Common ground: Niese, Bucs' D fuel shutout

Lefty goes 7 scoreless with gloves shining behind him

April 17th, 2016

PITTSBURGH -- From the moment he was traded to the Pirates, Jonathon Niese spoke excitedly about the chance to play in front of Pittsburgh's defense. On Saturday night, he showed why.

Niese was an efficient ground-ball machine, and the Pirates scooped up everything he put down as the Bucs snapped a four-game losing streak with a 5-0 win over the Brewers at PNC Park.

Niese became the first Pirates starter to pitch seven innings this season, and he did so efficiently and effectively. He needed 96 pitches to retire 21 batters, and 14 of those outs came via ground balls.

He worked quickly and pounded the bottom of the strike zone, which kept the Pirates infielders engaged and eager to make plays. Almost without fail, they did just that.

The Pirates liked Niese enough to trade second baseman Neil Walker for him at the Winter Meetings in December. The veteran lefty's career ground-ball rate is 50 percent, and he's been one of the Majors' quickest-working starters this season.

"That was really fun," shortstop Jordy Mercer said. "We were talking about it in the dugout between innings. He works quick, gets early contact, throws a lot of strikes, keeps you on your toes. Three in a row could get hit to you really easily. It's fun playing behind him."

The feeling was mutual for Niese when Mercer and third baseman David Freese helped defuse his only jam of the night in the fifth inning.

With two on and nobody out, Ramon Flores hit a hard grounder into the hole between shortstop and third base. Mercer ranged far to his right, stopped the ball and quickly fired to third base. Freese found his way back to the bag in time to receive Mercer's throw and force out the Brewers' lead runner.

"Mercer played a wonderful game at shortstop," added manager Clint Hurdle. "Freese was very good on that side as well."

Second baseman Josh Harrison chipped in as well, turning a double play in the second inning. John Jaso made a nice pick in the sixth and a sharp stop in the seventh, continuing his impressive transition to first base.

"He's got a slow heartbeat over there. A slow heartbeat goes a long way," Mercer said. "There's no panic or jitters. He's cool and calm. He makes the plays, man."

And Niese made pitches, leaning on his fastball while mixing in cutters, changeups and curveballs. He knew the Brewers feast on pitches left up in the zone, so he focused on keeping the ball down.

"Against this team, you have to," Niese said. "You have to stay down in the zone, and that's what we did today. It worked out."

His defense was happy to take care of the rest.

"Knowing he's going to pound the zone and knowing he works quick, he gets the ball and goes," Mercer said. "Anytime you get a guy like that, it's fun to play behind him."