PITTSBURGH — Gregory Polanco jump-started the Pirates’ offense on Saturday with a two-run home run in the bottom of the first inning against Chicago Cubs starter Jake Arrieta.
Since he injured his ankle crashing into a railing in right field at PNC Park on May 29, Polanco’s offensive game has taken a nosedive.
In the 12 games leading up to Saturday’s, he was hitting .157/.204/.157. His last extra base hit had come on May 28 and his decline in outcomes came with a precipitous decline in exit velocity.
Polanco flipped that around on Saturday, driving an 0-1 pitch from Arrieta straight out to the seats atop the Clemente Wall in right field. He hit that one dead on the screws, sending it out at 106 mph.
Polanco also hit a 100 mph ground ball to Addison Russell and a 97.9 mph double to right field. After scuffling for the better part of two weeks, Polanco’s power stroke seemed to be back in shape for the first time in a long time. Polanco was hitting the ball so hard that the Cubs intentionally walked him his third time up.
“Some real good at bats from Gregory,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Sweet swing on the homer, the double. To get an intentional walk, he hasn’t been in that position. They just put him on and passed on him. He’s continued to work hard. He did some quality work out there today as (Josh) Bell did, as (Adam) Frazier did. It paid off for all of them.”
Polanco had some hard-hit balls on Friday night, as well, despite going 0 for 5. Polanco had a 104 mph groundout and a 98 mph line out. Always something of a streaky hitter, Polanco could be getting hot at just the right time for the Pirates.
PUMPED UP NOVA
Ivan Nova completed seven innings, allowing three runs on six hits while striking out six. It started out like a typical super-smooth Nova start, as he cruised through the first four innings in 47 pitches.
He found some trouble in the fifth, when he gave up a two-run home run to mound opponent Jake Arrieta and even more in the seventh, when Russell hit a solo home run and Jason Heyward singled and found his way into scoring position.
Nova got Willson Contreras to hit a weak ground ball and the struck out John Jay after falling behind, 3-0, to finish the frame. The usually reserved Nova gave a shout and a fist pump.
“There was a lot of emotion,” Nova said. “I got a strikeout in the situation I needed to get a guy out. I knew that we had someone in the bullpen. I didn’t want to leave the game without completing my job.”
Nova was able to harness that emotion, as well. His final pitch to Jay was clocked at 97.1 mph. The hardest pitch he’d thrown all season before Saturday failed to break 96.
“The guys told me that, and I said it was smart pitching,” Nova said. “I don’t need to be throwing 97 from the first pitch. My job is to locate my pitches and pitch 92 or 93. If I need to go harder, I feel good enough to throw.”
Hurdle said after the game that the team was without the services of reliever Juan Nicasio. Hurdle said Nicasio was dealing with some fatigue and the team needed to give him the night off.
Nicasio had thrown just six pitches Friday night and allowed four runs on three hits and an intentional walk without recording an out. He had his right elbow wrapped in ice after the game Friday.
Without Nicasio, Daniel Hudson faced the first two batters of the eighth, getting Anthony Rizzo to fly out and giving up a double to Ian Happ, before handing the ball to Felipe Rivero for a five-out save.
“That’s more than I wanted him to pitch,” Hurdle said. “However, the run got to second and it changed the dynamic of the situation.”
CLEANING UP MESSES
One of the features of Rivero’s run of multi-inning saves is that he keeps coming in with runners on base. He leads the team with 16 inherited runners and he’s stranded 14 of them — 87.5 percent. That’s been a big part of his success this season, if not an unheralded part.
“I just trying to stay calm,” Rivero said. “I’m just trying to make quality pitches. They’re going to hit a ground ball or a fly ball or whatever. … I’m confident walking out of the bullpen. This year has been awesome for me, coming out at any point in the game and knowing what I’ve been doing, just trying to be the same guy.”
Nova pitched through the sixth inning for his 14th consecutive start dating back to the beginning of the season. He said he takes a lot of pride in being able to help the workload of the bullpen.
That was especially important Saturday because the Pirates were without the services of Nicasio.
“You want to go deep into games,” Nova said. “Especially to give the team a chance to win games. Today, I think we had Nicasio out. If I would have known that, I would have kept going.”