The Pirates made it abundantly clear that Gregory Polanco’s recovery from major shoulder surgery was still a work in progress when they activated him from the injured list April 22.
Polanco is still rebuilding strength in the shoulder and there is no guarantee it will ever be like it was before he was injured last Sept. 7 on an awkward slide/dive into second base.
“I’ve been back two weeks and I feel better than I did when I came back,” he said. “Every week, it’s getting better. I’m not going to be as strong this year as I’d like to be, but I want to help the team. I’m here to help the team and do whatever I can every day to help the team win. I’m doing my best.”
Polanco couldn’t stop smiling after he hit his first home run of the season Tuesday night to help lift the Pirates to a 5-4 victory over the Rangers at PNC Park. The Pirates won for the fifth time in six games and improved to 17-15.
Polanco’s two-run shot in the fifth inning to right-center increased the Pirates’ lead to 5-2, and they needed the cushion in what ended up a one-run game. The drive came off a 91-mph sinker from Adrian Sampson, traveled 393 feet and had a 101-mph exit velocity.
It was not only Polanco’s first home run of the season for the Pirates – coming in his 47th plate appearance – but his first longball at any level since the surgery. He failed to connect in 39 trips to the plate during his minor-league rehab assignments.
No wonder Polanco flashed his trademark smile as he rounded the bases.
“That’s pretty special,” Polanco said. “It’s a great feeling. I was running the bases and it’s like, ‘Wow.’ I knew it was going to take some time before I could start driving the ball. I’m so happy right now I hit that first one.”
Polanco estimates that he feels pain on only about two percent of his swings. However, he also still has weakness in the shoulder, which not only inhibits his throwing but also how hard he can swing.
The home run came after what Polanco felt was his best pregame workout of the season. He was at the ballpark early to take extra batting practice and work with hitting coaches Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz. After regular BP, Polanco went into the indoor cages adjacent to the clubhouse and hit some more. The focus of the work was to use his legs more in his swing to help compensate for the weakness in the shoulder. Eckstein and Cruz wanted to watch Polanco play for a couple of weeks at the major-league level before suggesting changes.
“When I get really hot that’s what I’m doing, using my lower half to help drive the ball,” said Polanco, who is hitting .273/.333/.409 in 11 games. “It’s hard when you miss that much time. I’m trying to rush a lot at the plate. But I know if you just keep swinging then the power will come. I knew it would not happen right away. Obviously, I’m not 100 percent. It’s getting there. If I use my lower half more, I’ll drive the ball. It’s a long season and sometimes I forget, so it’s good to get reminded.”
Clint Hurdle knows the Pirates don’t currently have the very best of Polanco. However, as the manager often says, he doesn’t place expectations on people. That holds true with Polanco.
“I felt it would take some time,” Hurdle said when I asked if he thought Polanco was starting to get back into the flow. “He’s only played a handful of games in the outfield. There’s definitely work to be done defensively. He's out there early (before games) and he’s doing it. Offensively, the game speed, the velocity, the spin is real here and it’s not quite the same anywhere else. You don’t just turn the switch on.”
Polanco understands that, which is why the first home run was a significant milepost in his continued rehab.
“It felt good,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s the first of many more to come.”
Felipe Vazquez is 10-for-10 in save opportunities and has a 0.54 ERA in 15 appearances this season. However, the Pirates closer might have had his best outing yet when he pitched a 1-2-3 ninth.
Vazquez got Nomar Mazara to line out then struck out Elvis Andrus and Joey Gallo swinging. Gallo went down on a 101-mph fastball, and it was particularly satisfying for Vazquez as the slugging outfielder hit a home run off him last week when the teams played in Arlington, Texas.
When I jokingly said his stuff was so good that it made it unfair for Gallo, Vazquez smiled.
“It was unfair what he did to me last week, hitting that home run,” Vazquez said. “I wanted to see him. I was pretty pumped up. I wanted to get him out.”
Vazquez threw seven fastballs in his 11-pitch outing and they averaged exactly 100 mph.
“The guy at the end was really special,” Hurdle said.
Dovydas Neverauskas was charged with two runs in one-third of an inning in his second appearance since being called up from Triple-A Indianapolis on Saturday.
Neverauskas came on to start the seventh with a 5-2 lead and, with one out, walked Delino Deshields Jr. and allowed a single to Andrus. One out later, Tyler Lyons gave up Hunter Pence’s two-run double that drew the Rangers within a run.
In 51 career games and 53 innings, Neverauskas’ ERA is 6.28.
THE OTHER SIDE
Pence drove in all four Rangers' runs with a home run and two doubles. That continued a strong comeback season for the 36-year-old right fielder.
Pence is hitting .333/.403/.603 with four homers in 21 games. Last season with the Giants, he batted just .226/.258/.332 with four homers in 97 games and seemed at the end of the line.
However, Pence played winter ball in the Dominican Republic -- something nearly unheard of for an American player his age -- then signed a minor-league contract with the Rangers on Feb. 7 as a free agent. The Arlington native has been rejuvenated playing for his hometown team.
"We definitely need to find a way to get him in there more often," said manager Chris Woodward, whose team fell to 16-17. "He deserves playing time. He really does. Obviously, I think everybody is taking notice."
• Melky Cabrera extended his hitting streak to 11 games with a two-run double as a pinch hitter in the fourth inning that put the Pirates ahead for good at 3-2.
• Steven Brault pitched four innings and allowed two runs in his first start of the season. He had made just four relief appearances despite being with the Pirates for all but one day this year.
• The Pirates are 7-1 in interleague games this year and 16-5 since the start of last season.
• Tuesday began a stretch in which the Pirates play on 13 consecutive days and 26 games in 27 days through June 2.
• The Rangers had scored a combined 18 runs in winning their previous two games.
• Keone Kela, right-hander, left the game in the seventh inning Saturday with shoulder discomfort. He was scheduled to throw Tuesday and will be reevaluated Wednesday.
• Jameson Taillon, right-hander, is on the 10-day IL with a strained right forearm flexor tendon. He will not throw until early June.
• Chris Archer, right-hander, is on the 10-day IL with right thumb inflammation. He threw a bullpen session Tuesday and will pitch a simulated game, which has yet to be scheduled, before being activated.
• Corey Dickerson, outfielder, is on the 10-day IL with a strained right shoulder. He is currently unable to throw and is out indefinitely.
• Nick Burdi, relief pitcher, is on the 10-day IL with right elbow/biceps pain. He is out indefinitely.
• Lonnie Chisenhall, outfielder, is on the 10-day IL with a broken right hand. His rehab assignment at Indianapolis was stopped April 27 because of left calf tightness. He has resumed baseball activities but there is no timetable for his return.
• Jacob Stallings, catcher, is on the 10-day IL with a cervical neck strain. He's on a rehab assignment with Indianapolis.
• Erik Gonzalez, shortstop, is on the 60-day IL with a fractured right clavicle. He is no longer wearing a sling but won't return until at least mid-July.
The two-game series concludes at 12:35 p.m. Wednesday with Nick Kingham (1-0, 6.39) starting against Shelby Miller (1-2, 7.99). It will be Kingham's first start of the season after eight relief appearances. Hunter Homistek, Matt Sunday and I will be covering the game before DK takes over for the four-game weekend series against the Cardinals that starts Thursday night in St. Louis.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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