off the eighth inning with a line drive to left off an 0-2 pitch from John King. But the walks in between, in consecutive innings off right-handed relievers, made a bigger impression on Hinch. Jesus Tinoco put him in an 0-2 hole with 96 mph sinkers, but Greene laid off breaking balls to run the count full before another sinker missed low for a free pass leading off the fifth.
An inning later, Greene took a pair of close pitches from José Leclerc on his way to a one-out walk.
“The quality of at-bats for five straight, it’s pretty awesome,” Hinch said. “I mean, that’s something that we’ve needed, and one of the reasons we’re excited about him.”
According to research on Baseball-Reference, Greene is the first Major Leaguer to reach base safely four times in his debut since Orioles outfielder Cedric Mullins had three hits and a walk on Aug. 10, 2018. No Tiger had done it since Scott Livingstone had three hits and a walk on July 19, 1991.
“Riley just hits,” teammate and good friend Spencer Torkelson said. “I remember when I got my first hit, it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. It looked like he was already playing pretty free anyway.”