Polanco plays hero despite unfamiliar role

Slugging outfielder comes off bench to deliver go-ahead homer

Polanco plays hero despite unfamiliar role

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates' six-run, seventh-inning rally Friday night started with Andrew McCutchen's 240-foot single to right field. Then David Freese hit one a little farther, knocking a 338-foot double off the Clemente Wall. Then came Gregory Polanco off the bench, crushing a 434-foot shot that bounced into the Allegheny River.

Polanco's homer gave the Bucs a lead they wouldn't relinquish. The Pirates piled on from there and beat the Padres, 10-6, pulling within three games of .500 and within 4 1/2 games of the division-leading Cubs.

"It all started so innocently," manager Clint Hurdle said. "McCutchen gets a base hit to right. Then you get another base hit to right that goes a little bit deeper. Then you get one that goes deeper."

In the dugout, Hurdle was considering the outcomes after sending up Polanco to pinch-hit in the pitcher's spot. A single might score McCutchen from third and Freese from second, tying the game. A deep fly ball or a well-placed grounder would drive in McCutchen.

And if Polanco could connect for his first career pinch-hit home run ...

"The swing he put on it scored three of them," Hurdle said. "He doesn't have a lot of history doing it, but sometimes you have a feeling and you roll with it."

Watching Polanco's at-bat unfold, starter Ivan Nova had a feeling of his own. Polanco swung at the first of four fastballs he saw from reliever Kirby Yates and tipped it back into catcher Austin Hedges' glove. Nova liked what he saw from Polanco's swing, short and direct to the ball. Yates delivered two fastballs above the strike zone, and Polanco laid off both.

"I was like, if [Yates] throws a pitch right here, he's going to hit a homer," Nova said.

Standing at second base, Freese watched as Yates tried to elevate another fastball. The 93.7-mph offering dipped down and in on Polanco. He made contact, crushing the ball 105.8 mph with a 26-degree launch angle. The ball sailed over PNC Park's right-field seats, bounced on the Riverwalk beyond the wall and landed in the river.

"Our offense, man, when we're blasting the ball and driving it and getting some backspin, it's fun," Freese said. "That's the bottom line. It's a lot more fun."

Polanco stood and watched the ball fly out of the park for a moment, dropped his bat and began trotting toward first base. He pointed one finger toward the sky, clapped both hands and high-fived first-base coach Kimera Bartee. For the first time all night, the Pirates had a lead, 7-6.

"Couldn't ask for any more," Hurdle said. "We were just looking for an opportunity to get closer."

As the Pirates again attempt to scratch and claw their way into the National League Central race, Polanco's contributions will be key. He was at his best in July before landing on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring, one of several injuries to hold him back this season. In 17 games last month, he hit .387 with a 1.035 OPS, three homers and nine RBIs.

Polanco went hitless in seven at-bats over two games upon his return. He brought an end to that skid and shifted the momentum of Friday's game with one big swing just before midnight.

"Pretty impressive," Adam Frazier said. "Hopefully we can get him rolling again."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.