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Biertempfel: Pirates' ability to improvise in the field makes defense more effective

Rob Biertempfel
| Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 11:00 p.m.
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker makes a play on a ball hit by the Brewers' Jonathan Lucroy during the seventh inning Aug. 27, 2013 at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker makes a play on a ball hit by the Brewers' Jonathan Lucroy during the seventh inning Aug. 27, 2013 at PNC Park.

ST. LOUIS — Intense attention to positioning — particularly when it comes to extreme infield shifts — is one reason the Pirates have been such a solid defensive team this season. Another is the players' ability to create brilliant plays on the fly. There were some good examples in the Aug. 27 game against the Milwaukee Brewers.

“A couple of plays out there I've never seen anywhere but fantasy camp,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “It speaks to our awareness and our ability to draw something up in the dirt from time to time.”

In the seventh inning, Jean Segura was on first base with one out. Jonathan Lucroy hit a slow roller toward second baseman Neil Walker, who realized he had no play at first base. Segura made a quick turn and headed for third base, hoping to catch the Pirates napping. But Walker make a strong throw on the run for the putout.

“That was really heads up, a big-time play by (Walker),” Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer said.

In the ninth, the Brewers had runners on first and second with none out. Carlos Gomez faked a bunt, which got Walker breaking toward first base. When Gomez pulled back the bat and tapped a slow grounder, Walker snagged it and tossed the ball to Mercer for a forceout at second.

“He pulled the bat back and you wonder, ‘Oh, boy. What's going to happen here?' and he hits it to you,” Walker said. “It was an in-between type ball. When I threw it to Jordy, I was yelling ‘Three!' because I thought we had a play at third.”

Lucroy, who was on second base, paused for a moment. That gave Mercer enough time to think through the play.

“I thought (Lucroy) kept going,” Mercer said. “Walker turned and froze him, then he started coming back to me, then he went back (toward third). He wasn't even halfway.”

Mercer fired to third base to get the slow-footed Lucroy and turn an unconventional double play.

“That was one of the stranger things I've been a part of,” Walker said. “Certainly not the way you draw it up.”

• It's not difficult to see why fans gravitate toward closer Jason Grilli.

Last Monday, Grilli made a one-inning rehab outing with Double-A Altoona in the Curve's final game of the season. After pitching the first inning, Grilli walked up through the stands, sat down at a picnic table on the stadium concourse and signed autographs for more than an hour.

Grilli could have showered, dressed and gotten on the road for the two-hour drive back to Pittsburgh. Instead, without being asked by any Pirates or Curve officials, Grilli took time to chat with fans and sign a few hundred autographs as the game played out on the field.

“Definitely a very classy individual,” one Curve fan told the Altoona Mirror. Indeed.

• I got an email last week from Rich Binsacca of Pittsburgh, who wondered if the Pirates would open PNC Park during this current road trip so fans could watch the team go for victory No. 82 on the center field scoreboard.

It was a neat idea, but there were a lot of complications — such as how to manage parking and how to pay stadium employees — Binsacca didn't address.

Another fan, David Martin of Ross Township, hopes either the team and/or the city will set up a large outdoor screen to show Pirates playoff games. Martin has contacted Allegheny County chief executive Rich Fitzgerald about the idea. Martin also has set up a Facebook page — “Playoff Baseball in Pittsburgh,” which had 702 likes as of Saturday evening.

• Remember Brandon Moss? Last week, Moss was named American League Player of the Week, an honor he also won in June 2012.

Moss batted .228 with a .667 OPS in three years with the Pirates, who let him walk as a free agent after the 2010 season. Since then, he's hit .265 with a .875 OPS and has clubbed 47 home runs in 211 games with the Oakland A's.

If you're tempted to play the “what if” game, consider that the Pirates aren't the only team that looked at Moss and didn't see a slugger. The Red Sox made him part of the three-way trade that sent Jason Bay to Boston in 2008. In 2011, the Philadelphia Phillies stashed Moss in the minors for all but 17 games then ignored him when rosters expanded that September.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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