PITTSBURGH -- Standing in the on-deck circle in the eighth inning on Sunday afternoon, Gregory Polanco turned to José Osuna and told him to watch what was about to transpire. “I’m about to hit this ball really hard,” Polanco promised his teammate.
With two outs in the eighth and Pittsburgh trailing by a run, Polanco delivered by blasting a two-run homer out to center field off Brewers reliever David Phelps. After watching the 419-foot shot fly into the tarped-over center-field seats, Polanco shifted his gaze toward Pittsburgh’s dugout.
“You see?” Polanco said. “I told you!”
Polanco’s two-run homer put Pittsburgh on top, and Richard Rodríguez held on in the ninth inning to record his second career save as the Pirates completed their first sweep of the season by beating the Brewers, 5-4.
The Pirates’ scuffling lineup came to life during this three-game winning streak, piling on 24 runs after being limited to only four when they were swept by the Indians at PNC Park. And Polanco has been in the middle of it all, as he was on Sunday afternoon.
Polanco entered the series with only three hits in his first 43 at-bats this season, then he went 5-for-10 with a double, two homers, five RBIs, three runs, two walks and two stolen bases. His numbers still aren’t what he wants or expects, but he now leads the Pirates with 12 RBIs and is tied for second with four homers on the year.
“Obviously, he's been really aggressive. He's gotten back on the fastball, and I think his timing’s better,” manager Derek Shelton said. “We talked about how we felt his timing was good at the end of [Summer Camp], and then he lost it because he lost 10 days because [of] the positive [COVID] test. We're starting to see just [the] timing is back and the ability to take really aggressive swings.”
While the strikeouts piled up, one thing remained true for Polanco: Everything he hit, he hit it hard. That remains the case, as evidenced by his 111-mph single to right field in the second inning and his 107.3-mph, 419-foot home run. That’s a sign of good health for Polanco, something he hasn’t truly had since badly injuring his shoulder on a slide into second base on Sept. 7, 2018.
Plagued by timing issues up and down their lineup before this series, the Pirates went to work with a high-velocity pitching machine so they could give themselves a better chance against fastballs. That helped several of their hitters figure things out at the plate this weekend, none more so than Polanco.
“We’re trying to get on top of the fastball and be ready for the fastball,” Polanco said. “The last three weeks we didn’t do too good against the fastball. So Shelty and the hitting coach, they talk about, ‘Hey, let’s get ready for the fastball. We need to hit the fastball. We need to get better.’”
This weekend’s sweep gave the Pirates a better feeling all around, even if they know this is a year built around development and evaluation. Pittsburgh hadn’t had a winning streak of any kind before this series, and the club’s most recent sweep came Sept. 24-26, 2019, against the Cubs.
If nothing else, it eased some of the pressure the Pirates had been putting on themselves amid a miserable start and created positive momentum heading into a tough stretch of 15 games in 13 days after Monday’s off-day.
“It's nice in all facets of the game. During this series, not only did we do a lot of good things offensively, we pitched pretty well,” Shelton said. “There were a lot of good things that happened.”
The Pirates’ starting pitchers gave them a chance, from Chad Kuhl to Derek Holland to JT Brubaker. The rookie right-hander wore down near the end of his longest outing this year, but he held the Brewers hitless for three innings and showed sharper stuff -- especially his slider -- than in his first two starts. Brubaker struck out six and allowed two runs while working into the fifth inning.
"It was fun to watch. We played all-around baseball. It was enjoyable,” Brubaker said. “Luckily, I was able to be a part of it today. But even watching Chad [on Friday] and then Holland, it was just something to build off of, just something to watch each starter have success and then it drives the next starter to have more success."
The Pirates’ bullpen also stepped up to pitch 13 innings despite losing closer Keone Kela for the series on Friday night. Three of the six earned runs they allowed were given up by Dovydas Neverauskas, but they otherwise held the line in the late innings. On Sunday, lefty Nik Turley and right-hander Chris Stratton set up for Rodríguez, who struck out two in a clean ninth.
“Going into the series, we met up as a team, and we had a really, really good talk amongst each other. We really pumped each other up,” Rodríguez said through interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “We all recognized that we have plenty and enough to be able to do things like this, and we just reminded each other and we supported each other throughout the whole entire series.
“Guys have been playing super well, and I’m just grateful that I was able to key into that as well. Going and moving forward, I think the mentality now is to keep the momentum going and continue functioning as a family and keeping that cohesiveness going within the clubhouse.”