Gene Collier: Polanco show must go on, and it could be great



Gregory Polanco arrived in Pittsburgh aboard a flight from Philadelphia at 11:11 a.m. Tuesday and walked into his 3 p.m. news conference exactly one minute early and still not a moment too soon.

Such was the habitual clock-watcher's history of June 10, on which the Pirates awoke 7½ games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the theoretically competitive National League Central Division.

Can the pennant race start now?

Or as one of my favorite tweeters put it so perfectly, Apolancolypse Now!

Meaning now that the best player in the International League, the winter leagues, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the 5-tool commissioner in a league of his own has been allowed to put on a big-league uniform?

"It was emotional; I was like a child -- I didn't know what to do," Polanco said about getting the news that he would finally join the Pirates. "I was like, 'Oh my God it's happening.' "

So he called his mom.

That seemed right.

He wondered not whether it was too late to help Clint Hurdle's team, which turned in an indecorous performance for Polanco's debut, losing deservedly to the Chicago Cubs, the worst team in the division. He wondered only what it would be like to play alongside NL MVP Andrew McCutchen and to play right field in Pittsburgh, the iconic baseball address of Roberto Clemente.

"It just felt great to walk in here, been waiting all my life," Polanco said. "I just say thank God for everything. It's gonna be special. I feel proud to play where somebody like Clemente played. I'll be so happy about that."

It's not terribly important that Polanco appreciate the many miles by which Pittsburgh is a happier baseball place than it was when Pedro Alvarez, the previous next big thumping thing, arrived for a similar news conference four years ago this week.

On that night John Russell's Pirates let Pedro join a death march, committing six errors and losing for the 10th time in a row on the way to 57-105. Alvarez scored his first major league run on a single by Lastings Milledge.

Yeah.

So much had to change in that era that mere progress seemed at some interplanetary distance. But the Pirates didn't rush Alvarez then and they clearly haven't rushed Polanco now. Alvarez hit 46 home runs in the minor leagues. Polanco hit 41. Barry Bonds, for the interminably curious, hit 20.

"In the overall skill set, Polanco is, probably on paper, a little bit more advanced," Hurdle said of the latest arrival from the decorated minor league system's top shelf. "He's probably progressed more consistently than some others over the past 13, 14 months, in terms of his overall game. From [Class AA, AAA], there was a position change for him, as there was for [Starling] Marte, an acclimation process, but it came along."

What comes along for Polanco in the coming months could scare up a fourth consecutive high-interest summer. In only his second career at-bat, this smooth Dominican in the Dave Parker body stroked a smoldering liner to left for his first career hit. On a night when Chicago's Anthony Rizzo was knocking down walls with doubles and homers, Polanco probably should have caught his seventh-inning double near the 375 sign in deepest right-center field, but that's not the easiest nook to play in the North Side yard, and soon enough Polanco will put balls like that in his pocket.

"Do what got you here," is what McCutchen said his advice would be to the his right fielder. "Don't try to do more. Don't change it. The game is the same. The atmosphere is different.

"He's a really good player. He's got physical features, of course, but as we all know, this game is very mental, but I definitely think he has the mental makeup to come here and be successful. He's easy to talk to. He listens before he speaks. He's going to be a hard worker."

It was McCutchen who delivered Polanco's first really electrifying moment, as it happened. In the moments after the ball had been safely collected and the right fielder's career had its first artifact, Cutch blasted the very next pitch from Travis Wood into the bullpen in center for a two-run homer.

Galloping on contact, Polanco's long strides had taken him clear around third when McCutchen's ninth homer left the yard. It wasn't until third-base coach Nick Leyva, wandering far down the line toward home, did the right-hand circular signal that Polanco realized it was a homer. The ground he covered in the meantime was startling.

With its best pitcher (Gerrit Cole) and best RBI-man (Neil Walker) on the disabled list, Hurdle's team needs something startling, something sustained, perhaps even something spectacular.

Nothing says that can't be Polanco.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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