Neal: Polanco will be back punching the clock soon enough
There's "load management" — that new-age phrase for resting athletes — and then there's carrying the load. Twins second baseman Jorge Polanco doesn't need a stinkin' nap room.
The longest-tenured Twin also has been the most durable Twin, an integral part of the squad ever since he became a regular in 2017.
Since then, Polanco has played in about 91% of the games he has been available for, not counting the 80 games he was suspended for in 2018 when he tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug. He played in 153 games in 2019, 55 of the 60 games played in the pandemic-altered 2020 season and 152 games last season.
That's why it is flat-out weird to see Polanco currently sidelined by a strained lower back. He doesn't ask for days off and might lie if manager Rocco Baldelli asks him if he needs one. This is the first time in his major league career he has been on the injured list.
"It bothers me a little bit," Polanco said of his status, "but we have a really good team that I enjoy watching play. I'm just trying to get better while the team does its thing."
He has been durable despite playing in the middle infield throughout his career, where diving for balls, rundowns, tag plays and throwing from odd angles is required and physically demanding.
Polanco is a stark contrast to teammate Byron Buxton, who has been on the injured list 11 times as a major leaguer and whose workload is scrutinized more than Bitcoin stock. While the Twins have had to craft a workload schedule to get Buxton to play at least 100 games for the first time since 2017, Polanco has avoided some of the bad luck and blunt-force events that have dogged Buxton.
Before his back injury, there was only one other time Polanco landed on an injured list. It was late in the 2013 season at Class A Cedar Rapids.
"I remember that," Polanco said. "They asked me to bunt. The pitch came. I bunted. I start to run to first and then — ahh."
He needed 13 days to recover from a pulled groin muscle but was back in the lineup for the final week of the regular season.
In his entire professional career, Polanco has been on the injured list twice while playing in 1,304 games. When Polanco isn't playing, something is wrong.
"It's very strange," Baldelli said. "It's strange for him. Probably more so than it's strange for any of us. All he knows is how to play, and he loves to play and it's very difficult to get him out of the lineup because he's never gonna take himself out."
Baldelli fretted throughout a 2019 road trip to Oakland as Polanco was hobbled but was needed in the lineup. Polanco, on his way to an All-Star appearance that summer, played shortstop in the first and third games of the series and was the DH in the second game.
Polanco ended up playing that season on a bad right ankle that required offseason surgery to remove a bone spur. The problem persisted, and Polanco played the 2020 season with a similar issue. Following that season, Polanco had a bone spur and bone chip removed and has been fine since.
He sat out just 14 games over those two seasons while contributing to two teams that reached the playoffs. With a healthy ankle last season, Polanco batted .269 with career highs of 33 home runs and 98 RBI. The man punches the clock.
This season, Polanco is batting .245 with seven home runs but was batting .393 over his last eight games before landing on the IL. He could return to the Twins lineup this week, possibly avoiding his first-ever minor league rehabilitation assignment before he's activated.
Expect him to stick around once he returns because to Polanco, pain management trumps load management.
"There is a phrase they say: no pain, no gain," Polanco said with a chuckle. "You have to know the difference between being sore, being in pain, being hurt. I think I pretty much know the difference."