PITTSBURGH — Jordy Mercer hit a solo home run on Sunday, his sixth of the season. It was the only offense the Pirates could muster against Chicago Cubs starter John Lackey and they lost, 7-1, to close their 10-game homestand at an even 5-5.
The offensive performance on Sunday was disappointing, as the Pirates collected just three hits and never seemed poised to do much of anything against Lackey or the Chicago bullpen.
Mercer, though has been anything but with a bat in his hands this year. After starting the season with an extended BABIP-induced slump, Mercer has been on fire for the last month. In the last 30 days, Mercer has gone 39 for 115 (.364).
It’s not just hitting for average, either. He’s slugging .589 in the last 30 days. His home run was his sixth of the season and his ISO is up to .142 on the year. He hasn’t hit for that much power since he posted a .150 mark in 2013.
“Jordy’s really been steady almost since the start and now the results are starting to come,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “The home runs are showing up a little bit. He’s got some power in the barrel to his bat. It’s been fun to watch him hit.”
Maybe the most impressive part about Mercer’s offensive surge is that it’s come almost exclusively against right-handed pitching.
For his career, Mercer has an .808 OPS against left-handed pitchers and a .668 OPS against right-handed pitchers. This season, that’s been flipped in a big way, with an .856 OPS against righties and a .492 OPS against lefties. Considering that two-thirds of his at-bats have come against right-handed hitting, that’s the impetus for most of his surge this season.
“He’s maturing as a hitter,” Hurdle said. “The overall attack has been very good. The OPS, the on-base percentage we talked about versus right-handers, especially.”
Mercer doesn’t think he’s doing anything cosmically different that’s reversed his fortunes against right-handers.
“Nothing’s changed,” he said. “My approach hasn’t really changed. I’m still seeing the ball good as I was. Now, it’s just going to left or to the right of them where they can’t catch it.”
Mercer does have a .368 BABIP against righties this year and a .140 BABIP against lefties. But even if those numbers normalized, he’d still be ahead of the curve against right-handed hitting.
MOVE NOT PAYING DIVIDENDS
The plan for demoted closer Tony Watson was for him to pitch every other day with clean innings in lower leverage situations to see if that got him on the right track again. It’s the same path the team seems to have successfully used to right the ship with Daniel Hudson. It’s only been five appearances so far, but the early returns are not good.
Watson pitched the ninth inning Sunday and gave up a solo home run to Ian Happ. In his five appearances since his demotion, he’s given up seven hits and three runs in 4.2 innings for a
1.50 WHIP and a 5.79 ERA. On the year, he has a 1.53 WHIP and a 4.50 ERA, so if anything, he’s been marginally worse in his new role.
The Pirates have the luxury of patience with Watson because of the way Hudson and Felipe Rivero have been pitching, but if Juan Nicasio’s arm “fatigue,” as Hurdle put it, turns into something more, the Pirates are going to be hurting for late-inning arms quickly.
Both Hurdle and general manger Neal Huntington talked before the game about the difficult decision they’re facing at catcher.
Chris Stewart returned from the disabled list Sunday and dressed but did not play, even though starter Francisco Cervelli was given the day off.
Rookie Elias Diaz started instead and he did nothing to make team management’s decision any easier, going 1 for 3 with one of the three Pirates’ hits and throwing out a runner at second base. Diaz is now hitting .319/.385/.469.
“That’s a decision we’re going to have to make with Diaz,” Huntington said. “Right now he’s our best offensive option.”
He’s also thrown out 2 of 6 on attempted stolen bases. It’s pretty tough to make an argument that Diaz isn’t the best catcher on the team right now, let alone one of the best two.