Polanco completing Bucs' impressive OF trio

Right fielder putting up career-best numbers so far in 2016

Polanco completing Bucs' impressive OF trio

PITTSBURGH -- In the first inning Thursday night at PNC Park, Starling Marte blooped a two-run single to right field. In the second inning, Andrew McCutchen punched an RBI single of his own to right.

Stepping into the batter's box after McCutchen, Gregory Polanco joined the party -- crushing a two-run homer to left-center field -- the same way that he's taken his place this season alongside McCutchen and Marte as the Pirates' third star outfielder.

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Polanco homered and tripled in the Bucs' 8-2 win over the Braves. His average climbed to .308 and his OPS bumped up to .953, the 10th-highest mark in the National League. Polanco continues to turn potential into production this year, looking every bit like the star player he was projected to be in the Minor Leagues.

Polanco legs out a triple

"We've seen it in different games already this year. They're all kind of stacked in the middle of the lineup," said manager Clint Hurdle, who wrote out a lineup Thursday with McCutchen batting second, Polanco third and Marte fifth. "They're getting better together, and there's going to be more out there for them."

McCutchen established himself years ago as one of baseball's best all-around players. Marte began to earn national recognition last year, particularly for his Gold Glove defense in left. The Pirates patiently waited for Polanco, a former top prospect who's still only 24 years old, to fulfill his promise.

He showed flashes of his ability right out of the gate in 2014, and he put together a sustained stretch of excellence last season. This year, he's performed at a high level from the beginning.

"I'm more confident than last year," Polanco said. "Now that I've got more experience, when you get more ABs and more experience, you get better."

Polanco showed his rare physical gifts on that second-inning swing. The ball cleared the notch in left-center field and landed 409 feet away from home plate, Polanco's fifth homer of the season. Three innings later, Polanco pulled a triple high off the right-field wall.

"He's got that kind of power. His swing's in a good place," Hurdle said. "He's still learning some things, too, so it's fun to watch him."

With McCutchen batting second this season, Hurdle had to find a new No. 3 hitter. David Freese held down the role for most of April, but the job has fallen to Polanco nearly every day over the last two weeks.

It's a comfortable spot for Polanco, who spent most of his Minor League career there. But it has to be a boost of confidence to hit there at this level, right?

"This is the Major Leagues," Polanco said, "but I'm a Major League player now."

"To see him come up here and make that same impact at this level, can't say enough about that," added left-hander Jeff Locke, who earned the win on Thursday night. "He's done a great job. You see there's so much more room for growth. He's very talented. It's a pleasure to have him on the team."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.