PITTSBURGH -- Jordy Mercer got his fourth start at shortstop on Sunday, after having delivered extra-base hits in his only two at-bats in the first two games of the Marlins series. But also because manager Clint Hurdle is intent on keeping Clint Barmes fresh for the stretch run.
"You do want to play on the success he's had the last two nights. Yeah, get the barrel of the bat on the ball a couple of times like he has, it gets my attention," Hurdle said of Mercer. "But Barmes also needs some time [off]."
For a similar reason, Michael McKenry was behind the plate, catching Jeff Karstens.
"I want Barmes and [Rod] Barajas to get ample rest, so they can stay strong," Hurdle said. "Those are two guys I've identified as key contributors defensively that we need to keep in play."Neither Barmes (.207) nor Barajas (.215) makes his main contribution in the batters' box. But they are glues of the team's up-the-middle defense that has been so integral to its success. And the stat Hurdle is most interested in is the ages of Barmes, 33, and Barajas, 36.
To give Barmes that occasional blow, Mercer may emerge as the Bucs' Sunday special. He started for the second consecutive Sunday.
"He's gone from just working on things to having us try to find more playing time for him," Hurdle said of the 25-year-old who has totaled nearly two months on the big-league roster in two stints, but in all that time had collected only 20 plate appearances prior to Sunday's game.
At long last, Meek participating in pennant race
PITTSBURGH -- Want the perfect perspective on the baseball revival happening in Pittsburgh? There is no better choice for that than Evan Meek, who on Saturday spent his first wide-eyed night in the National League Central race.
Not only does the right-handed reliever's tenure with the Pirates date back to the dark days of 2008 -- remarkably, Jeff Karstens, Sunday's starting pitcher, is the only other player remaining from that team -- but he had freshly been transported from Triple-A Indianapolis to the frenzied spectacle of PNC Park.
"I got goosebumps in the bullpen. I had never heard the place that loud," Meek said the day after 39,411 had cheered the Bucs' 5-1 win over Miami. "This is why I've always said this is one of the best places to play, because of the diehard fans. Even when things weren't going too good, they stood behind us."
Meek, the 2010 National League All-Star, couldn't share in the 2011 flirtation with a pennant race. He was disabled with shoulder tendinitis from June 7 -- when the Bucs were still below .500, in fourth place -- to Sept. 9 -- by when the club had crashed to a 66-78 record.
"I didn't get in the game [Saturday], but it was amazing just to sit back and take it in," Meek said. "And the fans need to keep coming. They make us better. We need them. I feel fortunate to be healthy and be able come back and be a part of it."
Saturday's victory no thing of beauty, but still a win
PITTSBURGH -- You might recall the Pirates' loss Monday night in Colorado -- despite Pedro Alvarez's dramatic ninth-inning, game-tying, first-pitch home run coming out of a 52-minute rain delay -- being dubbed a case of "losing pretty." It was considered a potentially season-making moment -- and, indeed, the Bucs hadn't lost since entering Sunday's series finale with Miami.
Not to worry about mixed semantics, though. The Bucs stayed loyal big-time to the original concept of 'winning ugly' in Saturday's 5-1 win over the Marlins.
Pittsburgh triumphed, despite going 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position. The Pirates hadn't won a game going hitless in that many RISP opportunities since May 22, 2004, when they beat the Brewers at PNC Park, 3-1, while going 0-for-13.
Saturday night, the Pirates also managed five runs without a single run-scoring hit (they took advantage of two bases-loaded walks, and other runs scored on an error, infield grounder and sacrifice fly).
"That's why you go play the game," manager Clint Hurdle said. "So many things happen in this game that we wouldn't think of. Situations like last night don't happen very often. And other things have to take place to make it happen. You have to keep the other team from scoring, and you have to make integral defense plays."
A.J. Burnett mostly took care of the keep-from-scoring part, with hyper help from his defense.
"I had guys diving all over the place," Burnett said. "When you see them bust like that, it makes me go even harder."
The last word
"As you look back at the end of any season that turns out to be magical, you can point to lightning bolts all throughout the season. And the galvanizing moments ... they're not all wins. If you can build on them, you have something substantial by the end of the season."
-- Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, on laying down the stepping stones of roads that become memory lanes.
• Brad Lincoln became the sixth different Pirates reliever to earn a save Saturday night, when he pitched the final 1 1/3 innings of the 5-1 win over the Marlins. The Bucs and the Giants -- who lost primary closer Brian Wilson to Tommy John surgery in April -- are the only two NL teams with saves from six different pitchers. The Phillies (Jonathan Papelbon) and Cardinals (Jason Motte) have had only one.
• The Bucs open a stretch of 13 consecutive games against NL Central teams with Monday night's opener of a three-game series against the Cubs. Pittsburgh already owns a 21-13 record against division teams. The Pirates have never had a winning record within the NL Central, created in 1994. They were 39-41 in the division last season.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.