Wojo: Riley Greene fits and hits immediately in tantalizing Tigers debut

Detroit News

Detroit — The Tigers were due for a boost and a burst. Overdue. Way overdue.

That’s fitting, because Riley Greene was due for his celebrated debut, way overdue. Whether it was a quirk of timing or a legitimate spark, we’ll see. All we know for now is, the Tigers just inhaled deeply on fresh hope. Riley, the top-rated prospect in baseball who had yet to take his first MLB swing, immediately looked like he belonged, with two hits, two walks, two runs and a contagious, cool confidence.

Greene is not the reason the Tigers did things Saturday they never do, busting out with three home runs and 19 hits in a 14-7 beating of Texas in sunny Comerica Park. But his arrival changed the angle, and it’s up to the Tigers to make it mean something more. This had to be the most highly-anticipated debut by a Detroit athlete since, well, since Spencer Torkelson started at first base in the opener May 4. In between, the Tigers have done a whole lot of flailing and failing.

After six straight losses and growing gloom, the Tigers caught a break. They ran into ineffective Rangers pitcher Taylor Hearn, whose ERA ballooned to 6.25. They unleashed and unloaded, and that it came in Greene’s first start in center field might be coincidental, or might not.

First glimpse

He’s not here to save anything. That’s unfair and unrealistic, and this Tigers season may not even be save-able. But something had to change as their record plummeted (now 25-40), and Greene was a shimmering piece they expected to have all along. He was going to be on the opening-day roster but broke a bone in his right foot late in spring training, and we just caught a glimpse of how badly he’s been missed.

The smooth-swinging left-handed hitter has poise, self-assuredness and a star-like presence. He looped a single to left in his first at-bat, and later worked an 0-2 count into a walk and eventually scored. He added a sharp single in the eighth and finished 2-for-3. Upon his arrival Saturday morning after a quick call-up from Toledo, he sounded like a pro eager to prove it.

“I’m going to try my best to help the team out, whatever I’ve got to do,” Greene said before the game. “We’re going to win baseball games. That’s all I got to say.”

This is not about a one-day impact, as the crowd of 28,179 loudly cheered Greene’s introduction. Let’s not heap the hyperbole (at least not yet). But let’s also not downplay what it can mean for a historically awful offense to add speed and power and youthful exuberance. Or what it can mean for Greene’s buddy, Torkelson, who spent the first 10 weeks struggling to ride the rookie hype train by himself.

Torkelson batted seventh in the order, one spot behind Greene, and collected two hits to raise his average to .184. Whether inseparable in the lineup or off the field, it’s a bond that formed shortly after Torkelson was drafted No. 1 overall in 2020, after Green was taken No. 5 in 2019.

“It’s cool to be with him kind of under the spotlight, we have each other,” Torkelson said. “That was a typical Riley Greene performance (two hits, two walks), not trying to do too much. … When I got my first hit, it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulder. I’m sure he feels the same way. It just frees you up, although It looked like he was playing pretty free anyway.”

Perfect fit

That’s one of the striking qualities about 21-year-old Greene. He’s instantly comfortable in the clubhouse, where Miguel Cabrera and other veterans have repeatedly expressed respect for him. It’s much harder trying to hit when you’re also trying to fit, and that’s not an issue for Greene.

“Everyone has been anticipating his arrival,” A.J. Hinch said. “I’ve never seen a club more impacted by a young player’s injury like they were when he went down. It was a gut punch to the entire team. That speaks to how much credibility Riley gained in our clubhouse by how much energy he has, how much he works and the vibe around him. … I think he’s going to handle all of this just fine. The weight of the world is not on his shoulders.”

Hinch especially raved about Greene’s two walks, and his ability to work the count against a lefty. On the two singles, Greene hit the ball the opposite way against the Rangers’ shift, taking precisely what was available.

“Obviously the first hit is always gonna be memorable,” Hinch said. “The crowd was great. The quality of at-bats was pretty awesome. He’s gonna chase eventually too. He’s not perfect. I love the fact that he was settled today, and I think that settled people around him.”

Javier Báez, who hit his first home run since May 22, wasn’t surprised by Greene’s productive debut. The Tigers had witnessed his talent all spring. Deep down, they knew how damaging it was to lose Greene practically on the eve of the season, and how invigorating it is to get him back.

There were bursts of energy, from home runs by Robbie Grossman and Báez in the first inning, to Eric Haase’s three-run shot in the fourth. The Tigers had one home run in 14 days, then clubbed two in one inning. They’d been outscored 54-11 the first eight games of the homestand. Fans had begun to boo, or stay away. GM Al Avila was in the Bally Sports broadcast booth during the game and said the team was very disappointed and “evaluating every aspect of the operation, whether it be the front office, scouting, analytics, player development — the players have to be accountable too.”

Greene didn’t alter all that with one game or one swing. But he’s always been Avila’s most-prized prospect, and his arrival could not come soon enough. It had been anticipated for so long, it was almost as if he’d always been here.

“When I went out to center field, I was a little nervous,” Greene said. “I just tried to breathe. Once I got my first hit, I was all good after that.”

Perhaps this was a team-wide exhale, as the scrutiny shifted from all that has gone wrong — all the injuries and all the miscues — to what could go right with one of baseball’s brightest prospects. The Tigers are due for something to hit, and Greene is due to deliver.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: bobwojnowski

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