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Tribe's Polanco meeting every challenge

Pirates' top prospect homers, plates four runs, lifts average to .419
April 23, 2014

Top Pirates prospect Gregory Polanco has the ability to change a game in any number of ways. In that regard, stuffing the box score is nothing new.

Still, his coaches were especially pleased with the right fielder's performance on Tuesday evening.'s No. 13 overall prospect went 3-for-5 with a solo homer, four RBIs, three runs scored and a stolen base in Triple-A Indianapolis' 11-6 victory at Toledo.

"It was interesting because, to me, it showed his ability to adjust at the plate," Indians hitting coach Mike Pagliarulo said. "The first couple at-bats, he struck out. Many hitters would have packed it in for the night, but he didn't do that.

"He got a hard fastball up in the zone that he was able to turn around and smack out of the ballpark. And even in his last at-bat he didn't back off when it was 8-0. He maintained his tenacity in his own way, and that is good to see. Good hitters do that, it doesn't matter if it's 11-0 or 0-11. Every situation is important and every situation is big."

It was Polanco's 10th multi-hit game of the season and his fifth contest with at least three hits. He has gone hitless in only three of 18 games and has failed to reach safely just once.

Polanco raised his average to an International League-leading .419. He also ranks first with 31 hits and third with 20 RBIs and 48 total bases. No Minor Leaguer with as many at-bats as his 74 is hitting at a higher clip.

After striking out in the first and fourth innings, the native of the Dominican Republic singled home two runs in the fifth, homered to right field leading off the seventh and added an RBI single in the eighth. The Indians are 9-1 when the 22-year-old posts a multi-hit game and 4-4 when he has one hit or fewer.

"It was 3-2, a full count, and he got thrown a 93 mph fastball up and out of the zone," Pagliarulo said of the home run. "It was a high pitch and he was able to hit it; he expanded the zone and hit it well. He pulled a bad pitch, and I haven't seen him chase many pitches this year.

"I told the manager [Dean Treanor] that we should pull him aside and tell him not to swing at a pitch that high. Then again, I told him, maybe we shouldn't. It shows that he's getting to know himself better as a hitter. You don't see many guys turning around a 93 or 95 mph pitch, it's a separator at Triple-A."

The long ball was his third of the season, as was the stolen base. While Polanco is considered to have above-average speed, the organization is keen to see him improve his running game. That, along with gaining more experience overall, was one of the reasons Polanco was sent back to Triple-A out of Spring Training.

"The thing that has been glaring is that he has been blessed with speed, so baserunning has to become a bigger part of his package," Treanor said this week. "He's got to get a feel for what he can and cannot do. He also has to learn situations: when should he run and what should he look for from pitchers in different situations."

Polanco is 3-for-6 in stolen base attempts, making him 130-for-165 in his six-year pro career.

Situational plays are something the Pirates are high on throughout the organization, especially at Triple-A. The Indians have a checklist of things they want to see out of each player, separated into offense, defense and baserunning.

For example, they look to see outfielders like Polanco charging balls and backing up plays. It can be as routine as throwing behind runners to more niche scenarios like snagging fly balls in the twilight. Then there is the need to execute Pittsburgh-specific cutoffs and relay throws because of the short right-field porch at PNC Park.

At the plate, the checklist covers in-game situations like hit-and-runs, moving runners over and getting bunts down. On the basepaths, it features getting jumps on balls hit to the outfield, reading the runners ahead of him and knowing whether he can score from second base on a base hit, depending on where the ball is hit.

It's unlikely that every situation is covered in every game. In this case, the remaining things on the checklist are covered at the next available training session.

"He just needs experience," said Pagliarulo, adding he sees similarities between Hall of Fame former teammate Dave Winfield and Polanco. "He hasn't been in every situation. I just want to make sure that when he gets called up he can help immediately. That's what we do in this organization. We have to make sure they have all the things covered. Then when he goes up, it will be a more manageable resource for Clint Hurdle and his staff.

"We're still working on his defense and his baserunning every time we can. We want to produce well-rounded Major League players, championship-caliber players, and this kid has a lot of tools."

Polanco put together a breakout year across three levels in 2013. He went from Class A Advanced Bradenton to Indianapolis via Double-A Altoona, started in center field for the World Team at the All-Star Futures Game and capped his year by being named MVP in the Dominican Winter League.

His latest star turn helped Casey Sadler improve to 3-0. The Indianapolis starter gave up four hits and two walks while striking out six over seven scoreless innings.

Designated hitter Andrew Lambo was 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles and two RBIs, while third baseman Matt Hague smacked a three-run homer, his first of the year.

Toledo's Drew VerHagen (0-2) yielded four runs on five hits and two walks while fanning three in 4 1/3 innings.

Ashley Marshall is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @AshMarshallMLB.