Give the Mercer kid credit; he put in a lot of extra work Sunday. An hour after a Pirates win against the Colorado Rockies, he was on the PNC Park lawn, taking batting practice, picking up slow-rolling groundballs and running the bases, all under the close watch of his, ah, coaches. It was impressive to see; Maverick Mercer won’t turn 2 for another month. Considering he has time on his side, he seems like a good bet to match his proud pop. That would make him some ballplayer.
Much of the praise for the Pirates’ success after a rotten start to the season has gone to Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin, Neil Walker and Josh Harrison. That’s as it should be, but don’t overlook the significant contributions of shortstop Jordy Mercer, better known as “Daddy” to Maverick. It’s fair to argue that, after McCutchen, he has been the team’s most consistent player for nearly two months.
“This is who I am. This is the player I am,” Mercer said Monday before the Pirates played the Los Angeles Dodgers at PNC Park.
And the guy who was hitting .190 with one home run and six RBIs in 142 at-bats through May 30 and easily could have been sent back to the minors?
“I have no idea who he was,” Mercer said with such conviction that he almost was believable.
Mercer said his family — wife, Kasey, and parents, Rick and Tammy — gave him strength to get through the tough times. He mentioned Maverick. “Your perspective changes when you have a child. You go home at night and go from being a ballplayer to a dad pretty quickly.” He also mentioned Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who stuck with him longer than many would have because he saw what Mercer could do with the bat late in the 2013 season when he helped the team to its first playoff spot in 21 years. Mercer hit .285 with eight home runs and 27 RBIs and won the starting shortstop job in August from Clint Barmes.
“Skip and I had a lot of talks. All of them were positive,” Mercer said. “Knowing he had my back took a lot of the pressure off.”
To paraphrase Hurdle’s side of those early season conversations:
“We know the type of player you are and the type of player you can be. This is your first full season in the big leagues. We’re not giving up on you. Everybody goes through struggles. Don’t worry. Just work.”
Hurdle said Mercer’s slow start wasn’t entirely unexpected. He talked of Mercer going from a part-time player with no expectations on him to a front-line player with big-time expectations. “All of a sudden, he’s facing ones, twos and threes in the rotation and late-inning relievers. It’s hard.”
Mercer followed Hurdle’s advice. He said he finally figured things out when he stopped worrying about his mechanics and just played the game the way he always had. Going into Monday night, he had hit .311 with eight doubles, five home runs and 25 RBIs in 161 at-bats in his previous 43 games. He was big in the weekend sweep of the Rockies, driving in two runs Sunday with a second-inning single and walking, stealing second and scoring the tying run in the sixth, winning the game Saturday night with an 11th-inning double and getting a single and scoring the tying run Friday night in the seventh.
“I feel like I’m in a good spot right now,” Mercer said. “I’m having fun. That’s what baseball is supposed to be about. Having fun.”
Mercer’s improvement on defense has been even more profound. A year ago, he was average, at best. His throwing error in the ninth inning of a September home game against the Cincinnati Reds led to three unearned runs and a brutal loss. After that, Hurdle replaced him with Barmes late in games.
“Damn right, that was tough,” Mercer said. “All of my teammates came to me after the game and said they believed in me. That helped a lot. I feel like I learned from that night and became a better player and a better person. You always can learn from failure.”
There has been no need to replace Mercer for defense this season. He has been so steady that it was surprising when he booted a couple of balls Friday night in the same inning against the Rockies. He made three strong plays Sunday, leaping to grab a high throw from first baseman Gaby Sanchez and coming down to make a blind, sweeping, backhanded tag for an out at second, then twice getting force plays at third on balls hit to his right. You don’t often see that 6-5 putout.
“I thought those were the plays to make,” Mercer said.
“I’ve always taken great pride in my defense. You can play this game for a long time if you can catch the ball. There always will be a need for you if you can catch it.”
Mercer, who turns 28 Aug. 27, is just getting started. In a few years, Maverick will be able to appreciate the type of player his old man is. Right now, the boy is having too much fun playing the game himself.
“We have a T-ball and bat in the house and he won’t stop hitting,” Mercer said. “I didn’t teach him how to do it. He just picked up a bat one day and started swinging left-handed. He hit one ball so hard that he put a hole in the wall.”
There’s no word about how Maverick’s other coach feels about the damage to her family room, but the guess here is she is not complaining.
“I’ll go meet them after home games and he’ll see me and point to the field and say, ‘Ball?’ ” Mercer said. “We’ll go out and play catch. He loves it. He loves to play ball.”
You know what they say, right?
Like father, like son.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.