In one of the best team defensive performances you're going to see, the Pirates smothered the Brewers' offense and helped give Jon Niese a clean final pitching line: seven shutout innings, three hits, three walks, three strikeouts and a 71 gamescore.
While Gregory Polanco and John Jaso had their moments, the left side of the infield stole the show tonight. David Freese and Jordy Mercer combined for an assortment of lunging, diving stops alongside pinpoint off-balance throws. It was something to watch.
"I thought we were crisp all over tonight," Clint Hurdle said. "Mercer played a wonderful game at shortstop. Freese was really good on that side of the defense, as well."
It wasn't long ago that shortstop was a big question mark for the Pirates. Indeed, this was the first spring training in which there was no real competition for the position.
Mercer's defense doesn't necessarily jump off the page because his range is limited. But in the Pirates defensive scheme, where advanced positioning narrows the area that needs to be covered, Mercer's worked out to be a steady defensive presence.
"He learned from [Clint] Barmes very well and has taken ownership of the position," Hurdle said. "There is maturity and growth there. He is a very dependable fielder and accurate thrower."
Suddenly, ground balls
Hurdle spent a good portion of today's pregame press scrum trying to explain the lack of ground balls from Pirates pitchers this season. Entering the game, Niese was part of the problem, owning a 41.9 percent ground ball rate. Tonight, the left-hander pitched the type of game that the Pirates' run-prevention program is built around. He induced 13 groundouts and a 70 percent ground ball rate.
Niese wasn't one of the newcomers that Hurdle had singled out as not being a natural ground ball thrower earlier in the day. Last season, the left-hander had a 54.5 percent ground ball rate and a 49.9 GB% for his career.
"He's capable of [throwing grounders], sometimes we just need you guys to talk about it," Hurdle said, referring to the discussion earlier in the afternoon. "The cutter really helps because he gets right-handers to swing right over the top of it."
Niese said that sticking to the game plan they had coming in was the key to his performance. He also gave a large chunk of the credit to the defense behind him.
"The defense, you can't say enough, they played great," he said. "I have all the confidence in the world in the guys behind me. As you saw today, they did a great job."
Offense displays some efficiency; McCutchen finally homers
Not to be forgotten, in what was really a picture-perfect game for the Pirates, is the offense. In the fourth, Josh Harrison ignited the crowd with a long fly ball that caromed off the Clemente Wall and led to a RBI triple. In the inning, the Pirates scored three runs on three hits and, get this, didn't leave anyone on base.
In the fifth, Andrew McCutchen finally hit his first home run of the season by driving one out to left field.
After a rash of pop flies and near-misses off his bat, McCutchen was noticeably relieved to get ahold of one. As he passed second base, he mouthed "About time." After he crossed the plate he raised his arms and slowly spun around as if to say, "FINALLY!"
"Were you all relieved for me?" McCutchen joked with reporters "Because if you were all relieved for me, I know I was relieved. Definitely."
"How many balls did I hit on the barrel that I just missed?" he continued. "Honestly, if I hit half of those balls, I'd have eight home runs. I've just been clipping, clipping and clipping."
With the win the Pirates break their four-game losing streak and regained a form that is much more befitting a contending team.