CHICAGO — When Jung-ho Kang went down two weeks ago, it looked like it would have been a huge blow for the Pirates. They were losing their second-best hitter on the season, and their best hitter during the second half. There wasn’t anyone on the roster who looked like they could replace Kang’s production, with only a few people who might be able to see an increase in playing time and help mitigate the loss.
And that’s when Jordy Mercer stepped up.
Mercer had a .237/.289/.304 line in 361 plate appearances this season prior to Kang’s injury. That included a .214/.286/.250 line since his return in late August. If there was hope that someone could replace Kang’s numbers, then Mercer appeared to be an extremely unlikely candidate to put up that production.
But that’s exactly what Mercer has done. Since Kang went down, the shortstop has a .350/.395/.525 line in 43 plate appearances. That includes a big three-run homer today, which was the deciding factor in the Pirates’ 4-0 victory against the Cubs. Simply put, Mercer couldn’t have picked a better time to start hitting.
Mercer mostly credits this to a slow return from the disabled list, rather than stepping up to replace Kang.
“I don’t think it’s just because Kang went down, my numbers are going up,” Mercer said. “I came off the DL, and my first time being on the DL. Sometimes it takes some at-bats to get going. I’ve talked to a couple of guys and figure out it takes 15 to sometimes 100 at-bats to get back to feeling good. Some guys are obviously different than others, but just stay with the process and eventually it will start turning for me, and so far, so good.”
Mercer finally figuring things out right at the time Kang went down would seem to be a very timely coincidence. But Clint Hurdle doesn’t seem to believe that is the case here.
“I’m not a big believer in coincidences,” Hurdle said. “We’ve had a ‘next man up’ mentality since I’ve been here. Sometimes you just don’t know who that next man up is going to be. Jordy has shown us the ability to swing the bat, drive the ball. Working his way back, I’ve felt the swing has been getting better. A home run can be a byproduct of his approach. Getting better and seeing the ball better. He stroked a double yesterday, he drove a ball in the gap as well. His comfort zone at the plate has picked up. He knows that he’s a guy we count on, on both sides of the ball.”
This is a story that you’d expect to hear from the St. Louis Cardinals, who get a lot of credit for having unlikely heroes step up when one of their starters gets injured. But really, this is just what contenders do.
This isn’t the first time Mercer has stepped up either. He had an .800 OPS during the month of June, and that coincidentally came at a time when Kang was struggling, posting a .596 OPS. And this all followed a point where Kang took over the shortstop role when Mercer was struggling in May, and Kang was hitting too well to be held out of the lineup. Kang took over again when Mercer went down with an injury, and now we’ve come back around with Mercer picking up Kang.
Mercer is a better defender than Kang at shortstop, and typically any offensive boost you get from him is a big bonus in addition to the defense. But this is beyond the boost that Mercer normally shows, and it couldn’t have come at a better time, with the Pirates making one last effort to chase down the Cardinals.
“We’re playing good ball,” Mercer said. “We can only take care of ourselves, and take care of what we can do. The rest will obviously take care of itself. If we continue to play good ball, we’ll be right there in the end.”
And if that happens, a big assist will go to Mercer for the way he has stepped up in the last two weeks.