Greene walks it off in style with first MLB HR

July 3rd, 2022

DETROIT -- Riley Greene bats leadoff in the Tigers' lineup, two weeks into his Major League career, for moments like Saturday.

“Having a dangerous hitter at the top of the order is something I've grown to really like and appreciate,” said manager A.J. Hinch before Saturday’s 4-3 win over the Royals. “And I think as this lineup matures and as we get healthy and you start to see better and better offense out of us, you're going to see Riley at the top getting that fifth at-bat.”

Hours later, he got one more at-bat. That’s when the Tigers’ new leadoff hitter became their closer.

Not since Lou Whitaker took Seattle’s Enrique Romo deep to right field at Tiger Stadium on July 28, 1978, had a Detroit Tiger hit a walk-off for his first Major League home run. But even that might not compare to the sight of watching Greene’s ninth-inning game-winner carry towards Comerica Park’s center-field shrubs, 5 1/2 seconds of hangtime that felt like an eternity.

Greene had led off the first inning with a 413-foot triple to nearly the same area, hitting the center-field wall on a bounce.

“I didn’t really know if it was going to go, because of the hit in the first inning,” Greene said. “I barreled that one up and I was like, ‘How didn’t that get out?’ I was kind of running decently hard down the line just in case.

“But once I saw it go out, it was awesome. Just the adrenaline rush going through me, it was like I didn’t know what to do. But it was awesome.”

Tigers fans have been anticipating heroics like this ever since the club selected Greene fifth overall in the 2019 MLB Draft, brought him to Comerica Park for batting practice and watched him hit balls to the Pepsi Porch over right field. But Saturday’s drive put an exclamation point on a day in which Greene centered and crushed balls all game -- three balls to the middle with exit velocities in the triple digits -- and scored three of Detroit’s four runs.

“Staying in the middle of the field, not trying to hit the ball a thousand feet, just trying to hit it 331 feet or 421 feet, whatever it is,” Greene said. “Just trying to stay smooth and stick to my approach.”

Greene’s triple had an exit velocity of 105.7 miles per hour, and would’ve been a home run in 22 other Major League parks, according to Statcast. He had seen three consecutive fastballs from Royals lefty starter Kris Bubic before smoking a 1-2 changeup. He cruised into third base standing up before Javier Báez hit a sacrifice fly to right to bring him in.

An inning later, Greene saw three pitches before hitting a fastball back up the middle at 104.1 mph. The grounder had a .490 expected batting average, essentially a 50-50 ball, and would’ve been a two-out RBI single if not for Royals shortstop and fellow rookie phenom Bobby Witt Jr. positioned up the middle.

“He’s got a good approach and a good plan against any pitcher,” Báez said. “He’s just like a machine to get on base.”

Greene worked Bubic again for a one-out walk in the fifth, then scored Detroit’s second run after back-to-back singles from Miguel Cabrera and Eric Haase. Greene had a chance to tie the game or load the bases in the sixth, working a full count against lefty reliever Amir Garrett, before a borderline pitch at the knees drew a called third strike from home-plate umpire C.B. Bucknor.

“He gets good pitches,” Hinch said of Greene, “and I think the at-bat where he struck out, he probably should’ve gotten another walk. So you had really good at-bats the whole day.”

Greene was on deck in the ninth when Victor Reyes tied the game with a home run just over the right-field wall and into the seats. From there, Greene had his most aggressive at-bat of the day, and maybe of his young Major League career.

“It’s just like passing the baton down the line, just give it to the next person,” Greene said. “I’m really big on that.”

The two at-bats looked eerily similar. Joel Payamps started off against both Reyes and Greene with offspeed pitches down and out of the zone -- a slider to Reyes, a changeup to Greene. Both hitters were ready when Payamps came back over the plate with 1-0 fastballs.

Payamps’ heater to Greene came in at 95.8 mph. Greene sent it out at 108.4.

“The feeling of that was incredible,” Greene said.

The last time the Tigers ended a game with back-to-back homers, Cliff Mapes and Joe Ginsburg went deep off Red Sox reliever Ike Delock on Sept. 9, 1952. Neither had much of a career in Detroit. Mapes was in what turned out to be his final Major League season at age 30, while the Tigers traded Ginsburg the next summer.

With Greene, Saturday felt like just the start.

“He's going to go through a prolonged slump,” Hinch said. “He's going to go through a time where he's tearing the cover off the ball. Power is going to come. He's going to have some droughts. These are long seasons, but his approach to the game, if we can keep it the way that it is and let him learn and grow and mature, he's a fun player.”