DETROIT — Among the bells and whistles the Tigers put on for Kids Day games at Comerica Park are kid-drawn sketches of players, shown on the scoreboard instead of their usual profile pictures when they come up to bat. One child’s drawing on Sunday had Riley Greene flying through the air in a cape with the name “Super Riley.”
As Greene went airborne into Comerica Park’s new center-field fence to bring back White Sox slugger Jake Burger’s would-be home run in the eighth inning, he seemed to be living up to the image.
“That’s just Riley being Riley, man,” Akil Baddoo said after the Tigers’ 6-5 win in 10 innings. “He’s Superman.”
Said Greene: “I knew it was a one-run ballgame. Play had to be made. All the pitchers were messing with me, saying, ‘That ball needs to be caught.’”
As Greene flew around the bases an inning and a half later on a one-out triple, then raced home to tie the game on a Javier Báez groundout, the superhero drawing looked even more clairvoyant.
“I was actually talking to Javy after and I was like, ‘Thank God you called time, because I was trying catch my breath,’” Greene said. “He swings first pitch, and I was like, ‘Oh God.’”
So maybe the superhero does have his limits. But while Eric Haase’s 10th-inning fly ball completed the Tigers’ comeback, Greene put them in position — first by denying the White Sox an insurance run, then by scoring the tying run.
The Tigers, having won three of four from the White Sox to complete a 5-2 week, are within a game of .500 for the first time since they were 2-3. They’re within a game of the Twins atop the American League Central, the first time they’ve been this close to the division lead this deep into the season since 2014, when they won the division themselves.
“This team’s incredible,” Greene said. “You see the energy coming out of our dugout. Winning’s fun. We’ve been saying it’s kind of like summer ball. It’s the most fun we’ve had playing baseball. It’s awesome.”
They’ve gotten there with contributions from all directions, including Sunday from Baddoo’s grand slam off White Sox ace Dylan Cease to six innings of one-run ball from Eduardo Rodriguez. And yet, when there’s a play that has to be made, Greene — still just 22 years old with less than one full season in the big leagues — is routinely in the center of it, pun intended.
“He’s just a full, both-sides-of-the-ball difference-maker,” manager A.J. Hinch said.
“Just doing my job, really,” Greene said. “The opportunity’s there. I’m just trying to play for the team.”
The Tigers moved the center-field fence in to 412 feet and lowered it to seven feet high in no small part for plays like this. President of baseball operations Scott Harris alluded to it when he discussed the changes last offseason. Greene says he doesn’t think about the dimensions anymore when he’s retreating on balls like that.
Even adjusted to the dimensions, though, there’s a lot more for Greene to fight to make such a play. Balls hit directly at outfielders can be the toughest to read, and can cause the outfielders to freeze; fortunately for Greene, Burger hit the ball high enough that he could avoid that trap.
But Greene still had to fight a familiar foe for center fielders during day games at Comerica Park: On clear afternoons, the sun can reflect off the seats and create a blinding glare. In addition, the location of the field below ground level can create more shine from the street level, a distraction mentioned by center fielders since Curtis Granderson.
“I didn’t think it was going to be that far,” Greene said. “And then I kept going, and it kept going, and I was like, ‘Oh, God.’”
Baddoo never had a doubt from left field.
“When he goes up for the ball like that, I’m always thinking he’s going to catch it,” Baddoo said. “I just hope he doesn’t get a concussion, because you know he’s hitting that wall so daggone hard.”
The Tigers changed the padding on the walls for plays like that, trying to reduce the impact when Greene and others go crashing in. Still, as Greene laid on the ground for a moment, ball in glove, he still felt it.
“I kept looking at the ball, the fence, the ball, the fence,” Greene said. “I knew I had a shot at it, and I knew I was going to hit the wall pretty hard, so I just kind of went for it.”