How close is Riley Greene to making debut?

June 13th, 2022

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck's Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

The drive from Fifth Third Field in downtown Toledo to Comerica Park in downtown Detroit is usually less than an hour, barring construction zones and traffic. Riley Greene might make it faster when the call comes, and Michigan might pull the construction cones on Interstate 75 to clear his path. Still, he didn’t want to treat Triple-A like a pit stop.

His last two weeks with the Mud Hens haven’t been Spring Training 2.0, the Tigers’ top prospect said. This has been a return to baseball after his first prolonged absence from playing the game since the COVID-19 pandemic halted Spring Training and scuttled the Minor League season. And he has savored it.

“It just feels like a regular season,” he said. “I'm here with the guys and now we're playing games. That's all that really matters to me. I'm just happy to keep playing games now.”

At the same time, the more he plays, the more he looks ready for his long-awaited Major League debut.

“Listen,” Mud Hens manager Lloyd McClendon said, “I’d be lying if I said he didn’t know what’s at stake. We all know what’s at stake. But he’s very professional. He handles it very well. He gets after it pretty good. I think his makeup, his talent and the overall package will see him through this.

“Like I told him, adversity can really define you, not so much by what happened to you but how you handle it. And I think he’s handled it pretty good. He continues to get better every day.”

The adversity was a fractured bone in his right foot, the product of a foul ball off Gerrit Cole in the final days of Spring Training. If not for that freak play, Greene would have a couple months of Major League at-bats by now. Miguel Cabrera called him the best hitter the Tigers had in camp, and the numbers backed him up. The fact that he legged out a triple off Cole on the next pitch after the foul ball was a feat in itself, despite the eventual outcome.

Instead of enjoying Opening Day at Comerica Park, Greene had to stay back in Lakeland, his foot in a boot. The fact that the injury came on April Fools' Day seemed cruelly ironic.

Greene vowed to turn the injury into a positive and to find something good out of it. He spent the extra time shaping his outlook, doing whatever work his body would allow. Once he finally got into games at the end of May, he got back to hitting.

He didn’t try to slug his way back in one swing. He stayed patient with his at-bats, kept his focus on the strike zone and waited for his discipline and timing to merge.

Once his timing and his eyes intersected on a 3-2 pitch from Guardians lefty prospect Kirk McCarty on a Thursday night in Columbus, Greene pounced. The resulting line drive hit the Huntington Park scoreboard in right-center field for a three-run homer.

Greene went 2-for-4 with three RBIs in that game. It was the first of five two-hit performances he posted in a week and a half. He slashed a breaking ball for an opposite-field double off the left-field wall the next night, and did the same thing Sunday against Iowa before being thrown out trying to take third base.

Greene ended Sunday batting .292 (14-for-48) in 12 games with five RBIs, six walks, nine strikeouts, and 2-for-2 in stolen bases.

“He’s starting to get his rhythm, starting to feel better at the plate,” McClendon said Thursday. “Things are starting to slow down for him. His outfield play is picking up. His legs are under him now. His arm is starting to come back.

“He’s close to being 100 percent. Not quite there yet, but he’s close.”

The foot, Greene insists, is not an issue. The running catches he has made, both retreating to the wall and sliding into shallow center, support his case.

“I'm feeling good, foot feels good,” he said Thursday night at Fifth Third Field. “Literally no problems with the foot at all. I feel like a normal baseball player again.

“Took me a couple games to get my legs underneath me, just getting the soreness part out of there. Once those three or four games were there, I feel great.”

If there was a weight of a Detroit fan base on his shoulders, it hasn’t shown.

“I think the more he’s under that microscope, the more comfortable he becomes,” McClendon said. “It’s almost like the microscope disappears, especially when he’s in between the lines. I think that’s probably his happiest place. But he’s a young man with high intelligence and a great aptitude for the game of baseball, a very likable young man. Above all, he’s very talented. You put it all together and it’s a pretty good package.”