Polanco, Marte a big hit for loaded Dominican Republic team
BRADENTON, Fla. — When Moises Alou turned his attention to assembling the Dominican Republic's roster for the 2017 World Baseball Classic, it wasn't long before two-thirds of the Pirates' starting outfield came to mind.
“As soon as I started putting this team together,” Alou said Wednesday, “(Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco) were two of the first guys I approached about being on the team.”
Representing their nation — and its proud baseball tradition — was appealing enough to Marte and Polanco for them to quickly accept the opportunity. And in their final dress rehearsal before the tournament begins for the Dominican on Thursday, the dynamic young Pirates duo was in a familiar place: in Bradenton and on the field at LECOM Park.
Marte was batting sixth and Polanco eighth in the Dominican's loaded lineup for its final exhibition game, which happened to be against the Pirates. Combined, they reached seven times in eight plate appearances in Dominican's 10-6 victory.
“Well, I've watched them get on base before,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said afterward, “so I just have got to watch from a different seat.”
Polanco went 3 for 3 with a double, two walks, two runs and a stolen base. Marte was 2 for 3 with two RBIs.
Each was given warm applause throughout from 4,204 fans on hand during a sunny Florida afternoon. Polanco's leadoff double in the third inning ignited a small pocket of Dominican fans who gathered above their team's dugout on the third-base line.
“It's awesome to be there and to compete with this guy,” Marte said, motioning to Polanco during pre-game batting practice. “When we were young, I wanted to be here with this guy and play together and represent our country: D.R.”
It was fitting Polanco and Marte got to play together for the “D.R.” on the same fields they have combined to spend many springs together over the past decade. Marte, now 28, signed with the Pirates in 2007: Polanco did two years later as a 17-year-old. Each made it to the majors within five years of their signings, and they combined with Andrew McCutchen to form one of baseball's better outfields since mid-2014.
“It's really good to have Polanco and Marte,” Dominican manager Tony Pena said. “It's going to give us real good defense, and Marte will give us more speed on the bases.”
Like Marte and Polanco, Pena and Alou began their professional baseball career as Pirates — albeit about eight years apart in the late '70s and '80s.
“Those guys were talking (Tuesday),” Polanco said, “they said they started here and they're proud to be back to this field and around the Pirates.”
Alou's duties called on him to consult with Pena on where to play Polanco and Marte. Marte won the past two NL Gold Gloves in left field but was moved to center for the Pirates this spring; the Pirates shifted Polanco from right to left and McCutchen from center to right.
Pena's initial lineup Wednesday morning had Polanco in left, but he changed his mind and swapped Polanco and Jose Bautista (another former Pirate) a couple of hours before the game.
“He can play both,” Pena said of Polanco. “I asked him and actually he probably feels more comfortable playing right field than left field.”
Pena said he and Alou envisioned Marte as their center fielder before the Pirates did.
“Alou and myself felt that Marte might be the best fit for us in center field because before he grew up here with the Pirates, he grew up in winter ball in the Dominican,” Pena said. “And when I had Marte playing for me in winter ball, he would play center field. He can play center field.”
Can he be the one of the best in the majors at it?
“Well, he's good,” Pena said. “That's the only thing I can say. He's good. He's good. He's young, and there's plenty of time and plenty of room to grow.”