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Polanco debuts, attention turns to Liriano's health

Justin K. Aller

At the beginning of the day, it was hard to imagine any story quickly replacing Gregory Polanco's promotion as the story of interest involving the Pirates. But, as has been the case all homestand, as soon as one big story ends another one, or two, quickly seem to emerge.

Let's start with the big story entering the night: Gregory Polanco.

A very large crowd, but short of sellout, turned out and gave Polanco two standing ovations: one as he walked to the plate for his first at bat, and another after he roped a liner over Starlin Castro's head for his first big-league hit. For the night, Polanco went 1-for-5, with one run scored.

In the seventh, Polanco faced his first challenging defensive play, as Anthony Rizzo drove a ball deep into the right center gap. Polanco took a good, but tentative, route, tracking the ball onto the warning track. However, at the last minute, he looked very much like an outfielder who was unsure of his new surroundings. Just as he was reaching out to catch the ball, he seemed to suffer a spasm of uncertainty, and began to brace for a collision with the wall a split second too soon. The ball ended up bouncing off his glove. Rizzo ended up at second with a double.

Overall, Polanco showed some of the skills that made his promotion so eagerly anticipated. His swing is a thing of beauty, and he is deceivingly fast on the base paths. He is also awkwardly graceful in his defensive work in right field. It will take some time for a polished player to emerge, but the raw tools tantalize.

"It was good and I was very excited and I was so proud of myself," Polanco said of his debut. "I just enjoyed the game today. I know we lost but it was my first game. I was so excited to play."

"I look forward to continue to watching him play," Clint Hurdle said. "Nice reception from the crowd. You got to see that swing.

"He's going to be fine with every game, every at bat, with every inning in the field. It's not going to be easier, but he's going to be more comfortable."

Now, the new and emerging stories.

Francisco Liriano was removed from the game in the fourth inning with what the team initially called "left side discomfort." After the game, Hurdle said that the team thinks Liriano has a left oblique strain.

After throwing a pitch to Rizzo, Liriano sort of spun off the mound, and started to wander around behind it, grimacing and occasionally looking to the sky. Immediately, Hurdle and the team's training staff came out of the dugout and headed to the mound. Andrew McCutchen even eventually jogged in from center field to see what was going on. Liriano started holding his left side and appeared to being try to stretch, or loosen it up. He then took one toss from the mound, with everyone gathered behind him. After the pitch and a short conference, Liriano walked to the dugout.

"I felt a pinch," Liriano said. "I thought it was a cramp ... I'm going to have a MRI tomorrow."

An oblique strain would be obviously very bad news for the Pirates. It would likely place him on the disabled list, as the average recovery time is usually a month or more. Vance Worley would seem to be the likely pitcher to replace Liriano in the rotation. The starting rotation for the next two weeks potentially could consist of Charlie Morton, Brandon Cumpton, Jeff Locke, Edinson Volquez and Vance Worley. Not ideal.

The other emerging issue is the two sides of Starling Marte.

On one hand, he seems to be breaking out of his slump. He had another good day at the plate, going 2-for-4.

On the other, he is making some inexplicable baserunning and fielding mistakes.

In the fourth inning, he took one of the worst routes of the season on what turned out to be a double over his head. It would have been a difficult catch, but Marte's line was almost at right angles, and he appeared to simply sprint under it, like a child runs under the water spouting from an oscillating sprinkler.

And, although Hurdle excused Marte getting doubled off of first on a pop-up in the infield in the sixth ("We lost the ball in the dusk on the other one ... people yell"), it's the type of thing that seems to be happening to him too often lately.

As for the game itself, the Cubs jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning on a Anthony Rizzo two-run home run.

The Bucs came back to tie it in the third, when Andrew McCutchen crushed one into the  bullpens in center, scoring Polanco in the process.

The game entered the sixth tied 3-3, but the Cubs put up two runs in the sixth, and again in the seventh, off Casey Sadler, to win it going away 7-3.