Pirates trying to prove they can play for the long haul

CINCINNATI — Seventy-four games into the season and the Reds are pretty much where most people expected them to be, near the top of the NL Central division. Maybe St. Louis has surprised some by exactly how well it has played so far but no one should be shocked that the Cardinals are at the top of the standings. It’s in their blood.

The question remains to be seen if the Pirates can stick in this race the rest of the season. They’ve got plenty of talent, especially on the pitching side of the ledger, but the last couple of seasons they have had a breaking point once August and September hit.

Pittsburgh is right there right now, however, after gaining a split of the four-game series with the Reds at Great American Ball Park with a 5-3 victory Thursday afternoon. The Reds (44-30) are one-half game ahead of the Pirates (43-30) as both teams try to keep pace with St. Louis (46-26 going into Thursday night’s game against the Cubs).

The question that has been asked of the Pirates since spring training opened, and the first game of the season and now after they played their 73rd game of the season is: Can it be sustained?

Baseball is very much a game played off the back of a trading card. The stats don’t lie. Pittsburgh hasn’t had a winning season since 1992 but the back of the card says the Pirates are getting closer. They were tied for the division lead in 2011 on July 25 with a record of 53-47 before fading hard to a 72-90 finish. Last season, they were 16 games over .500 on Aug. 8 (63-47) and in second place before ending up 79-83.

“We should be a maturing team and growing together,” said center fielder Andrew McCutchen. “It’s expected for us to come up and succeed. But we’re not focusing in on the standings. We’re just focused in on what we can do.”

Manager Clint Hurdle is in his third season with the Pirates. He’s got enough experience as a player and manager to understand that teams can’t fast forward from June 20 to Sept. 20.

“It’s much better history than what used to go on because we were able to push the season into July for the first time (in 2011) in I don’t know how many years, and then we pushed the season (2012) into late July/early August. We’ve got to get to that point again,” said Hurdle. “Staying in the moment is critical for us. Getting a little bit better every day somewhere is critical for us. It’s controlling the grind.”

The Reds got an emotional, comeback win Wednesday night, 2-1 in 13 innings. A win on Thursday would have given them a 2.5-game lead on the Pirates.

When Jay Bruce hit his 15th home run of the season to give the Reds a 2-1 lead in the fourth inning things looked good. As much as Cincinnati’s bats have been less-than-explosive, the Pirates have greater issues. They are 10th in the National League in runs scored and Homer Bailey has had great success against them in his career.

Just as the Reds found a way to overcome Pittsburgh’s bullpen Wednesday, the Pirates found a way to overcome Bailey on Thursday. Pedro Alvarez drove in all five runs, including his 16th home run of the season leading off the sixth inning to tie the score, 2-2.

In the seventh inning he untied it with a three-run double off reliever Tony Cingrani.

Alfredo Simon had created a one-out mess by allowing hits to relief pitcher Bryan Morris and left fielder Starling Marte and walking McCutchen. Cingrani came on and struck out Garrett Jones before facing Alvarez, whom he had struck out twice previously in the series. This time Alvarez pulled a 0-1 fastball into the corner to clear the bases.

The Reds are now 4-6 against Pittsburgh this season with nine more games left to be played. They also have 10 more games remaining with St. Louis, while Pittsburgh and the Cardinals still have 14 more games to play against each other. 

There is a lot of grinding left to be controlled.