Rookie Polanco giving Pirates a needed lift
Five-tool talent has joined McCutchen, Marte for one of MLB's best outfields
ST. PETERSBURG -- Start with this: The Pirates have the best outfield in the National League, if not all of baseball.
The trio of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and 22-year-old rookie Gregory Polanco is like a fuse on a firecracker. Light it and it explodes.
"And Polanco, the exciting rookie, is the final piece," gushed former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who is now a senior advisor for Philadelphia. "He's been everything the scouts predicted. He's got great plate discipline for a rookie, speed and power."
The Pirates just finished three games against the struggling, disappointing Tampa Bay Rays. Before they ran into the buzzsaw that is lefty David Price on Wednesday, they gave a demonstration on how baseball should be played. The Bucs' dynamic outfield trio was in full bloom.
In the first two games -- 8-1 and 6-5 victories -- the three outfielders collected eight hits, scored seven times, stole five bases and drove in five runs.
Tuesday night against Chris Archer, Polanco, who was promoted to the big leagues on June 10, took five consecutive pitches and led off the game with a walk. He then stole second, advanced to third on an errant throw by the catcher and scored on McCutchen's groundout.
Just like that, it was 1-0.
Monday night it was 2-0 in a blink of the eye, with Marte and McCutchen, the 2013 National League MVP Award winner, flashing reckless abandon around the bases in the first inning.
Wednesday afternoon, in what could have been Price's final game as a Ray (he's expected to be traded), the Pirates were unable to overcome the left-hander, who said "I've never been as good as I am right now. Period."
It's highly unlikely the Rays, who were picked by many before Spring Training to win the American League East but now have the worst record in the Major leagues (32-48), will be able to salvage their season.
The Pirates, on the other hand, are on the upswing.
They returned to Pittsburgh on Thursday night to face the Mets, having climbed to .500. They're 29-21 in their last 50 games after losing 18 of their first 28.
With Polanco creating a buzz and the return of Gerrit Cole -- he pitches Saturday -- and later Opening Day starter Francisco Liriano, the Pirates should be a factor in the tough National League Central.
There's encouragement around the revival of right-hander Vance Worley.
Worley, who was set to face the Mets on Thursday night at PNC Park, was purchased from the Twins at the end of Spring Training and began the year at Triple-A. He was promoted from Indianapolis on June 15 and is 1-0 after two starts with a 1.98 earned run average.
But the arrival of Polanco on June 10 could make the difference in the Pirates' season. Manager Clint Hurdle says they're determined to prove 2013 -- when they advanced to the postseason as an NL Wild Card with their first winning season since 1992 -- wasn't an aberration.
Hurdle is a superb motivator who admittedly was disappointed with the team's lackluster start.
"We felt we would get out of the blocks much quicker than we did," said Hurdle, the 2013 NL Manager of the Year Award winner. "The one thing that hurt us was starting pitching. That complicates things. You start using your bullpen not when you want to, but when you have to.
"We weren't doing a lot of things crisp early. The defense has always been solid. The offense has ramped up in June, maybe our best month since I've been here."
I didn't mention that it's obvious the Pirates miss the presence of veteran right-hander A. J. Burnett, who signed as a free agent with Philadelphia.
Burnett was 10-11 with a 3.30 ERA last season. He stabilized the rotation and gave the Pirates 191 innings over 30 starts.
That brings us to the outfield and the arrival of Polanco, who'll be a leading candidate for the NL Rookie of the Year Award.
I mentioned Manuel's comments, prompting Hurdle to say: "There's a lot of people who feel that way. You can manage a lot of years and not be blessed with the opportunity to watch three guys like that -- three pure center fielders playing the outfield. They also bring the skills offensively and on the bases, plus they're able to hit at the top of the order."
There had been a clamor from fans and pundits to promote Polanco sooner, and Pittsburgh has won nine of 15 games since his arrival. He's batting .323 with a double, a homer, six RBIs, three stolen bases and 13 runs. He reached base in each of his first 14 games.
It was maybe unfair, but I asked Rays skipper Joe Maddon his thoughts as he watched the top of the Pirates' batting order play baseball the way they did against his team.
"It's nice to have speed," Maddon answered quickly. "You have the first two guys and then McCutchen. He's like everything -- he's the player for all seasons, for all years. He's great defensively; he can run, hit with power. He's the guy who stirs the drink just based on his energy. There are so many things he does. He's just different.
"I'm not denigrating the rest of their group, but the top three athletically give them an entirely different look. Beyond that, their pitching is better than they get credit for."
Folks who wrote off the Pirates early were foolish.
The Pirates, thanks mostly to Gregory Polanco, have been reignited and just might prove those early season doomsayers wrong.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.