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Polanco finds 'conviction zone', Kuhl crashes into Vogt

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Pittsburgh Pirates
Polanco endures celebratory drenching.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Gregory Polanco is having a good time, you guys. And it’s pretty easy to see why.

Not only did the right fielder go 4-for-4 with two RBI doubles in Monday’s crucial 4-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, he gunned down catcher Manny Piña at home plate to prevent Milwaukee from tying the game in the sixth inning.

After a woeful first half of the season where he slashed a meager .258/.317/.404, Polanco has turned it on in July. The right fielder is now 21-for-48 (.438) this month with six doubles and two home runs. His July OPS is 1.106.

“I’m pretty comfortable right now,” Polanco said. “I’m healthy now. I feel strong. I feel that my hands are quick and now I can see the ball.”

Whether it was the barrage of nagging injuries (hamstring, ankle, knee, shoulder, etc.) negatively affecting his swing or just the league’s pitchers adjusting to his approach, Polanco looked uncomfortable at the plate for much of the early part of this season. Every at-bat seemed to be a flailing strikeout or a groundout to second base.

But Polanco said he has worked hard on shortening his swing and improving his focus at the plate. That work appears to be paying off and now Polanco, for the first time this season, seems to be getting finding his rhythm.

Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle said Polanco has found his “conviction zone”, which is presumably a phrase that Hurdle made up to describe Polanco’s renewed faith in himself and not the title of a CBS crime drama.

“There is a different look in his eye,” Hurdle said. “Since the month of July has rolled around, he’s been the kind of player that we’ve seen before.”

Two of Polanco’s hits on Monday came against lefty starter Brent Suter. Historically, same-handed pitchers have gotten the better of Polanco, but the Pirates right fielder was able to poke a single into right field in the third and rope an RBI double into left center to put the Pirates on the board in the fifth.

In the sixth, Polanco, with a runner on second, flipped a hit out to right field and, when the ball dribbled past left fielder Ryan Braun, he sprinted to second and slid under the tag for a hustle double. His eight-inning single started a two-out rally that gave closer Felipe Rivero extra cushion heading into the ninth.

Polanco was the best player on the field on Monday, which is very different from his experience on Friday when St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina picked him off of third base as Jordy Mercer drew a walk.

“[Polanco] had a very humbling game a couple of nights ago, actually while he was playing his best baseball of the year,” Hurdle said.

Polanco said that he took that as a learning experience, and it’s not like he’s the only person that Molina has embarrassed on the basepaths. But the fact that Polanco has been able to string some quality weeks of baseball together maybe, hopefully, indicates that he is establishing some consistency.

“When you’re younger, if you make a mistake earlier in the game you think about it for the whole game or even for a couple of days,” Polanco said. “Now you can move forward and be ready for the next one.”

With Polanco raking, Andrew McCutchen continuing his resurgent summer, and Starling Marte due to return to the lineup tomorrow, the Pirates could have all three members of their outfield functioning at a high level for the first time in a very long while.

And with the team trying to inch its way back into the division title hunt, that couldn’t happen at a better time.

So, what was Joey Cora thinking?

Chad Kuhl had an interesting night. He struck out seven of the first 12 batters that he faced. He tiptoed out of danger in the fourth inning, allowing a single run even though seven batters came to the plate in the frame. He collected his first hit of the season during Pittsburgh’s five-hit bottom of the fifth.

But the most impactful blow Kuhl landed on Monday was the inadvertent Randy Savage elbow drop he levied to catcher Stephen Vogt as the two collided at home plate, leaving the Brewers backstop laying in the dirt.

Kuhl was on second base when Francisco Cervelli sent a one-out single to Domingo Santana in right field. As Kuhl approached third base, the pitcher said that he expected to be held up, but Pirates third base coach Joey Cora waved him on.

Santana uncorked a strong throw that brought Vogt slightly down the third base line when he caught it. Vogt hung on to make the tag as the two violently collided.

“He had one foot around the corner of the plate and I tried to go around him, do a hook slide to touch home plate,” Kuhl said. “But as soon as he caught it, he came right into my running lane. It just happened like that.”

Kuhl was out at the plate, but remained in the game. Vogt eventually got up, but had to leave the game to receive treatment for left knee and neck sprains.

The attention was initially, rightfully, on the injured players. But can we talk about how bad of an idea it was for Cora to send Kuhl home in that situation?

If Cora would have held Kuhl at third, the Pirates would have had the bases loaded with one-out and McCutchen at bat. Instead, the Brewers walked McCutchen and brought in former Buccos middle reliever Rob Scahill to face David Freese. Scahill fell behind Freese 3-0 before slinging three straight strikes. Freese never took the bat off of his shoulder.

“I think that might be a play that [Cora] would want to do over,” Hurdle said.

Hurdle did mention that the Brewers outfield has the most errors in the National League (which is true, although only five of their 19 errors are throwing errors) and they did airmail a throw earlier in the game, and Cora has not made many glaring mistakes this season, but that’s hardly an excuse to put a starting pitcher at risk for injury with one out in the fifth inning.

The Pirates were fortunately able to score a couple more runs and limit their potential regrets, but sending Kuhl home at that time ended very badly and could have been even worse.