Pirates think Mercer's defense deserves more credit

Rob Biertempfel
| Wednesday, July 30, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

SAN FRANCISCO — It almost was as if Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer and second baseman Neil Walker were able to defy the laws of physics.

The duo turned an acrobatic double play in the fifth inning late Monday night to help preserve a 5-0 victory against the San Francisco Giants. Mercer flipped the ball out of his glove to Walker, who threw a perfect strike while falling backward to the turf.

After watching the slow-motion replay unfold on his television screen, one Pirates fan in Pennsylvania posted on Twitter it was like a scene from the sci-fi flick “The Matrix.” That drew a laugh from Mercer.

“We're just having fun out there,” Mercer said. “It's awesome to play behind a guy like (pitcher Vance) Worley, with the stuff he had, working quick, throwing a lot of strikes. A fun game.”

Pablo Sandoval began the inning with a first-pitch single to right field, the first hit of the game off Worley. The sellout crowd of almost 42,000, which until then had been mostly sullen, stirred and began to buzz.

Michael Morse fouled off a pair of fastballs, then Worley tried to go downstairs with a slider. Morse hit a sharp bouncer up the middle. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen took a step in, wondering if he would have to throw either to second or third base to halt Sandoval.

Mercer cut hard to his left and lunged to snag the ball. Sandoval was bearing down hard on second base — no time for Mercer to dig the ball out of his glove. So Mercer shovel-tossed it directly from his mitt to Walker.

Seeing momentum carrying Mercer forward, Walker figured the ball would be coming to his right.

“I was going to barehand it, but I didn't expect it to be out as far as it was,” Walker said.

Walker twisted his body backward to make the catch, somehow kept his toe on the bag, then turned his hips as he tumbled to make the throw to first base.

Morse was out by a half-step.

“That just comes from playing together and knowing each other — Jordy knowing where I like to be on double-play balls, where we're at depth-wise,” Walker said. “It all comes from experience.”

The “Matrix play,” as it was referred to in the postgame clubhouse, was not the only defensive gem in the game. In the fourth inning, Mercer made a running pick of Joe Panik's hopper, then did a 360-degree spin before throwing to first base for the out.

Getting those two outs required creativity and quick thinking in addition to physical talent. It's a combination Mercer admits he didn't quite possess at the start of last season.

“I'm a firm believer in the more experience you get, the better you play,” Mercer said. “Every inning, I get better at reading balls off the bat, positioning, all that stuff. It's starting to show up a little bit.”

After supplanting Clint Barmes as the everyday shortstop, Mercer has begun to settle in.

“This year we've seen the biggest strides,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “All those plays you saw (Monday night), he works on them every day. The throw from the hole, the cross-over throw, the spin, the flip. Those things come with confidence, experience and skill.”

Last season, Mercer had a minus-4.7 ultimate zone rating at short, according to FanGraphs, and his double-play runs above average was minus-1.5.

This season, Mercer's UZR is minus-0.9, and his DPR is 0.1. It's no reason for a party, but those are significantly better figures.

“You want my honest opinion? He gets absolutely no credit for what he does,” Walker said. “He's one of the better shortstops in this league. It will all come to fruition eventually, but the kid can absolutely play. He's got a really good arm. He's one of the better shortstops in the league that nobody talks about.”

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

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