Mercer’s bat is coming alive

PITTSBURGH – While the focus has understandably been on the dynamic top of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ batting order lately, there’s some thunder at the bottom, too.

Shortstop Jordy Mercer, an offensive liability early in the season, has beefed up his batting average with a strong surge.

A 2-for-2 game in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies at PNC Park has lifted his average to .249. That may not seem like much, but he was hitting .190 at the end of May.

“I think he just put his foot down and decided he was capable of doing better,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He’s swinging the bat really well right now.”

Mercer hit .299 in June and is 9-for-14 (.643) in the first five games of July.

“I feel like I’m in a good place right now,” Mercer said. “I want to stay consistent. That’s the biggest thing in this game.”

The Pirates handed Mercer the starting shortstop position this season, bumping light-hitting Clint Barmes to a backup role. Mercer has been OK defensively, but his offense had been a disappointment until recently.

Mercer is an interesting case, a late bloomer who had not been a highly-regarded prospect. He’s been hitting mostly in the eighth spot, which is often a tough place for any hitter, especially one who is gaining his first major league experience.

Mercer batted second against lefthanded pitching last year, and may profile there later in his career. Right now, the Pirates aren’t anxious to tamper with their effective top three of Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen.

Hurdle said Mercer’s skills are still developing.

“I think he’s still finding his legs on the base paths,” Hurdle said. “I think there’s more on the base paths. It’s not that I think he’s a 20 to 25 stolen base guy, but I think he can get bases.

“That’s one area where I think the comfort has come last. We’ve used him with the hit and run numerous times, and he’s done that well. He can get a bunt down. He can move some guys, and he’s got barrel to his bat. He can drive in a runner from first base.”

For those reasons, Hurdle thinks Mercer might eventually fit as a No. 2 hitter.

Steal away

Hurdle would like to see more aggression on the bases with steal attempts.

“We’re not that good,” he said. “We’re getting better. A 70 percent marker (success rate) is acceptable. That’s when it makes sense. If you fall below that number, I don’t know how much sense you’re making.”

The Pirates have stolen 61 bases and been caught 21 times, a 72 percent success rate.

“We have useable speed,” Hurdle said. “We have guys who have worked on their leads and breaks. We do the double steal, which has gotten us a few. We’ve become more aggressive on balls in the dirt.

“It’s a mentality that we’ve challenged guys with for years, and it’s really taken roots this year for the entire group. They’re ready every pitch, which may not have been the case before. I think early, when I first got here, we had some guys who just didn’t want to make outs on the bases. They had to get through that, pass that, and they have.”

Anna added

The Pirates claimed rookie infielder Dean Anna on waivers from the New York Yankees and assigned him to Class AAA Indianapolis.

Anna, 27, batted .136 for the Yankees in 12 games in April. He has played all four infield positions.

Short view

Asked if the players were looking toward the upcoming trip to St. Louis and Cincinnati that starts on Monday, reliever Tony Watson said, “To be honest, I don’t think anyone is looking beyond tonight’s dinner.”