Atlanta Braves catcher A.J. Pierzynski, left, picks up the ball in front of the plate as Pittsburgh Pirates' Gregory Polanco (25) breaks for first base in the ninth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, June 28, 2015. Pierzynski threw to first
Gene J. Puskar
June 29, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) A year ago, Gregory Polanco was the next big thing. When the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder was called up to the big leagues last June, his arrival was viewed as a coronation.

On a team desperate for power, the impossibly raw kid with the seemingly effortless swing appeared to be the jolt the Pirates needed.

After an initial splash, Polanco plateaued and then plunged. The same player who hit .288 in his first month as a major leaguer last June is in the midst of a 7 for 57 dip that has him batting just .234 heading into Tuesday's game at Detroit.

''I knew it was going to be hard,'' Polanco said. ''I know I just have to keep working, keep grinding, keep learning.''

The lessons are coming at a furious pace for the whole world to see. While Pittsburgh sent Polanco briefly back to Triple-A Indianapolis last August, there are no plans for another stint in the minors, at least not yet.

''We still fully see the good guy that he can become,'' general manager Neal Huntington said. ''He's battling through it. He's staying strong mentally, which is really encouraging. He still shows flashes of it, which is really encouraging. Now it's about maturing and being able to do that on a consistent basis.''

Even Huntington acknowledges Polanco may have been ''rushed'' to the majors last summer, an emergency call-up when Neil Walker was hit by appendicitis. Things came so easily during those heady first few weeks, then expectations rose. Now they're nowhere close to being met.

As he enters his second calendar year in the majors, every step forward is met with a step back. For every leaping grab, there's a ragged route to the ball that turns opposing outs into hits. For every stolen base, an instance when his baseball IQ proves very much a work in progress.

Last Friday against Atlanta, Polanco was on first when Chris Stewart hit a ball deep into the hole at shortstop. Andrelton Simmons' throw to first was late. Polanco turned around second and kept chugging to third. One problem: teammate Jordy Mercer was already there, holding up when the ball didn't leave the infield. Polanco was tagged out in a rundown to end the inning. The Pirates pulled it out in 10 innings, but Hurdle saw another teachable moment.

''We don't stick our head in the sand,'' Hurdle said. ''Winning can be a deodorant. I've been in situations where things are overlooked when you win, and then they're overcooked when you don't. Not so here.''

Polanco's confidence remains intact. Ask him if he feels more like a big leaguer now than he did during his blistering start as a rookie and the polite, soft-spoken Dominican nods.

''I feel like I can play here,'' he said.

So do the Pirates, who continue to give Polanco opportunities to hit his way out of his latest slump even though they have other options.

''I do see growth,'' Hurdle said. ''I love the layer of toughness he's going to have to add to get through this, the mental and the physical.''

Part of Polanco's problem is the adjustment pitchers have made now that there is ample tape on his lengthy lefty swing. He's consistently falling behind in counts, forcing him to stab at pitches low in the zone to avoid a strikeout. Those jabs too often turn into groundballs. That's not what Polanco or the Pirates had in mind for a player with the tools to be a gap-to-gap hitter with an occasional homer mixed in.

''You see some really good swings and you see some swings that look predetermined, that look anxious, that look like a guy that is trying to get seven hits in one at bat,'' Huntington said. ''I hope he feels the support we have for him as an organization. We also have expectations.''

A positive sign came late in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Braves. Polanco entered as a pinch hitter with two outs in the ninth and the tying run on second. Atlanta closer Jason Grilli quickly jumped ahead of Polanco 0-2 only to have Polanco foul off a couple of mid-90s fastballs while working the count full. He struck out at a ball in the dirt but Hurdle praised Polanco for ''a battle at-bat,'' proof that his young outfielder is getting it together.

''You've got to get personal with it,'' Hurdle said. ''This isn't a `swing pretty' kind of time, it's `get busy with work' time. ... (He has) to understand they are trying to send you back to Triple-A. They're trying to run you out of the big leagues.''

No chance. At least, not yet.

''I'm a lot more comfortable here than I was a year ago,'' Polanco said. ''I'm hitting balls hard in the cage. Now I just need to go out and do it in front of people.''

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OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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Double Bogey (+2)