Polanco comes off IL, doesn't skip a beat

Outfielder goes 2-for-4 in first start of season; lefty Brault optioned

April 23rd, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- , fresh off some early work in the Pirates’ indoor batting cage, stood in front of his locker and smiled at the question. Isn’t he a little ahead of schedule?

“Yeah,” Polanco said, laughing. “A lot.”

The Bucs reinstated Polanco from the injured list for Monday night's 12-4 loss to the D-backs, 222 days after he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum and regain stabilization of his dislocated left shoulder.

The club’s initial estimate said Polanco would return in approximately seven to nine months -- anywhere from mid-April to mid-June -- and the front end of that timetable represented the absolute best-case scenario. But there Polanco was on Monday night at PNC Park, batting third and starting in right field. He knocked a single through the shift on the left side of the infield in his first at-bat of the season, smiling on his way to first base.

“I can’t describe how happy I am, how excited to be back here with the guys and to help the team to win,” Polanco said. “I’m comfortable. I’m good. I’m excited. I’m confident.”

Polanco finished the night 2-for-4 with a double and a walk. He recorded four putouts in right field and had to test his arm by making three throws to the cutoff man in the eighth inning alone.

“Happy to see him back out there. Happy to see him in the box. Happy to see him going out and playing defense and running the bases,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “We welcomed him with open arms, and he’s ready to come back here and contribute any way he can.”

Polanco credited the Pirates’ training staff and his own hard work for his quick return. His surgically repaired left shoulder still isn’t at full strength, which will only be apparent when he makes a throw from right field, but Pittsburgh believes he is ready to help the club’s injury-riddled outfield.

“We feel really good about where he is and just can’t say enough about how much work this young man’s put in and how his body’s responded because of how he’s taking care of himself,” general manager Neal Huntington said on Sunday.

Polanco should provide the Bucs with the kind of power bat their lineup needs. He batted .254 with an .839 OPS, 23 homers and 81 RBIs overall last season, and he slashed .287/.361/.500 in 78 games after taking a small step away from the plate last June.

Hitting isn’t a concern, as Polanco started swinging the bat in January and took regular batting practice during Spring Training. During a five-game rehab assignment with Triple-A Indianapolis, he went 6-for-20 with a double, two steals, two walks and eight strikeouts.

“I’m feeling good. I’m not feeling great, but I’m good,” Polanco said. “I’m in a good spot. I’m ready to rock, man.”

Polanco is also ready to handle right field on a regular basis. The Pirates will make some adjustments to accommodate him while he’s building velocity on his throws. Polanco will make every effort to keep his arm loose, and the Bucs will encourage him to release the ball quickly while pushing their cut-off men farther into the outfield.

“I’m getting stronger,” Polanco said. “I’m not throwing like I was throwing last year, but I’m way better than I was in Spring Training.”

The Pirates are confident that Polanco’s sliding has also improved since he injured himself on an awkward jump-slide into second base on Sept. 7. Polanco said he has seen replays of that slide, but he felt so bad watching it that he eventually stopped doing so. He won’t be sliding headfirst, manager Clint Hurdle said, but he has worked hard to tighten up his feet-first slides.

“He’s been accurate with his throws. He’s made throws,” Hurdle said. “He’s done everything that he can do to test his legs out, sliding, his throws, swinging. He’s ready to go. It’s time for him to play up here.”

Around the horn

• Left-hander Steven Brault, who was optioned to make room for Polanco’s return, will join the Triple-A rotation. As a long reliever, Brault pitched only twice in Pittsburgh’s first 19 games of the season; he last appeared on April 8, when he worked three innings in a 10-0 loss at Wrigley Field.

• Rookie Kevin Newman (lacerated finger) will begin a Minor League rehab assignment with Triple-A Indianapolis on Tuesday. The Bucs want to see Newman get some work in the outfield, which would make him a more viable super-utility option off the bench, so he will start his first two games in left and center field.

• Newman will then get a day off to work at shortstop, his natural position, before starting the next two games at short for Indianapolis. The Pirates will reevaluate Newman on Sunday.

• With Polanco back in right field, veteran outfielder Melky Cabrera figures to see more work in left while Corey Dickerson and Lonnie Chisenhall are sidelined by injuries. Cabrera got the start in left, batting second, on Monday night. The 34-year-old’s first 14 appearances this season came in right, but Monday was his 1,000th Major League game in left field.

• After being activated from the injured list on Sunday, catcher Elias Diaz made his season debut behind the plate on Monday night.

• Corner infielder/outfielder Jose Osuna, who has been on the injured list since Opening Day due to lower neck discomfort, began a rehab assignment on Monday with Class A Advanced Bradenton.