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Polanco's adjustment paying off at plate

MLB.com @adamdberry

SAN DIEGO -- Earlier this season, Gregory Polanco had a problem against left-handed pitchers. As he put it on Saturday, "Everything looked like a strike."

That was part of the Pirates' motivation when they advised Polanco to step back from the plate on June 6. The coaching staff thought some additional distance from the plate would improve Polanco's pitch recognition. They also thought it would help him reach inside pitches that had been locking him up for months.

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SAN DIEGO -- Earlier this season, Gregory Polanco had a problem against left-handed pitchers. As he put it on Saturday, "Everything looked like a strike."

That was part of the Pirates' motivation when they advised Polanco to step back from the plate on June 6. The coaching staff thought some additional distance from the plate would improve Polanco's pitch recognition. They also thought it would help him reach inside pitches that had been locking him up for months.

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So far, so good on both fronts.

Polanco entered Saturday night hitting .320/.426/.600 since June 6 then went 2-for-2 with two walks in Saturday's 4-3 loss to the Padres. During that stretch, he is 8-for-16 against lefties. He also has four hits on inside pitches, according to Statcast™, as many as he had the entire season before moving back in the batter's box.

Polanco's overall plate discipline has improved in some regards this season, despite his career-high 23.4 percent strikeout rate. He is walking at a career-best 13.1 percent rate, and according to Fangraphs, he is swinging at a career-low 26.5 percent of the pitches he's seen outside the strike zone, down from 34.4 percent last season.

"I think experience, too. Every year, you get better. I think that's helped me recognize the zone," Polanco said. "I'm looking for my pitch until I get to two strikes. With two strikes, I fight. Before that, we always talk about looking for your pitch where you want it. Experience, playing more, that's helped me."

Manager Clint Hurdle stood by Polanco through an extended slump and continued struggles against lefties, believing the long-limbed right fielder would bounce back. Polanco has rewarded Hurdle's faith, emerging as the Bucs' most productive hitter in June.

"I just like the fact that he's continued to fight. He hasn't settled," Hurdle said. "He hasn't backed away. He's definitely throwing some punches back right now."

The next step for Polanco, Hurdle said, is punching back quicker. After an incredible start to the season, Polanco hit just .192 with a .623 OPS from April 13-June 5. Every player goes through slumps throughout the course of the season, but elite hitters typically don't stay cold for long.

"He's not young anymore, and you stop talking about potential when you get over 2,000 Major League plate appearances," Hurdle said of Polanco. "I do think he's learned some very valuable lessons the hard way, and I do think he'll stabilize things better and I think he'll take the next step."

Around the horn
• Pirates super-utility man Sean Rodriguez (right quad strain) left the team on Saturday night to begin a Minor League rehab assignment with Triple-A Indianapolis. Rodriguez was placed on the 10-day disabled list on Wednesday, with the assignment made retroactive to Monday. The veteran is hitting .145/.270/.274 in 53 games this season.

• Hurdle said the Pirates have not officially named a starter "as of yet" for Monday's series opener at Dodger Stadium. The assignment will likely go to right-hander Nick Kingham, but Pittsburgh must first call him up from Triple-A Indianapolis.

• Top prospect Mitch Keller struggled in his Triple-A debut on Saturday, allowing eight runs on 10 hits and two walks while striking out three in 2 2/3 innings against Columbus.

• Left-hander Steven Brault, who gave up two runs on Friday night, had a personal cheering section at Petco Park on Saturday. The San Diego native said his family reserved the ballpark's "Picnic Terrace" -- located just above the Pirates' bullpen -- for 50-60 guests.

Brault is one of three San Diego natives to pitch for the Pirates in this series along with starters Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams. Like Musgrove and Williams, Brault grew up watching Padres games. His family had season tickets in the first row of the left-center field seats, and he'd play catch in the center-field park.

"That's where I watched baseball games all the time," Brault said. "I was the kid standing up, like, 'Mike! Mike Cameron! Can I get a ball?' I remember being that kid. It's really cool."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Gregory Polanco