PITTSBURGH — Like clockwork, several hours after Travis Barnett broke down what’s been going wrong with Gregory Polanco this season, Polanco went 2 for 4 with a double and an RBI to help the Pirates’ offense to a 4-0 series-opening win over the Milwaukee Brewers.
The highlight of Polanco’s game came in the fourth inning, just after the teams had sat for 2 hours and 27 minutes of rain delay. Josh Bell and Polanco were scheduled to hit in the next inning, so once the teams were made aware that the game would resume, Bell and Polanco headed to the tunnel for some extra BP.
“I went into the cage with Polanco and it was just me and him in there,” Bell said. “Branno (hitting coach Jeff Branson) has told me over and over again, ‘Get your foot down.’ It’s two parts to the swing, you have to get your foot down before you make the move with your hands. He says it over and over again, but just talking through that with Polanco in the cage and feeling that off the tee, it carried over into the game.”
Bell doubled on the first pitch and Polanco followed it up with an RBI single to drive him home on a nine-pitch at-bat that saw him out-duel former teammate Rob Scahill.
Travis wrote about how pitch selection and contact rate have been items to focus on for Polanco. Against Scahill, he fell behind 0-1 and 1-2, but was able to lay off three pitches that were outside the zone to work the count to full.
Polanco then fouled off three pitches that were all in or close to the zone before smoking Scahill’s high, outside fastball into centerfield. Polanco’s line drive had a 107.7 mph exit velocity, showing the power he provides even when in protect mode at the plate.
Some hitters, notably Cincinnati’s Joey Votto, have made it an intentional strategy to attempt to foul off pitches inside the zone in order to wait for a pitch more likely to be driven. That’s exactly what Polanco did, wasting two low pitches and one just off the zone inside before pouncing on an elevated pitch. But he said it just worked out that way.
“I don’t do that too much,” he said. “I just swing because I think it’s something I can handle. I don’t do that a lot. Maybe twice a month.”
But Polanco does feel that he gain an advantage the longer at-bats go on. The more pitches he sees, the easier it is to time up his swing and stay short to the ball. It’s one of the reasons that he’s been less aggressive (and sometimes falling behind) in early counts.
“For sure, it helped me, because when I see more pitches, I get my swing better,” he said. “I’m more on-time because I recognize the pitch better. That’s good every time I can take long ABs. … That at-bat helped me a lot. It made me right for tonight. I have to keep it like that every day. Short to the ball, keep it simple and not think too much.”
Of course, Polanco wasn’t the only one that benefitted from he and Bell’s rain-delay conversation. Bell came out with the leadoff double in the fourth and then hit a 400-foot home run that bounced into the Allegheny River.
“The swings he took early were different than the ones he took later,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “It was good to see an adjustment made. He barreled the ball. He’s shown the ability to hit the ball hard. Both those balls were hit really hard. He covered two pitches that were up very well. It’s been fun to watch him develop.”
Bell said that he changed to a slightly longer bat last series in Cincinnati, and it may have provided the margin for error for his home run to clear the wall in right-center.
“I kind of caught it off the end a little bit,” he said “I was using a bigger bat tonight, so I was happy it went out. It wasn’t like in the box I was like, ‘Oh, I got that one.’”
The estimated distance was 400 feet and the exit velocity was 103 mph, so Bell’s criteria for “getting one” must be pretty high.
Chad Kuhl started and pitched three innings, giving up two hits and striking out two on 43 pitches before the rain settled in and chased him from the mound. It’s been a frustrating last couple of weeks for Kuhl. He gave up nine runs in 1.2 innings against the Cubs on April 24. In his two starts after that, he’s pitched well, but twice had issues outside of his control shorten his start. He was hit with a line drive that removed him from the game April 30 in Miami.
“You wanted to kinda put that really bad game out of your sights and then you want to have a rebound game,” Kuhl said. “I was throwing alright in Miami. I felt like I was going to go five or six and have a strong outing. I get taken out and then mother nature doesn’t cooperate again today. It’s a little frustrating but that’s the game of baseball. I feel good. I’m going to be out there in five. Hopefully, mother nature cooperates then.”
LeBLANC DOES IT ALL
Wade LeBlanc took over on the hill after the delay and threw three scoreless innings, with two hits and four strikeouts. He also did some damage with the bat, scoring Polanco with an RBI single in the fourth inning in his only at-bat.
LeBlanc has quietly had a strong start to his season for the Pirates. He has a 0.93 WHIP and a 2.33 ERA and has done well in a number of roles for the team. He’s been a classic long reliever, providing mop-up duty for games out of hand. He’s pitching in a number of games where the Pirates had an ineffective starting pitching performance but were still leading or tied when LeBlanc was called upon to come into the game for long relief. He’s also pitched shorter outings.
“He’s one of those guys that more often than not can get overlooked within the game with all the analytics that are running right now,” Hurdle said. “He has the feel to pitch. He reads swings well. He knows himself very well. He’s used it to his advantage.”
LeBlanc might be best suited to do exactly what he did on Friday. The Brewers got the day started looking for Kuhl’s trademarked down-and-away sinker. Then they got impatient sitting around for a while. LeBlanc made them look silly with his cutter, changeup, curveball and slider. When he went back to the fastball, he used the change in speeds and some pinpoint control to get two strikeouts looking.
“He can definitely play off hitters’ adrenaline,” Hurdle said. “He can use that against them. He can also beat you with a fastball at 86 or 87 mph because he can slow you down with the changeup, the cutter and some other options. The angle was good, the depth was good. He mixed his pitches very, very well and stayed in front of counts.”
Hurdle also mentioned that there’s another advantage to having a pitcher like the 32-year-old LeBlanc around. He pitches like every day might be his last in the majors and still finds a way to have fun doing it — something that can be an example for the younger relievers frequently tasked with higher-leverage duty.
“I’ve been having a blast,” LeBlanc said. “Success has been there, getting outs and keeping runs off the board. Coming here, knowing that you might get a chance to play every day, it’s every kid’s dream. I’m living it. I’m very blessed.”