PITTSBURGH -- For whatever reason, the Pirates could not solve the Reds' rotation last season. Even as Cincinnati's starters posted a 5.98 ERA against the rest of the league, they put up a 2.65 ERA against Pittsburgh. When their plan worked so well, manager Clint Hurdle wondered Thursday afternoon, why
PITTSBURGH -- For whatever reason, the Pirates could not solve the Reds' rotation last season. Even as Cincinnati's starters posted a 5.98 ERA against the rest of the league, they put up a 2.65 ERA against Pittsburgh. When their plan worked so well, manager Clint Hurdle wondered Thursday afternoon, why should the Reds change?
So the Pirates took it upon themselves to develop a better strategy. They looked at other clubs that had success against the Reds and tried to adopt some of their methods, starting Thursday night with Homer Bailey. They wanted to look for fastballs and be aggressive early. The plan paid off the third time through the order, as Pittsburgh put together a four-run fifth inning and went on to beat Cincinnati, 5-2, in their first meeting of the season at PNC Park.
Nobody exemplified that approach with the same authority as Gregory Polanco, one of the Pirates' individual success stories amid their 5-1 start. The game was tied, 1-1, heading into the fifth. With Josh Harrison on first base, Polanco jumped on Bailey's first-pitch fastball and crushed it into the bushes in front of the batter's eye.
It was Polanco's second home run of the season, and it brought his RBI total to nine, tied for the Major League lead. Last year, Polanco didn't hit his second homer until May 26. His ninth RBI came on May 12.
"Polanco's seeing the ball and getting his swing off -- a very athletic swing," Hurdle said.
There's more than just athleticism, however. Polanco's first home run came on a 3-0 count. Thursday's 421-foot shot was on Bailey's first pitch. In the past, Polanco might have over-thought his swings in those counts. Now? There might be no better way to explain Polanco's confidence at the plate.
"I'm not scared to fail, not scared to miss the pitch, not scared to get out. Just trust in my talent and put a good swing on it," Polanco said. "I know I can hit. Just confidence."
Josh Bell followed with a single to center and scored when Corey Dickerson pulled a triple down the right-field line, one of Dickerson's two extra-base hits on the night.
Francisco Cervelli slapped a ground ball that shortstop Jose Peraza couldn't handle, and Dickerson scored on the error.
If the Bucs really have figured out something against the Reds, it's perhaps appropriate the first strike came against Bailey. The veteran right-hander held the Pirates to two runs in two starts last year despite his overall 6.43 ERA, and he owned a 2.48 ERA in 10 starts at PNC Park.
"We need to do a better job in the box. They've come up with a pitching program that's worked," Hurdle said. "This club has given us challenges on both sides of the ball. It's an opportunity for us to start a new year fresh."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Spot on: With right-hander Joe Musgrove (shoulder strain) unavailable to take his turn in the rotation, the Pirates pulled left-hander Steven Brault out of the bullpen to face the Reds. Brault delivered five solid innings, holding Cincinnati to one run on three hits and four walks while striking out four.
"He was resilient. He was able to push through some things," Hurdle said. "He pushed when he needed to, and he made some good pitches to some good hitters. … Gave us everything we could have asked for."
Each of Brault's walks was followed by a strikeout or ground-ball out. The lefty kept Billy Hamilton, who's long been a nemesis for Pittsburgh, off the basepaths, and struck out Joey Votto twice -- once with a runner in scoring position to end the fifth. Hamilton and Votto finished a combined 0-for-8 with four strikeouts on the night.
"I don't know if you know, but like, Billy Hamilton's super fast. You kind of want to keep him off the bases as much as possible," Brault said. "Votto, he's a guy that we game plan for and our game plan worked. It's nice when things come to fruition like that. Basically, you don't want Hamilton on first when Votto comes up. It's kind of the two-edged sword there you're trying to avoid."
Bridge work: The sixth inning was a problem for the Pirates, to put it mildly, the first week of the season. With a young and inexperienced bullpen, they had all sorts of trouble getting the ball from their starters to setup man Michael Feliz, as indicated by their team-wide 16.20 ERA in the sixth this season. It wasn't an issue on Thursday, though. Right-hander Edgar Santana struck out Adam Duvall to begin a perfect, seven-pitch sixth then handed the ball to Feliz. Setup man George Kontos gave up a home run to Adam Duvall, setting up the save situation for closer Felipe Rivero.
"Looked like a completely different cat out there tonight," Hurdle said of Santana. "Hopefully [with] the experience, lessons are learned. … Santana looked good tonight. We were able to finish up strong after Steven left the game."
"I just came here to be me this year. That's what I said. Stay confident, do what I know how to do and just be me. Don't try to take the team on my back. Try to do my part because I trust in every guy in here." -- Polanco, on the idea of replacing Andrew McCutchen in Pittsburgh's lineup
"When you're a starter and you're built up and you're ready for 105 pitches, then 80 pitches would be like, 'Oh, this is nothing. I can't wait to go seven!' Tonight it was like, 'Oh, man. That's a lot of pitches!' It's just a different mentality." -- Brault, on how he felt throwing 80 pitches in his first start
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
With a 5-1 record, this is the Pirates' best six-game start to the season since 2003. The 1976 Bucs were the last Pittsburgh team to win six of their first seven games.
The temperature at PNC Park when Brault threw out the first pitch was 43 degrees, making it the Pirates' warmest game of the season.
After pitching six hitless innings in his season debut, Trevor Williams will start for the Pirates as they continue their four-game series against the Reds and right-hander Luis Castillo on Friday at PNC Park. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. ET. The game will air on MLB Network in the Pittsburgh market.
Watch every out-of-market regular-season game live on MLB.TV.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.