PITTSBURGH -- Gregory Polanco has been here before, with fans calling for his job and reporters asking his manager why he’s still in the lineup.
On May 26, 2018, before the Pirates’ 51st game of the season, former manager Clint Hurdle shot down a question about the possibility of sending Polanco to Triple-A Indianapolis after a strong start had given way to a 34-game slump in which he hit .197 with a .643 OPS. The Pirates stuck with Polanco then, and after taking a small step back from the plate, he hit .287 with a .920 OPS in his final 78 games.
“I made the adjustment and after late June, July, I found my way,” Polanco said Thursday night.
This season has been worse in many ways for Polanco, and as the Pirates reached Game 51 of 60 on Friday at PNC Park, he doesn’t have the benefit of time to climb out of the hole he’s dug for himself this year. But he still believes he’s capable of hitting better than his numbers would indicate. Asked about that on Thursday night, Polanco brought up his season-opening slump two years ago.
“Obviously I want to be more consistent, and I’m going to keep working to be more consistent every day,” Polanco said. “Just try to finish strong. I just want to be healthy and to finish healthy, finish strong and compete every day.”
Facing right-hander Dakota Hudson in the second inning of the Bucs’ 5-1 win on Thursday night, Polanco ripped a two-out double to right field. With two on and two outs in the fourth, he crushed a hanging slider from lefty Austin Gomber into the left-field seats for his sixth home run of the season. Polanco, Erik González and Josh Bell finished the night tied for the Pirates’ RBI lead, with 19.
“It feels good to hit the ball. It’s been a struggle. It’s been hard for me to hit the ball lately -- I mean, the whole season, obviously,” Polanco said. “Anytime I catch one and I can hit the ball on the barrel, it feels really good, man. Because that’s me. That’s who I am.”
Polanco’s season has been defined by an abundance of strikeouts and hard contact, with too much of the former to find much solace in the latter. The right fielder entered Friday batting .146 with a .199 on-base percentage and a 40.1 percent strikeout rate, the fourth-highest mark in the Majors among players with at least 100 plate appearances this season.
“I don’t really know what’s going on with my swing, really. If I knew, I would have just made an adjustment like a month ago, you know? But I’m trying,” Polanco said. “I’m trying every day. I feel good now. … I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing right now and try to hit the ball.”
When Polanco hits the ball, he’s crushing it. He entered Friday with a 93.6 mph average exit velocity (seventh-highest in the Majors, between the Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber and the A’s Matt Chapman) and 54.7 percent hard-hit rate (11th-best in MLB, just behind Christian Yelich). For that reason -- along with his relentlessly positive attitude and, of course, his $11.6 million contract for next season -- the Pirates have supported him publicly and privately at every available opportunity.
“I talk to him every day, and it’s usually positive comments, just a back-and-forth,” Shelton said. “Haven’t said anything specifically to him about what he’s doing. Just positive reinforcement.”
Around the horn
* The Pirates recalled outfielder Jason Martin to be their 29th man for Friday’s doubleheader at PNC Park. Martin was not in the lineup for Game 1, during which JT Riddle started in center field.
* Shelton said outfielder Cole Tucker will remain on the concussion injured list for at least the mandatory seven days while he’s under protocol, but given the complicated nature of concussions, it’s too early to say when Tucker might return or if he’s done for the season.
“For anybody that’s ever had a concussion or been around people that have concussions, it’s a day to day thing. You have to go day to day in terms of how you feel,” Shelton said. “Everybody has different symptoms. Everybody has different thoughts. Everybody has different feelings on the day. So we just have to see how he is day to day.”
* Shelton said the Pirates have not yet had any players join them from their alternate training site in Altoona, Pa., which wrapped up its workouts on Thursday. There will soon be a group of players reporting to Pittsburgh, however, to serve as a sort of expanded taxi squad for the remainder of the season.