PITTSBURGH — Gregory Polanco had a career night on Tuesday, going 4 for 4 with two doubles, two runs, an RBI, and a crucial outfield assist in the Pirates’ 4-2 win over the first-place Milwaukee Brewers.
It almost didn’t happen because of something that occurred three days prior.
Friday night, Polanco had one really bad trip around the bases.
Polanco jogged out of the box on a well-struck ball to left-center, thinking that he had hit an easy home run. The ball ended up caroming off the top of the fence for what would have likely been an easy triple if Polanco had been running out of the box. Instead he had to settle for a double and it got worse from there, as he advanced to third and then promptly got picked off by St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina by retreating to the bag too casually.
Molina is probably a Hall-of-Famer some day and Polanco is far from the first player that he’s victimized, but all in all, it was a bad look for Polanco, who had struggled mightily at the beginning of the season, but seemed to be turning things on heading into the All-Star break.
Immediately after Polanco’s misadventures on the base paths, there were calls from fans and members of the Pittsburgh media for manager Clint Hurdle to bench or otherwise publicly
discipline the 25-year-old right-fielder.
Hurdle declined, sending Polanco right back out to the field the next inning. He was rewarded for doing so Friday when Polanco came through with a big RBI single at the plate the very next inning.
But it’s gone way beyond that. Polanco is a player that for quite some time now has been struggling to find his way in the mental part of the game. A player that feeds off positive emotions, all too often in his career, he let things that didn’t go well bother him and carry over from one at-bat or game to the next.
Polanco was on a bona-fide hot streak before the break, hitting .406/.441/.656 in nine games in early July. But the fourth inning on Friday easily could have been a turning point had Polanco and Hurdle handled things differently.
Instead, it was just a blip in what’s become a scorchingly successful month. He’s gone 6 for 12 in three games since then and is hitting .438 for the month of July on the whole. Polanco is in a very good place right now and Hurdle deserves credit for pushing the right buttons to keep him there after a rough night on the bases.
Here’s what Hurdle had to say after the game on Friday:
“The game humbles you. When you don’t meet the demands of the game, it can put you in a bad place. Sometimes when however many people in the ballpark boo you, that gets your attention, as well. It was a tough trip around the bases with Greg that time. There’s probably a good chance third base was an option. We all know about Molina. We’ve had the conversation ad nauseam about Molina. You can’t turn your back on Molina. … It’s unfortunate. It should never happen to him again in his career. We address them internally. We talk about them internally. The fans need to react the way they need to react. They did tonight.”
Tuesday, Hurdle had this to say about the way that he lets his players handle adversity.
“He had a very humbling game a couple of games ago, while he was playing his best baseball of the year. You encourage them and you challenge them and you find those opportunities where you can make sure that you really believe in them and they can play and do some specific, special things.
“However, they’ve also got to respect the game and they’ve got to play hard. It’s been fun watching him roll into July. There’s a different look in his eye. There’s parts of his game that took over tonight. The throw, at-bats, driving balls. He’s been doing it since the month of July has rolled around.”
Hurdle accurately saw that on the whole, Polanco was doing more right than wrong when he made those two mistakes on Friday and chose to trust the player to respond to them the right way. That’s not something that Polanco may have done earlier in his career, but he’s in a much better place mentally right now.
“Yeah for sure,” Polanco said when asked if he would have let it affect him more earlier in his career. “When it happened, it happened. After that you can’t do anything. Just move forward and pay attention. … I’m getting better at that. In the past, when you’re younger, you might make an error in the game and you get frustrated for the whole game, for like a couple days. Now you feel like, move forward and be ready for the next one.”
“I think when there’s a good person deep down inside and he wants to do the right things and he gets embarrassed and he embarrasses his team, he has that rough night, yeah, I think he finds it down in himself to dig it out and go,” Hurdle said. “It happens to different players at different times. If this man wants to be a good player, there’s certain things he’s going to have to do every night and take that good and roll it into some consistency.
Mechanically, Polanco is in a much better place than he was earlier in the season, as well, particularly against left-handers. His first two hits Tuesday came against left-handed Milwaukee starter Brent Suter and his last one came against lefty reliever Tyler Webb.
“There’s timing, the rhythm, there’s extension, his head is on the ball, good looks at some left-handers,” Hurdle rattled off. “The swing is synced up. There’s power.”
Polanco said he’s simplified his approach against left-handers this season along with his overall focus on staying short to the ball, which gives him longer to identify pitches.
“Just shorten my swing and take the middle and not think too much about left field,” he said. “Just take the middle, see the ball, hit the ball.”
KUHL FINDS K’S
Chad Kuhl struck out six batters over his first 3.1 innings and went on to set a new career high with seven. His last one came in a big spot with the bases loaded and Jonathan Villar up with two outs in the fourth inning. He didn’t throw any more after that, but he had already showed a lot of what he wanted to early on.
“It was just fastball command,” he said. “I threw some good changeups, but I was mixing two-seam and four-seam and had a lot of success.”
Hurdle agreed. Like most pitchers, everything else is going to play off the four-seam fastball for Kuhl. If he can command it, his new five-pitch mix is going to fool some people.
“He’s got the ability to do that,” he said, “As the fastball plays, you get them gearing up for the swing, then you can spin the ball and throw the changeup. It played out tonight.”
After the strikeout barrage, Kuhl leaned on the two-seam fastball to get hitters already in swing mode to make some quick outs. That will be important if this combination is going to be successful, because his four innings took him 77 pitches to complete. If he’s going to go deeper into games, he’s going to have to also mix in some more efficient innings.
Kuhl got three straight ground ball outs in the fifth and another to start the sixth when the command that had set everything up early on failed him. He walked two batters and was removed from the game after 102 pitches. But the blueprint is there for the future.
“Having that four-seamer just has it in their mind,” he said. “It’s not something they’re going to be able to sell out to. You get a straight one and then one that sinks off the barrel. That’s the whole idea, to get those weak contact.”
It’s been a pretty solid run as of late for Kuhl. He gave up one run in six innings July 1 against San Francisco. He went seven innings for the first time all season in Philadelphia on July 6 and gave up three runs. Then, he bailed out the bullpen by going three on an off day when Jameson Taillon was scratched before the break.
“It’s good to get the results and it feels good to kind of get rolling a bit,” Kuhl said. “I had some rough stretches, but these past couple games, it’s been big to finally see the results that you’ve been looking for. It’s a big boost for me and a big boost from the club.”