PIT@CHC: Mercer lifts a shot to the left-field stands

CHICAGO -- Jordy Mercer dragged a sub-.200 average through the month of May. Since then, he's been moving up -- both among Major League shortstops and in the Pirates' lineup.

In June, Mercer was hitting .306 through Saturday's game and led all big league shortstops with five home runs, including one in each of the first two games of the series against the Cubs.

"His month of June has been very solid. It's fun to watch him get in the box now with more intent," said manager Clint Hurdle, who knew just how to take advantage of a hot bat.

Mercer was in the five-hole for Sunday's series finale at Wrigley Field -- the first time he has ever started in that spot. Some lineup juggling gave him that opening; Chris Stewart caught in the day game, and the Bucs were still without Starling Marte. However, Mercer also earned the hoist with his recent production.

"He's getting his swing off," Hurdle noted. "He's also been playing very solid defense. His total confidence is growing."

He definitely does not appear to be the same guy who had 11 hits in his first 73 at-bats of the season.

Walker likely to join Pirates in St. Pete

MIL@PIT: Walker lays out to take away a hit

CHICAGO -- Neil Walker beat the rest of the Pirates to Florida. They all anticipate a happy reunion in a couple days.

The Bucs were set to depart for St. Petersburg following their finale with the Cubs for an Interleague series with the Rays. Walker is already in Bradenton -- about 35 highway miles from Tropicana Field -- for a brief rehab assignment with the Class A Advanced Marauders.

Walker was scheduled to start Sunday's game at second base and play all nine innings.

Barring any unexpected setbacks, Walker will rejoin the Bucs during the three-game set against the Rays. Placed on the disabled list following his June 9 appendectomy, the second baseman is eligible for activation Tuesday.

"I do anticipate [his return during the Tampa Bay series]," said manager Clint Hurdle, possibly not anticipating as eagerly the decision he will have to make when Walker returns.

That will mark the first mutual day on the roster for him and right fielder Gregory Polanco -- who play the two positions where Josh Harrison has primarily excelled.

On Sunday, Harrison started at second base, where he had hit .387 in his first 10 starts.

First number, last word

1: Home run hit in 26 day games this season by Pedro Alvarez, who in 2012-13 totaled 32 homers under the sun.

"I have no sense whatsoever that he's savoring the hitting streak. I haven't seen it in his facial expression, or in any sense of urgency at bat. I'm not sure if he'd even be aware of it if you guys didn't keep asking him about it." - Hurdle, on Polanco's 11-game hitting streak to start his career, unprecedented in club history.

Worth noting

• The Bucs still expect Starling Marte, who went home to the Dominican Republic on Saturday to tend to a personal matter, to rejoin them on Monday in St. Petersburg. Hurdle had not yet spoken with him, but planned to following Sunday's game.

"Unless something out of his control keeps him from coming back, I do expect him to rejoin us [Monday]," Hurdle said.

Gerrit Cole (shoulder fatigue) will step up his rehab work to a six-inning, 85-pitch simulated game Monday in The Trop.

• The Bucs' other disabled starter, lefty Francisco Liriano (strained left oblique) had a complete rest-day on Sunday after having made 65 flat-ground tosses at 100 feet on Saturday, when he also did some shadow (no-ball pantomime) work on the mound.