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Bucs' tough set gets tougher with Mercer hurt

MILWAUKEE -- The worst-case scenario for a three-game series would normally be losing all three games. In this case it's losing three games and having the shortstop leave the field on a cart.

The Pirates entered the second half of the season as the hottest team in baseball. They left with three straight losses to the Brewers, including Sunday's 6-1 defeat.

And, more painfully, they saw shortstop Jordy Mercer injured in the second inning on Sunday.

The Pirates reported that the injury is to Mercer's lower left leg. Beyond that the extent of the injury is not known, but it is serious enough that Mercer did not leave the field under his own power. And it is serious enough for the Pirates to fly him back to Pittsburgh, where he could be evaluated by their doctors.

The injury occurred in the bottom of the second after Milwaukee's Carlos Gomez led off with a walk. With left-handed hitter Adam Lind at the plate, the Pirates played a shift that put Mercer on the right side of second. Lind hit a ground ball to Mercer, who went for a tag play on Gomez, hoping to then throw to first for a double play.

Gomez is listed at 220 pounds, and he is fast. He was short of the bag, and had no alternative but to slide and attempt to disrupt any throw. Sliding, he made contact with Mercer's left leg. Mercer went down and stayed down. A cart was summoned to take him off the field.

Two things stand out in the aftermath of this injury:

First, Mercer had become a source of stability for the Pirates, and not only for his fundamentally sound defensive work. He had hit .314 in his last 18 games and .290 in his last 43 starts, the last 30 of which had come at shortstop.

The Pirates were already short-handed in the infield with third baseman Josh Harrison on the disabled list after surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb. But they do have a viable replacement at shortstop in Jung Ho Kang, who has been playing third, but whose time in Korean baseball was spent primarily at shortstop. He took over at short on Sunday after Mercer's injury.

"It's been almost a month since I played shortstop, but it felt natural," Kang said through an interpreter. "I played shortstop the majority of the time in Korea. The transition from shortstop to third base has been kind of difficult, but from third base to shortstop, I feel very comfortable."

Asked if he would be comfortable with Kang at shortstop if Mercer is out for a substantial period of time, manager Clint Hurdle said, "Yes. I think we'll have to monitor reps and games and the volume of innings and things like that, but yes, he's a very dependable shortstop. We've had this conversation before. His feet and his hands work very well. His arm is accurate. The one thing we will have to monitor in the second half of the season is the volume of play, the reps, the innings."

Second, although Mercer's injury is truly unfortunate, it was not brought on by an unusual play. The runner in that situation has to get down in order to avoid being skulled by the throw to first. With Mercer directly in the basepath, Gomez was going to try to make contact with him to disrupt the possible throw to first.

Hurdle, in his postgame comments, did what he could to cut off any potential controversy.

"If he's on your team, you think it's an aggressive slide," Hurdle said. "That's pretty much how you're taught to get out of that situation, or keep a double play from happening.

"It's a baseball play. It's not a gentleman's game, but it's a baseball play. That's what I've got to share with you. It's unfortunate when one of your players gets hurt."

Asked about Gomez sliding some distance from second base, Hurdle said, "I've seen it many times. It's just the way you defend it from a baserunner's viewpoint. It's the same way we talk about doing it if that happens. You try and slide down toward his feet to get in his way."

To say that this was a difficult weekend for the Bucs understates the case, but this was a tough three-game series, not a sign of a coming descent. The Pirates still have the National League's second-best record, and that is no accident. And even if Mercer's injury is serious, they will still have a Major League-caliber shortstop.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for
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