PHOENIX — One day after Riley Greene went flying into right-center field for a highlight catch, he went diving into left-center for another. This one, he had a better idea of how he could track it down, even if he had to slide along the Chase Field turf on his stomach in the process.
“That one, I knew I was going to catch,” Greene said. “Good jump, good read, good route.”
Ultimately, the Tigers’ downfall in Sunday afternoon’s 11-7 loss to the D-backs were balls that neither Greene nor anyone in Detroit’s defense could make a play on. Eight walks, including three from starter Beau Brieske, led to damage. Half of those runs came around to score, and others extended innings for three sacrifice flies and a pair of costly two-out hits, one of them Daulton Varsho’s three-run homer off Will Vest that all but put the game away and denied Detroit a chance at a road series sweep.
“We were kind of a mess on the mound,” manager A.J. Hinch said, “which is unusual. We’ve usually been throwing strikes and been able to get out of the messes that we’ve created, and today was the opposite.”
Still, Greene’s performance in center field this weekend was an investment in the trust between pitcher and defender to throw strikes and get quality results, even on balls in play. When Hinch pulled Brieske with two outs in the fourth inning, five of his 11 outs came on Greene catches, including four consecutive outs from the third inning into the fourth.
If not for Greene’s diving catch, Arizona would’ve pulled away sooner. Brieske, pitching in the ballpark where he grew up going to games as a kid, allowed only a bloop single through his first two innings before a high fastball to Carson Kelly caught too much of the plate and ended up in the left-field seats.
“I didn’t think that was where I went wrong,” Brieske said. “It was more so just not continuing to stay on the attack. I just wasn’t pitching the way I know I can.”
After retiring six of Arizona’s first seven batters, Brieske retired just four of his final 12, all on fly balls or line drives to Greene. The biggest came after two walks and a Pavin Smith single loaded the bases for Christian Walker, who then sent a 360-foot drive to left-center. Statcast gave Greene a 35-percent catch probability based on exit velocity and launch angle, but like his flying catch Saturday night, Greene improved his odds with a huge jump and a direct route. By cutting across the field rather than backtracking deeper, Greene covered 82 feet in 4.4 seconds.
“Bases loaded, had to catch it,” Greene said.
Greene’s grab turned what would’ve been a two-or-three-run extra-base hit into a game-tying sacrifice fly. Three pitches later, Greene raced back across center to cut off David Peralta’s 110.5 mph line drive — a ball with a .750 expected batting average — to make an inning-ending catch.
“He’s playing very well out there and he’s taking good routes and finishing plays,” Hinch said. “We’re going to take plenty more of those.”
If there was any question whether Greene could handle center in the Majors, coming off a fractured bone in his foot that delayed his Major League debut by 2 1/2 months, these few games have provided a fairly impressive answer. Though he’s break-even in Outs Above Average, he already has a five-star catch and added a four-star grab, per Statcast, in just over a week in the Majors.
He’s also learning how to blend his athleticism with the level of defensive preparation required in the Majors, from pre-pitch positioning to advance scouting on hitters to knowing his pitchers — a process that began back in Spring Training.
“One of the beauties of Riley is I don’t think he knows why or how he does half of what he does,” Hinch said. “His youthfulness is part of his charm. He started studying himself a little bit and working on getting better and better. He sees how it pays off.”