PITTSBURGH — With his offense scuffling through the months of June and July, Clint Hurdle had decided to make a big change to his lineup. The only problem with that was that the centerpiece of his change was on the shelf with a shoulder injury.
With Gregory Polanco back in the fray against the San Diego Padres Tuesday night, Hurdle was able to fully unveil his reworked top of the order that will see Polanco hit cleanup behind Josh Harrison, Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen.
Hurdle’s tinkering paid off in at least one inning, as Polanco drove in Harrison and McCutchen for a three-run home run in the fifth inning to give the Pirates the lead for good, en route to a 6-4 win.
“I would have had him in the cleanup spot if he would have been able to play four days ago,” Hurdle said. “That was going to be the spot he was going into. [Matt] Joyce went in there in his absence. [Polanco] has been our most efficient guy with RBI percentage. I like Marte in the two to try that and I like Polanco in the four to try something different. Our offense wasn’t producing like I feel we’re capable of producing.”
It was Polanco’s first major-league start as the cleanup hitter, but he said he “tried not to think about it.” Ironically, it was San Diego’s Luis Perdomo that may have been doing the overthinking.
With one out and a pair of dangerous runners on the base paths, Perdomo had Polanco at an 0-2 disadvantage, but he served up an elevated 92 MPH fastball that found home in the outfield seats in right center.
“As always, when you have two strikes, if you see a pitch close to the plate, you have to swing,” Polanco said. “He left it right there, and I put a good swing on it.”
Polanco described what he thought was the reason for his success with men on base this season — and also may have tipped the hand of the Pirates’ thinking with the new lineup.
“Guys like J-Hay, Cutch, Marte, they are in the pitchers’ minds,” Polanco explained. “They are thinking about that — the baserunners. I get better pitches to hit. I like to hit with men on base. I like the challenge and I try to stay ready and put a good swing to the ball.”
As for the rest of the lineup changes, those were mixed bag. Harrison went 2 for 5, but both of his hits were soft infield singles. Marte was 0 for 4 with a walk. McCutchen was 1 for 2 with a strikeout and three walks.
Chad Kuhl started and went six innings, giving up just two runs, both of which came in the first inning. The game was delayed 36 minutes by a brief thunderstorm, which Kuhl partially attributed to the rocky opening frame that contained two of his four walks and three of his five hits allowed.
“I was about to walk into the dugout [when they put the tarp out],” he said. “I was completely done warming up and then I had to warm up again. It was just a weird timing.”
After the first, Kuhl settled down and faced just one over the minimum through the next four frames. As usual, he relied heavily on his sinker, which allowed him to stay somewhat efficient and collect three double plays, including a key one in the sixth inning to snuff out a two-on, no-out situation.
“I felt like I had decent command, especially as the game went on,” he said. “I had a couple walks in the first, four walks [total]. You take away that first inning, that’s five innings and two walks. You’ll take that. Definitely better stuff tonight. Didn’t throw too many changeups, but the two-seamer was working. I got more ground balls than I’ve been getting. So, definitely better tonight.”
“The command sharpened up,” agreed Hurdle “I thought he kept the ball down better as the game went on. The slider played extremely well. He made some good pitches when he needed to make pitches, too. Three double plays played big for him tonight.”
Kuhl’s struggles in the first coincided with facing four left-handed hitters in five batters stacked at the top of the Padres’ lineup. All four of his walks we issued to lefties, as well. Left-handed hitters can be a bugaboo for many right-handed sinkerballers, so I asked Kuhl if he was approaching San Diego’s lefties differently.
“I try not to. I think it was that I missed arm side, and I did that to righties tonight, too. I was trying to go in there and it ran off a little too much. I think that’s from me not staying on it, kinda pulling off and it had that extra run to it instead of the sink. I think it’s just kinda mechanical.”
Ryan Vogelsong will take the hill for the second game of the series against Edwin Jackson Wednesday at 7:05 p.m. In his first start since coming off the disabled list with facial fractures, Vogelsong went six innings and gave up just one run on three hits last Thursday.