PITTSBURGH – The Pirates offense came to life in the bottom of the fourth inning, putting up a crooked number to complement a strong first three innings by pitcher Jon Niese. I don’t want to say that Niese was scuffling the inning before, but the Brewers’ trio of Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy, and Chris Carter just had the hardest hits of the night off of the Pirates’ starter. Luckily, Pirate defenders were in the right place at the right time to record all three of those hits as outs.
After the Pirates scored three runs in the bottom of the previous inning, Niese began the fifth by allowing a line drive single to Aaron Hill and a walk to Scooter Gennett. The Brewers had first and second base occupied and had no outs — all of the ingredients to get something going.
With Ramon Flores up to bat, Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer was shaded up the middle in hopes to turn a double play on the lefty batter. Rather, Flores hit a 90 MPH hard ground ball to the space that is traditionally occupied by the shortstop. Mercer went hard to his right to glove the ball. With no other high percentage play and still falling towards his right, Mercer made a tremendous throw to a suspecting David Freese who covered third base to record the out. Miss the play? Watch it for yourself.
“Anytime you are in a situation like that – last year we made two or three, too – I’m always telling Freese that if I’m going to my right, just know I’m coming to you,” Mercer said after the game. “With Scooter [Gennett] on first, and he can run a little bit, I just needed to make a play. I was able to get to it, and Freese knew where I was going with it, so it worked out.”
After the play happened, I immediately jumped to my scoresheet and circled the play over and over again, as if I had wished I packed a large red marker in my bag. Niese immediately went back to work to retire the pitcher next on a failed bunt attempt then force another groundout to third that ended the inning. Instead of the Brewers loading the bases with no outs in the inning, and threatening to completely squash all momentum that the Pirates picked up the half inning before, the home team got out of the jam unscathed.
I would go as far as to say that Mercer’s play was the biggest play of the young season for the Pirates. Think about it. The Pirates are scuffling, losing six of seven games. They needed a break. After scoring those runs the half inning before, the worst thing that could have happened was the Brewers matching them right away. All momentum — gone. The game — possibly lost.
Andrew McCutchen destroyed a baseball in the bottom of the fifth inning, stretching the Pirates lead to four, but who knows what would’ve happened if the Brewers score there. Mercer’s steady glove at shortstop has been the backbone of the Pirates’ defensive efforts, as they were before Mercer with Clint Barmes manning the position.
This is the first season that Mercer has gone into Spring Training knowing that the job is his. He is now the elder statesman of the Pirates’ infield, and he has truly become the field general that Barmes groomed him to be.
“It’s different for me because I’ve always played with older guys in front of me,” Mercer said. “Now, I’ve been there and have done it a little bit, so I’m excited to keep the ball rolling.”
Hurdle, who has been with the manager of the Pirates since the 2011 season, has seen every step of Mercer’s development on this club, starting from his time learning the ropes to now.
“He’s a guy that came up in 2012 and didn’t play a lot, and he picked up more time in 2013, then kind of moved in [to the starting position] in 2014,” Hurdle said of Mercer. “He learned from Barmes very well, and he’s taken ownership of the position. There is maturity there. There’s growth there. There’s dependability there. He’s a great fielder and accurate thrower.”
Not only has Mercer’s strong defensive play been a strong suit for the Pirates, his strong character and demeanor is essential in the clubhouse. On a night that he could have easily taken the credit given to him by his coaches and media, he quickly deflected the comments onto his teammates.
“This group is so fun,” Mercer said. “We’ve got a bunch of good guys, and we’re a bunch of good ball players, too. It’s going to be a fun summer.”
Take the credit tonight, Jordy. You earned this one.
Jon Niese pitches as advertised
Jon Niese pitched seven strong innings while only allowing three hits. The stat that absolutely jumps off of the screen about Niese’s night is his 13:3 groundout-to-flyout ratio. In total, Niese induced 14 ground balls in his outing. He also worked efficiently, retiring 12 hitters in three pitches or less tonight, working off of the fastball.
“The cutter played well again tonight for Jon, keeping it down,” said Hurdle. “The two-seamer was down, and he worked very effectively to the top end of the lineup. All the way down through six there are some right-handed guys who can swing the bat.”
According to FanGraphs, Niese had a measly ground ball percentage of 41.9% coming into tonight’s action. That number is way below the 54.5% ground ball rate he had last year for the Mets. It was almost as if it was a matter of time for those numbers to rebound with a ground ball heavy team like the Pirates.
“Jon Niese gets ground balls,” said Hurdle. “This is no surprise from him. He’s capable of it. He kept the ball down with late action. The cutter really helps because he gets right-handers to come over the top of it and ground it to the left side.”
As the infielder who benefitted from the ground ball action, Jordy Mercer appreciated the work that Niese did tonight.
“That was really fun tonight,” Mercer said. “We were talking about it in the dugout between innings. He works quick, gets early contact, and gets a lot of strikes. He keeps you on your toes. It was a fun night.”
**Coming into tonight’s game, the Pirates have turned at least one double play in nine of their first 11 games, sharing the National League lead in double plays turned with 16. They added two more tonight.
**On Sunday, the Pirates will mark the return of the black and gold uniforms worn by the 1979 World Champion Pirates, consisting of the classic gold tops and black pants and all pulled together with a pill-box style cap.