DETROIT -- Facing the Yankees on Feb. 24 in a Spring Training game, Gregory Polanco got ahead in the count, three balls and no strikes, and received a green light from the Pirates dugout. Polanco wanted to practice keeping his composure even in a situation that made his eyes light
DETROIT -- Facing the Yankees on Feb. 24 in a Spring Training game, Gregory Polanco got ahead in the count, three balls and no strikes, and received a green light from the Pirates dugout. Polanco wanted to practice keeping his composure even in a situation that made his eyes light up, knowing his trouble comes when he gets too eager and his swing grows too long. That afternoon, Polanco mashed a 3-0 pitch well over the right-field fence.
So when the Pirates' Opening Day slugfest at Comerica Park rolled into its 13th inning and fifth hour on Friday, Polanco was prepared. Reliever Alex Wilson was tiring, and when he fell behind, three balls and no strikes, Polanco got the green light. Wilson's next pitch was a 92 mph fastball down the middle, and Polanco punished it. His three-run blast put the Pirates ahead and decided their 13-10 marathon victory over the Tigers.
"I just wanted to make good contact. Don't do too much and put the barrel on the ball," Polanco said. "That's what you need to do in a 3-0 count. It's going to be a good pitch, so don't try to do too much and put a good swing on it."
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Polanco became the first Pirates player to go deep in the 13th inning or later on Opening Day since Willie Stargell drove in Roberto Clemente with a homer against the Braves in 1966.
The ball came off Polanco's bat at 110.8 mph, according to Statcast™, his second-hardest-hit home run since at least 2015, and landed a projected 416 feet away -- over the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field. Left-hander Steven Brault estimated it more generously at "80,000 feet."
"It felt great, for sure," Polanco said. "I knew as soon as I got that, I got everything on that ball."
Without Andrew McCutchen in their outfield and lineup, the Pirates are counting on Polanco to take his long-anticipated step forward. There were positive signs even beyond the titanic homer on Friday, as he finished 3-for-5 with a walk, three runs, four RBIs and a stolen base. There were mistakes, too, like the Leonys Martin double that sailed over Polanco's head in right field.
"I feel great. When I feel good, for sure I will play good," Polanco said. "I know I've got the talent. I've just got to put it together. That's something I have to keep in mind."
Physically, Polanco is in position to succeed. After injuries stalled his momentum in the second half of 2016 and throughout '17, he worked out over the winter with a greater focus on core strength and athleticism, not pure muscle. He looked different in Spring Training and thrived at the plate, and the Pirates are hopeful that progress will continue during the regular season.
"That's been the most fun for everybody, and for him, is to be athletic and strong -- a very strong position to hit in the box," manager Clint Hurdle said.
He was in position in the 13th inning on Friday to end a dramatic, back-and-forth affair neither club will soon forget.
"It means a lot. A win's a win," Polanco said. "It's always good to start on the right path."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.