PITTSBURGH -- Last season was not easy for Gregory Polanco. The Pirates right fielder ended the shortened campaign with a .153 batting average, the second-lowest mark in the Majors (minimum 150 plate appearances), over 50 games.
After a solid start to the spring, Polanco was feeling fully confident and healthy for the first time in several years. Then, the results were slow to show to begin 2021 (a .138 average through nine games), and there were worries that the same struggles were rearing their head.
“I'm not going to lie, sometimes at night, it's hard to sleep when you're going through those hard times,” Polanco said last week. “You've got to stay positive.”
Polanco returned to the lineup on Wednesday after not starting the previous two nights, and he finally had the game he’s been searching for. He hit a homer in the second inning to get the Pirates’ offense going early and reached base four times in a 5-1 win over the Padres at PNC Park.
Polanco’s first home run of the season came against former Pirates right-hander Joe Musgrove, who carried the longest active scoreless-inning streak in MLB (32) into that at-bat and was coming off a no-hitter last Friday at Texas. Polanco snapped that stretch with a Statcast-projected 395-foot solo homer to right field.
“It means a lot [to face him], because he’s my friend,” Polanco said, “but not when we’re out there competing. He was coming off that no-hitter, so this means a lot.”
The home run placed Polanco in a tie with Craig Wilson for the fifth-most homers in PNC Park history at 47. He now trails only Andrew McCutchen (92), Pedro Álvarez (62), Jason Bay (61) and Garrett Jones (51).
But the bigger question for Polanco is not whether he will belt a lot of homers, but how consistent he can be. He showed signs of getting there on Wednesday.
Polanco singled in the fourth, when the Pirates made Musgrove throw 24 pitches, then walked in his final two plate appearances. The second walk turned out to be big, kick-starting a stretch of five consecutive batters reaching base during a three-run rally in the eighth.
“He was in the middle of all of our runs being scored,” manager Derek Shelton said of Polanco. “Getting on base there late to help us extend the lead. Very quality at-bats by Greg tonight.”
From Shelton's view, the big issue early for Polanco was his timing. Polanco's inability to get in sync led to 12 strikeouts in 29 at-bats over his first nine games. But Polanco said he worked on a new mechanism over the past few days to try to get in a better rhythm.
“I changed my [stance], and I’m not just hanging with my front foot. I’m trying to get my foot on the ground on time," Polanco said.
Polanco said earlier this season that he’s also working to keep his hands higher through his swing, as he tends to drag under the ball and whiff. He easily got his hands through the 1-1 four-seam fastball that Musgrove threw high and inside after a curveball in the second.
Time will tell if the changes Polanco has made will stick and lead to steadier results. He should get fairly consistent playing time in right field over the coming months, but with rookie Ke’Bryan Hayes nearing his return from the injured list and Phillip Evans impressing early, there is some pressure on Polanco to keep the results coming if he wants to get as many reps as possible.
Polanco is confident he can get it figured out.
“Trust the work I've been doing since last year, the offseason, Spring Training -- because we're not machines,” Polanco said last week. “We're going to go through tough moments. We've got to stay positive and trust the work.”