Polanco debuts with 1-for-5 performance as Pirates lose to Cubs
Gregory Polanco's wait ended in the visiting clubhouse in Allentown on Monday night, 282 miles from PNC Park. After Indianapolis' game at Lehigh Valley, manager Dean Treanor gathered his Triple-A team for a meeting.
“He said ‘You are going to Pittsburgh tomorrow,' ” Polanco said. “It was a big emotion. I was shy. I didn't know what to do. I was like ‘Oh my God, what is happening?' I started laughing and everyone came and hugged me.”
Pittsburgh's wait to witness the club's most talented positional prospect since Andrew McCutchen, perhaps since Barry Bonds, ended hours later. Polanco made the trip west across the state Tuesday morning, arriving in Pittsburgh at 11 a.m.
Wearing No. 25, the 22-year-old was met with a standing ovation from 31,567 as he approached the left-handed batter's box in the first inning. In the Pirates' 7-3 loss to the Cubs, Polanco went 1 for 5 with a run scored in his major league debut.
“I was very excited. … I was a little nervous,” Polanco said. “I've been waiting all my life, and it made me feel proud of myself and my family.”
Tuesday marked the culmination of a journey beginning five years ago and 1,600 miles away in the Dominican Republic, when Pirates Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo signed a lanky, raw Polanco for $150,000.
The Polanco who arrived Tuesday had blossomed into a 6-foot-4, 220-pound, consensus top-10 prospect.
Polanco's first at-bat was forgettable as he popped out to shortstop. But his second at-bat was a preview of what could be to come.
With a fluid, level, left-handed swing, Polanco laced a 90 mph Travis Wood fastball into left field for a single. It was a small sample of his natural, opposite-field approach to hitting.
“It felt very good,” Polanco said. “It was a fastball outside.”
His precocious approach gave Pirates manager Clint Hurdle confidence to bat Polanco second in the lineup against Wood. Hurdle said Polanco is the most advanced prospect to come through the system during his tenure and he could become a fixture atop the lineup.
“You got to see that swing,” Hurdle said. “He's known one way to hit, and he's continued to perform that one way. He stays inside the ball until the point of impact and focuses on left-center field. The angle from a left-hander, he might have a better comfort with it.”
Polanco hit .338 against left-handed pitching in Triple-A, .347 overall.
Polanco's batting position was welcomed by McCutchen, who entered batting in situations with no runners on and two outs in 26.5 percent of his plate appearances, third most in baseball. After Polanco's single in the third, McCutchen homered to tie the score at 2-2.
Polanco would have had to author a monster debut to help the Pirates overcome an early exit from Francisco Liriano, who left in the fourth with a left oblique strain, and a poor bullpen performance. Casey Sadler allowed four runs in 22⁄3 innings.
One area where Polanco continues to need refinement is in right field. A natural center fielder, Polanco was shifted to right field full-time this season and he failed to make a running catch of an Anthony Rizzo fly ball in the sixth. The ball fell out of Polanco's glove on the warning track as Rizzo was credited with an RBI double to give the Cubs a 6-3 lead.
Still, it was a day of firsts for Polanco. He recorded his first hit, scored his first run and made his way into a major league stadium for the first time.
Every Pirate must pass under a placard inscribed with a quote from Roberto Clemente in the tunnel to reach the dugout. The quote from Clemente reads: “When I put on my uniform, I feel I am the proudest man on earth.”
Polanco tapped the sign with his glove. The future of right field — and all its promise of greatness — had arrived.
Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.
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