Greene's speed shows Tigers won't stop fighting

April 2nd, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- made a highlight reel of plays as a rookie last season by turning on his speed to take away base hits. On Sunday, that same timely speed helped the Tigers avoid getting no-hit.

It was a small consolation in a 5-1 loss to the Rays that finished off an opening series sweep and sent the Tigers to an 0-3 start for the first time since 2018. But while the Tigers await a matchup against the defending World Series champion Astros and search for the offensive punch that sparked encouragement in Spring Training, that speed to compete for an infield single is the kind of fight the Tigers need to survive a treacherous early stretch and avoid a potential third slow start in as many seasons.

“Yeah, I smelled it,” Greene said of his seventh-inning infield single, a ground ball to first base in which he simply beat the throw to the bag. “When you smell a hit, obviously you’re going to turn [the speed] on. So I was just like, ‘Gotta go.’”

It’s the same mentality he brings to center field with diving catches and leaps at the fence. If that sounds simple at the plate, it wasn’t, not on Sunday anyway.

The grounder was the seventh ball the Tigers put in play out of 20 batters. Rays starter Jeffrey Springs struck out 12 batters over six hitless innings, basically playing fastballs off of changeups to keep Tigers hitters guessing. Greene’s first-inning flyout was one of just two balls Springs allowed out of the infield. Detroit’s lone baserunner in the first six innings was a Nick Maton second-inning walk.

Springs was nasty, but he was at his limit for manager Kevin Cash. Greene led off the seventh against lefty reliever Colin Poche, pitching for the second time in the series. The Tigers could talk about turning the page to a new pitcher, but the zero on the hit total was still staring at them from the scoreboard.

“We were all aware of it,” Greene said. “Just go out there and make something happen."

In other words, put a ball in play, something they did far too rarely against Springs. Greene’s aggressiveness nearly denied him a chance. He fell into an 0-2 hole chasing Poche sliders down and away, then took a couple pitches to run the count even. 

When Poche went back to the slider below the knees, Greene pounded it into the turf. It wasn’t quality contact, but it was more effective than most of Detroit’s at-bats. It tested a Tampa Bay defense that had been reshuffled going into the inning with Poche on the mound and Luke Raley, normally an outfielder, at first base after pinch-hitting for Isaac Paredes in the previous inning.

"When I hit it, I saw that the first baseman was over a little bit,” Greene said. “I looked up and the pitcher didn't break right away to first. I was like, ‘Just run hard, see what happens.’”

Raley fielded the ball cleanly and looked ready to run to the bag himself until he saw how fast Greene was moving. Poche, whose delivery sends him falling to the third-base side of the mound, raced over but couldn’t catch up.

“I think the short answer would be: He's fast, and I'm slow,” Poche said. “I felt like I got a decent break on it and got there as quick as I could, but he's a good runner down the line.”

Actually, Greene’s sprint speed last year was above-average at 27.7 feet per second, placing him in the 59th percentile, according to Statcast. He topped out at 29.7 feet/second on Sunday’s grounder. He surpassed that speed just twice last year, topping out at 29.9 feet/second beating out an infield single Aug. 31 against the Mariners at Comerica Park.

Jake Rogers’ ninth-inning home run gave the Tigers another hit and avoided what would’ve been a second shutout. But with 30 strikeouts in three games, the Tigers need more balls in play. They took 14 called strikes on fastballs from Springs, setting up nine swings and misses on changeups.

“He didn’t really make a lot of mistakes,” Greene said. “I feel like he threw the way he wanted to throw today. He was on, but we’ve got to be better at the plate. We have to do whatever we can to put the ball in play and make something happen."