“I'm like, 'Riley, you're not slumping. You're 0-for-4,'” Spencer Torkelson recalled earlier this year.
Whatever Greene did after an 0-for-4, four-strikeout game against the Guardians on Thursday seemed to work. It was less superstition and more simplicity.
“One thing I’ve appreciated about Riley Greene: After the four-punchout performance, he’s just the same as he was when he hit his walk-off home run [against the Royals on July 2],” manager A.J. Hinch said. “And that’s not easy to do at this age and at this level, with this many expectations on you. It’s a tribute to his character.”
Greene was always going to have games like this. He’ll have more. It’s part of the growth process for a young hitter, even one who currently ranks as the best prospect in baseball. The challenge is how he responds at the plate. After a home run, a double and three hard-hit balls Friday, the answer this time was "pretty good." And if there’s a silver lining to be found from the rough road trip that ended the Tigers’ first half, it’s that the struggles that the young players are enduring aren’t for naught.
“You just kind of turn the page,” Greene said. “You can’t go back in time and redo anything. What’s done is done. I can’t really change anything, so you just have to focus on what you’re doing today. That’s it.”
All four of Greene’s strikeouts Thursday came on curveballs from Cleveland starter Triston McKenzie. It’s a pitch that has a 45 percent swing-and-miss rate, according to Statcast, so Greene is far from the first hitter to struggle with it.
“He was tough to me,” Greene said. “He was going fastball up, trying to get my eye level [raised], and then going curveball down. I feel like his curveball comes out of the same [arm] slot as his fastball does, so it’s tricky. He throws it just like his fastball.”
Greene has seen an uptick in breaking balls in general in July (28.8 percent of his pitches seen, according to Statcast) compared to June (22.5 percent). With a small sample size, some of that could be related to the arsenal of the pitchers he has faced.
Greene came back from Thursday’s four-strikeout game more aggressive, not less. Back in his customary leadoff spot, he jumped on the first pitch of the game -- a 92 mph fastball over the plate from Zach Plesac -- and hit a drive to left field with a 104.3 mph exit velocity. The ball ended up a flyout, but it set the tone for his at-bats to come.
“If he’s going to throw a first-pitch fastball, I’m going to swing at it,” Greene said later. “I hit it straight up, but it felt good. Going into the next couple ABs, I felt really good about the swing.”
Two innings later, Greene came back up against Plesac and saw another first-pitch fastball, this one around the top of the strike zone. Greene sent it out to right-center, a 386-foot home run with a 106.9 mph exit velocity, for his second Major League home run.
Plesac changed his approach when Greene came back up in the fourth inning, throwing three consecutive off-speed pitches. After a first pitch high and away, Plesac threw back-to-back changeups in the middle of the zone. Greene fouled off the first, then ripped the second into the right-field corner for a two-run double with a 108.4 mph exit velocity.
“I was kind of see-ball, hit-ball there,” Greene said of his approach. “I stayed back just a little longer.”
Greene grounded out later against Bryan Shaw before fanning against Trevor Stephan’s splitter, a game-ending strikeout he bemoaned after fouling off a 98 mph fastball in the zone two pitches earlier. Still, his 2-for-5, three-RBI performance made him the fourth AL rookie this season with two extra-base hits in a game with an exit velocity of 106.9 mph or better. Mariners outfielder Julio Rodríguez and Royals rookies MJ Melendez and Bobby Witt Jr. are the others.
“If he wants to be the player that we think he can be, he’s gotta have a short memory on nights like [Thursday],” Hinch said. “He had an excellent bounce-back game, obviously hit the ball hard and came up with some really big swings for us. Obviously it wasn’t quite enough, but for Riley and his development at this level, that’s a great lesson to take away.”