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NL Central Notes: Pirates are on a roll, but can they maintain it?

Stop us if you've heard this before: Pirates are having a great first half, but ...

ST. LOUIS -- With a strong bullpen, solid rotation and a lineup led by one of the game's rising stars in center field, the Pirates appear poised to end the longest streak of losing seasons in U.S. team sports history.


Oh, wait. You say you've heard that before. For the past two years, in fact.


Indeed, 2013 is feeling a lot like 2012 and 2011, when center fielder Andrew McCutchen led the Pirates into the All-Star break with a winning record before they collapsed in the second half.


Look no further than third baseman Pedro Alvarez to see just how similar this first half has been to last year's. His numbers after 66 games:


2013: .214, 14 homers, 38 RBIs, .281 OBP.


2012: .214, 12 homers, 39 RBIs, .280 OBP.


For a guy who is maddeningly streaky, Alvarez's production sure has been consistent.


Pittsburgh's winning ways lasted into August last year, when the club equaled its high mark of 16 games over .500 on Aug. 8. But an N.L.-worst 16-36 finish left them 79-83 and waiting for next year.


They have at least three reasons to believe this year can end better:


1. Their first halves keep getting better. At this point two years ago, the Pirates were 33-33. Last year, 35-31. And in 2013, their 39-27 record is tied for sixth-best in the majors.


2. New catcher Russell Martin has made a difference. When the Pirates out-bid the Yankees for Martin, I figured the Yankees believed Martin was headed for further downturn. But after posting career lows in batting average (.211) and OBP (.311) last year, Martin has bounced back to .251 and .340 in 2013. Far more important than his offense, though, has been his handling of the Pirates' pitching.


3. The third time is the charm. Seriously, a good-luck idiom is as good a reason as any.


A deeper pitching staff also could make a positive difference, as long as Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli hold up to arduous workloads and the arrival of top prospect Gerrit Cole adds enough depth to the rotation to compensate for injuries. Three Pirates starters have landed on the disabled list this month.


All three should be back for the second half when, to get that elusive winning season, the Pirates will take all the help they can get.


AROUND THE NL CENTRAL


Also from the You've-Heard-This-Before Department: Shortstop Starlin Castro is frustrating the Cubs. It's not just his nine errors that keep manager Dale Sveum shaking his head. It's that most have been made on routine plays.


"When he's hitting .290, you can somewhat overlook the erratic defense," a scout said. "But when you're hitting .245 (actually .243 with a .280 OBP), that careless defense becomes a problem."


Impressive debut: Count Martin among those wowed by Pirates rookie Cole's debut Tuesday night, when he allowed two runs in 6 1/3 innings against the Giants. "He's got the best fastball I've ever caught from a starter," the veteran catcher told reporters.


Numbers to ponder: 20-4, the Reds' record against the Cubs, Brewers, Marlins and Mets. Against .500-or-better teams, the Reds are 10-18. After this weekend against the Brewers, the Reds' next five series will be against winning teams.


Prediction: For the first time since his rookie season in 2007, Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun won't make the All-Star team. Still embroiled in PED speculation, fans seem to have turned against him as Braun dropped to fourth in the voting. With only one more week of home games before the voting ends, Milwaukee fans aren't likely to make up the difference.


Enough players have tired of seeing Braun linked to PEDs that he also could lose their support. With Brewers shortstop Jean Segura enjoying a stronger first half than Braun, manager Bruce Bochy won't need to pick Braun just so the Brewers are represented.


You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.