PITTSBURGH -- Clint Hurdle and his players are often asked to define the difference between this Pirates team and the one that flirted with contention last season. Their replies center on gained experience and confidence.
It is also possible to quantify that difference. Call it 20 Degrees of Separation. In 2011, the Pirates were tied for the National League Central lead on July 25. Twenty games later, they were 57-63 and 13 games out.
This June 20, the Pirates were tied for the NL Central lead. Twenty games later, entering Tuesday night's game, they were 43-36, still one step from pulling even with the division-leading Reds.
Hurdle acknowledged the scenario.
"The way we're playing now, it's nice. We're earning our way," the manager said.
But he declined to draw any conclusions from it.
"Everyone is looking to write the 'big story' every week," Hurdle said, a reference to media attempts to define the Pirates' renaissance. "But the season will define us. Time will tell if we continue to earn our way.
"We're playing for our city, to re-bond it with this team. This city is hungry for a winner; these guys are hungry to win. We take that out there with us every day. But there are a whole bunch of National League teams trying to keep us from there. It's a challenge we've got to embrace the rest of the way."
The challenge of Tuesday night's game against Houston gave the Pirates the opportunity to embrace another milestone.
A win would move the Bucs eight games above .500 for the first time since the final day of the 1992 season, which the Pirates wrapped at 96-66 on their way into the playoffs.