PHOENIX -- What’s bigger, a go-ahead home run or a game-saving catch?
Kody Clemens’ first Major League home run was a go-ahead drive in a lefty-lefty showdown against a reliever who rarely gives up homers and had never given up one to a lefty. And that arguably wasn’t the biggest highlight by a Tigers rookie Saturday, though it brought about the biggest celebration.
“I tasted, like yogurt, and baby powder and protein shake -- chocolate,” said Clemens after Detroit’s 6-3 win over Arizona. “I was covering my eyes.”
While Clemens cleaned up, Riley Greene checked the scrape on his right arm from the artificial surface at Chase Field. That wasn’t a pretty sight, either. He knew it was going to hurt when he went airborne for Buddy Kennedy’s drive to right-center. He dove anyway.
“It was like a rock,” said Greene of the surface. “It hurt. But it was fine. I kind of slid and I didn’t really plop, so it was fun.”
This is what Clemens, Greene, Spencer Torkelson and other Tigers prospects dreamed about in Triple-A Toledo last summer. It’s the upside of letting the youngsters get their opportunity, make mistakes and learn amidst a Tigers season in which not much has gone right.
Clemens and Greene were teammates for the final months of last season at Toledo, where the Mud Hens finished with the best record in its division. While Clemens showed signs of emerging as an impact hitter, Greene continued his ascension among the game’s top prospects. Both made their case that their path to Detroit shouldn’t be long.
While Clemens provided the three-run homer to pull the Tigers ahead in the sixth inning, Greene provided the defensive gem to help keep them in front an inning later.
“We always dreamed about that,” Greene said, “but we didn’t really talk about it that much. We kind of just played baseball and had fun.”
Clemens’ start was a bit of a matchup play -- lefties hit D-Backs starter Zach Davies better than righties -- and a bit of keeping him fresh. He hadn’t played at all on the road trip, including the three-game series in Boston against his dad’s original team. With the Tigers expecting to face left-handed starters in the coming games, he wasn’t likely to get many chances in the coming days, either. So Clemens started at second, and Jonathan Schoop had a game off.
“Playing the schedule more than anything,” said manager A.J. Hinch before the game.
Hinch stuck with Clemens and didn’t play matchups with two on and one out in a 3-3 game against ex-Tiger Joe Mantiply, who had allowed a bit higher average to lefties this season, but has been tougher to them throughout his career. Clemens hit .200 against lefties at Toledo this season before his callup, but worked hard to try to improve. At times this week, he said he stood in on bullpen sessions to track pitches.
“I’ve been working my [tail] off and trying to do everything I can to be in the lineup and help the team win and do whatever I can up here,” Clemens said. “It’s great to see it pay off.”
Mantiply entered Saturday with a 46 percent whiff rate on his breaking ball, not including the three he threw to strike out Jeimer Candelario with Clemens on deck. Once Mantiply put Clemens in a 1-2 count, he tried to finish him off with another curve.
“I fouled one of them off, saw it well,” Clemens said, “and then he threw it again. I got the barrel to it.”
Mantiply hadn’t given up a home run since June 18 of last year. He’d allowed just three home runs in 96 career big league appearances, all to right-handed batters. To see Clemens, who endured an 0-for-17 slump before his first Major League hit, win the lefty-lefty matchup was surreal.
“As soon as I hit it, I knew it had a chance,” Clemens said. “And then as soon as I was about to round first, I saw it going out. He turned and looked up, and I showed some emotion there. I was pumped.”
Greene was in the dugout when it erupted.
“Being there for it was really cool,” he said. “In that situation, it was awesome.”
Greene is still waiting for his first Major League homer. He’ll gladly take the catch in the meantime. After Clemens powered the Tigers in front in the top of the sixth inning, Greene took his spot in center for the bottom half and watched Kennedy test him.
Greene had to cover 71 feet to make the catch, per Statcast. He covered the final few feet with his feet in the air. It was very much a leap of faith.
“I dove, threw my glove out there and I caught it,” Greene explained. “Didn’t know if I was going to or not.”
Clemens had one of the best views from behind second base.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I mean, it was unreal. An unreal, talented player. He makes those catches all the time. Does it surprise me? No, it doesn’t.
“I’ve seen him do it multiple times. That was a really good one.”
So which feels better? They’ll both take what they got.
“It’s pretty similar, depending on what situation the hit [is] in and what catch,” Greene said. “Making a catch like that, it doesn’t really happen that much. It’s gotta be perfectly hit, you have to have a good jump. I’d say catching it is better.”