PITTSBURGH -- Jordy Mercer, the 25-year-old shortstop who has spent more time on the Pirates' bench than any player this season, is receiving the classic apprenticeship accorded to an anticipated future mainstay.

Mercer was in the lineup for Wednesday night's clash with the Dodgers and their ace lefty, Clayton Kershaw, but it was only his eighth start on his 47th day on the Bucs' Major League roster. He has been used as a late-game defensive replacement 13 other times, but clearly his chief assignment has been to observe and to absorb.

Also, to be observed. The Pirates obviously consider Mercer the heir apparent to the job currently being held by Clint Barmes, who does have a year remaining on the two-year contract he signed as a free agent last winter.

Mercer has shown good instincts in the field, along with a strong arm and range. The lack of consistent at-bats has kept him from making an offensive impression, but he has occasionally flashed the talents that enabled him to hit .287 in 56 games with Triple-A Indianapolis around his two stints with the big league club.

Mercer's play and work habits have left Pirates manager Clint Hurdle confident of the 2008 third-round Draft choice's future.

"There's room for improvement," Hurdle said, "but we're seeing the signs -- defensive presence, enough arm strength, nice ball handling, a guy who competes in the batter's box -- to make everyone optimistic he can be a Major League shortstop down the road here in Pittsburgh."

Burnett presides over players-only meeting

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates' A.J. Burnett called for and presided over a players-only meeting prior to Wednesday's game against the Dodgers.

"Sometimes you've just got to get together and clear the air. Get everybody breathing again," Burnett said minutes before the players' assembly in their PNC Park clubhouse.

When he takes the mound late Thursday afternoon, Burnett intends to be pitching for a split of the four-game series with Los Angeles, not looking to avoid a sweep.

The veteran pitcher, whose leadership has been as valued as his 14 wins, called the meeting after the Bucs' fifth loss in six home games was an unsavory 11-0 beating by the Dodgers on Tuesday night. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, meeting with the media at the same time as the players' conclave proceeded outside his office, implied this was not the first such occasion.

"Who's to say how often and when they've met? They're appropriate with their timing; they have been throughout the season," Hurdle said. "It's all part of players taking ownership of what they're doing and how they do it. I trust them."

As a former player and coach who has been on both sides of the closed door, Hurdle likes for his players to take such initiative.

"Have the reactions to past meetings been positive? It all depends on how you define positive," Hurdle said. "They say what needs to be said, there are always a couple of individuals who get it moving. It all comes out -- feelings, thoughts, observations, comments.

"It's a self-cleaning. An honest evaluation from other players. The group I've had here has always come out [of these meetings] in a much better place."

The Pirates entered Wednesday's game with an August record of 5-8, after three consecutive winning months had thrust them into the National League Central race. Ten losses in their last 16 games had pushed them six behind the first-place Reds and reduced their lead for an NL Wild Card spot to a half-game over both the Dodgers and the Giants.

Last word

"I see collectively a lot of guys in the blender right now."
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, trying to describe his players' mental state during the recent tailspin.

Worth noting

• ROOT Sports, which has been getting unprecedented ratings for its telecast of Pirates games, added Thursday's series finale against the Dodgers to its broadcast schedule. The 4:05 p.m. ET game from PNC Park originally was not due to be aired.

• Outfielder Starling Marte was singled out by Baseball America as the International League's best batting prospect, best defensive outfielder and most exciting player in its recently released ratings. Marte has been the Bucs' regular left fielder since being called up on July 26.

• Going into Wednesday night's game, the Pirates' opposition had scored first in 12 of 13 August games. The only exception was Erik Bedard's 4-0 shutout over Arizona in the opener of the ongoing homestand.

• Catcher Michael McKenry, behind the plate for Wandy Rodriguez's start on Wednesday, was batting .378 in his last 15 games, and had hit safely in 10 consecutive starts.