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Outfielder Snider a picture of perseverance for Pirates this season

| Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, 10:24 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
The Pirates' Travis Snider watches as his second-inning home run against the Dodgers in the second inning Wednesday, July 23, 2014, at PNC Park.

ST. LOUIS — Travis Snider was the Pirates' starting right fielder on Opening Day. Yet, Snider figured he probably would have the job only for as long as it took top prospect Gregory Polanco to work his way up from the minors.

“I knew it in spring training,” Snider said. “It was very clear that Gregory was going to be part of the future of this team.”

Snider was slumping at the plate even before Polanco was called up June 10, and the rookie's arrival anchored Snider to the bench.

Change is constant in baseball. By the end of August, Polanco was back at Triple-A Indianapolis, and Snider again was an everyday player.

Snider didn't have much of a chance to get comfortable, though. He strained his left hamstring Aug. 27 while running out an infield hit and sat out the next three games.

Snider returned as a pinch hitter in Monday's game against the St. Louis Cardinals. The next day, Polanco was recalled from Indy. It's uncertain how much action either player will get during the final few weeks of the season.

“Roles change throughout the year. It's a long season,” Snider said. “I understand how the coaches go about making up the lineup and how the (front office) looks at guys like Gregory. We (players) don't focus on that. We focus on making each other better and winning games.”

Snider was in the lineup for 13 of the first 17 games this season, but his production sagged. On June 1, he was batting .208 with a .306 on-base percentage and only four extra-base hits.

Nine days later, Polanco made his big league debut against the Chicago Cubs. Starting in right field, Polanco batted second — Snider's spot — singled in his second at-bat and scored a run. Snider grounded out as a pinch hitter in the seventh inning.

Since the All-Star break, Snider has flourished, batting .294 with six home runs and an .881 OPS in 37 games.

“It's been the best swing for the longest period of time that we've seen from him,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He's been stubborn with his game plan, just taking the fastball to the big part of the field, getting short to the ball, long through it, extension through the swing. He's pulling the changeup and the slider. Everything else, he's looking to shoot to the big part of the field in left. He's hit some home runs off breaking pitches and hit some opposite-field home runs.”

What's especially impressive is Snider got his groove back at the plate while serving as a pinch hitter.

“When you get to that mindset of being a bench player, I know from experience, it's always about expecting every pitch to be a fastball in the spot where you want it,” hitting coach Jeff Branson said. “You have to be aggressive. We talked to him about, no matter if you're playing or not, you're expecting every pitch to be a fastball, but it's in the spot you want. His biggest key is being ready to hit as soon as he steps in the box.”

This offseason, the Pirates must make a decision about Snider's future. He will be arbitration eligible for the second time after making $1.2 million in 2014.

Even if Polanco continues to spurn the Pirates' long-term contract offers, he will remain under team control for at least five more years. Management might balk at allocating upward of $2 million next season on Snider as a fourth outfielder.

For now, Snider is not worried. He has enough daily challenges — rehabbing his sore leg, preparing for each day's game, prepping for the team's fantasy football draft — to keep him busy.

“It takes the pressure off yourself when you focus on the team,” Snider said. “That's been very motivational for me. You see a guy like Josh Harrison who didn't really get a shot to play the first two years I was here. He ends up being the guy who's starting a month and a half into the season. Finding ways to have fun every day instead of allowing your stat line to define your mood or the way you go about business every day is important.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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